Welcome to the “New Normal” – Collaborating in a Virtual Office

In Brief:

  • Your company may be entering a “new normal” — one that needs to more fully leverage virtual productivity and collaboration.
  • With the right tools, processes, and mindset, your employees can be just as productive in a virtual office as they are in a shared, physical space.
  • When it comes to critical needs such as staying connected, documents, corporate culture, and managing employees, it’s time to embrace new ways of thinking and collaborating.
  • Based on best practices learned over time, and especially as we’ve navigated the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nelnet is sharing some new ways of working together in a virtual office.

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As remote work has become increasingly necessary due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies are at the beginning stages of a “new normal” — one that more fully leverages virtual productivity and collaboration, and one that will impact organizational culture both in the short term and in the long term.

Over the past weeks and months, many organizations had to make an abrupt shift to a virtual office — quickly improvising decisions on equipment, software, broadband access, policies, cybersecurity, and other critical components. Companies, including Nelnet, rose to this unprecedented challenge with the goal of keeping teams and individuals safer working at home.

New Ways of Working Together

Nelnet leadership took proactive steps to evolve our virtual office strategy to set us up for success now — and in the future. These strategic actions resulted in motivating individuals to remain highly driven to meet project deadlines and keeping our teams operating at peak performance. Here are some insights from a number of stakeholders who’ve been working to keep our associates safe and productive.

Staying Connected

In the absence of hallway discussions or in-person gatherings, employees will increasingly rely on emails, instant messages, phone calls, and video conferences to stay connected. But with a virtual office, teams and individuals may want to ask themselves, are meetings actually needed?

One Nelnet IT expert suggests using collaboration tools such as Confluence or Basecamp to support a more streamlined, three-step process.

  1. Provide topics for discussion
  2. Capture the discussion and any decisions asynchronously
  3. Drive to a decision which is then documented within the tool

Our expert noted, “If you miss someone during the first two steps and want to make sure their feedback is included, do some real-time chatting. Challenge yourself to stop having meetings where everyone has to gather at the same place at the same time. Instead, start discussing, deciding, and documenting the topics at hand at the convenience of each person who is providing input.”

Managing Project and Documents

When it comes to the best way to handle documents, reporting, and project management in a virtual environment, our Nelnet IT expert once again recommends collaboration software so the focus is more on “content” than on delivery method or format. He noted, “Employees originally shared information on a piece a paper which was hand delivered to someone’s desk. That manual method evolved into emailing messages to an individual or group. This process causes duplicate files and is highly inefficient. When feedback comes in, the draft has to be reconciled and a ‘clean copy’ emailed back out — which starts the whole process over again.”

Now, tools like Confluence enable asynchronous, threaded collaboration that is open and transparent.

Evolving from a manual process with paper and email to a collaborative process with threaded conversations:

  • Eliminates back-and-forth email message strings and attachments
  • Avoids confusion over which content version is current
  • Allows for prioritization of tasks and for late tasks to be flagged
  • Supports the ability to tag an individual to drive a decision

Keep in mind that it may take some time for everyone to buy into using collaboration software. It helps to have leadership embrace the tool from the top down, which is what we’ve seen happen with our Chief Information Officer who maintains a blog on Confluence. Another best practice is to appoint a dedicated specialist to champion and encourage across-the-board tool adoption.

Building Corporate Culture

Employees who respect one another, share a common vision, and feel appreciated are more likely to enjoy their work and perform better. It’s one thing to absorb corporate culture via a ping-pong tournament or catered lunch, but maintaining a sense of connectedness in a virtual office requires a different mindset. In fact, many experts agree that culture is actually more important in a virtual environment to bolster trust and communication.

One example of Nelnet’s strategy to reach our associates working from home is targeted messages on their computer lock screens. We’ve also ramped up production of podcasts and videos (shared using Microsoft Stream) from key executives so associates can see leaders working from home and feel authentically connected. At the division level, Nelnet Diversified Services has a dedicated internal communications team as well as a culture sub-committee.

Managing Staff

Making a sudden change to a virtual office scenario is more complicated than just sending employees home with laptops. Managers need to develop and strategically deploy soft skills that foster communication and increase levels of trust. They also need to move past the idea that employee monitoring equals higher productivity. That’s where clear expectations, key performance indicators, and tools such as Microsoft Teams and Workday are crucial.

For employees, being more independent requires proactive communication (i.e., updating managers about unexpected challenges, what’s coming up next, etc.), better interpersonal skills, and a greater degree of empathy to compensate for a lack of physical proximity.

A Learning Experience

Any significant change requires patience and adaptability, especially when you factor in your employees’ personal and professional needs, heightened emotions, and individual reactions. With the right tools, processes, and mindset, teams and individuals can be just as productive (and maybe even more so) in a virtual office as they are in a shared, physical space. Taking a step back to evaluate where you are in terms of providing a supportive culture — and where you want to be in the future — is a best practice Nelnet Diversified Services strives for, and we encourage you to do the same.

Read more about Who We Are or Contact an Expert to learn how partnering with us can help transform your business.