As the federal government transitions from an almost entirely fully-remote workforce—because of the COVID-19 pandemic—to a hybrid model, teleworking tools should be geared toward collaboration, according to a white paper released Thursday by Government Business Council, the research arm of GovExec, and underwritten by Bluescape. The study, conducted from April 11 to April 29 looked at the public sector in three areas: remote work, collaboration and productivity. It surveyed 200 technology decision-makers and influencers in the federal government across civilian and defense.
Citing a June 2022 study that found that virtual communication hindered creative thinking, today’s study noted that, as a result, “digital collaboration rather than productivity needs to become the focus.” The white paper defines digital collaboration as “a people-centered concept in which workflows and practices ensure people can stay in sync and engaged, which ultimately foster creativity.” This can be achieved via robust collaboration tools that enable “real time interaction and create an equitable environment.”
Study respondents had a mix of work modality. About a quarter of respondents were working remotely full-time, but many believed they would eventually go back into the office at least one day per week. Approximately half of respondents were hybrid, going into the office between one and four days per week. The remaining quarter were full-time or almost full-time in the office.
The study found that 38% of respondents felt they lost personal interaction, such as camaraderie and connection with staff and clients, because of remote work. The white paper noted that previous studies have found that workers are more satisfied when they develop relationships at work. However, 20% of respondents did not feel that anything meaningful was lost because of remote work.
As stated in the study, data from the Department of Defense, the Department of Transportation and the American Federation of Government Employees suggests that government workers feel as or more productive working remotely. However, the white paper states that “productivity and collaboration are not the same, nor are they mutually exclusive. The loss of personal interaction and connection indicates that changes need to be made in digital collaboration efforts if the hybrid environment is to be as rewarding and innovative as a fully on-site environment.”
The study found that 70% of respondents said that collaboration between in-office and remote workers is challenging with current tools and 56% are only somewhat or not very satisfied with the tools they use. Current tools are aimed at productivity, with most respondents using virtual meeting, group messaging and file-sharing tools. However, the study indicated that these tools do not promote collaboration and connection.
Data from the study revealed that the most important feature for collaboration tools is simplicity. A majority of respondents selected the following features as important: ease of use, ease of sharing content, screen sharing and audio/video quality. According to the study, “the fact that the current tools are not truly digital collaboration tools may be part of the reason respondents’ hybrid meetings are not as effective as in-person collaboration.” Respondents expressed concerns about people multitasking during meetings, experiencing latency or connectivity issues and lacking engagement during meetings. Furthermore, ineffective digital collaboration, such as content shared during meetings not being available afterward and difficulty sharing content, makes brainstorming with the group difficult. And the use of too many platforms, among other things, can hinder collaboration, creativity and connection.
The study found that 61% of respondents felt that screen sharing is effective to broadcast information across a team, but not for active knowledge sharing or collaboration. According to the study, 69% of respondents want real collaboration, not just screen sharing, so people can share content and interact in real time. Moreover, 70% of respondents stated that their ability to collaborate is challenging and 28% stated that it is hard to form relationships or connections virtually.
Productivity and digital collaboration tools also have a different impact on ensuring that workers working remotely or in the office have the same experience. Specifically, 65% of respondents agreed that on-site workers have better access to information than remote workers, and 60% said it is harder to contribute to a hybrid meeting when working remotely. In-office employees were also more likely to find remote meetings unproductive, in-office employees were also more likely to find remote meetings unproductive, with 29% of those working in-person and 15% of those working mostly remote responding this way.
According to the study, “effective digital collaboration tools use a combination of auditory and visual methods to drive real-time engagement.”
The study’s overall findings indicated that digital collaboration tools must go beyond screen sharing to allow more effective digital collaboration; the study pointed to digital whiteboard tools as a potential solution. Additionally, the tools must streamline applications to help workers be more agile and not have to jump across multiple tools for work.