The State of Remote Collaboration 2021
For most of modern history, work has been synonymous with the office, a physical space populated by cubicles, filing cabinets, water coolers, and, of course, our coworkers.
Over time, and especially in the last year, we have discovered that we don’t need many of the trappings associated with traditional workspaces. In “the new normal,” your cubicle is now the kitchen table or a home office, your filing cabinet is the cloud, and the water cooler is your fridge. But one thing remains the same: we still need a way to collaborate with our colleagues.
Even before the onset of COVID-19, working remotely had been gaining popularity steadily over the last decade. However, due to the mass influx of remote work in 2020, more thought has been put into how we can be more successful as teams when working together virtually.
With more than 900 global customers who use Vibe boards to collaborate on projects, Vibe is particularly invested in determining how organizations successfully manage remote collaboration. For this Remote Collaboration Review, 1,199 respondents from across the United States provided insight into their experience with remote work. We aimed to understand the benefits and drawbacks of working remotely, and to learn what employees need to be successful in a remote work environment.
What is remote collaboration?
Remote collaboration extends an office’s collaborative capabilities and translates them to a digital workspace. The goal is to enable communication and teamwork while allowing team members to work from various internet-connected locations.
Virtual collaboration enables teammates to work together in real time regardless of location; they don’t need to be in the same office or even the same time zone. A virtual collaborative workspace is simply a collaborative workspace moved to the digital world, allowing workers to perform all the communal aspects of their work remotely.
Shift to remote collaboration in the last 10 years
Organizations have increasingly been making the switch to remote work after finding numerous benefits for employees and employers alike. Once technology evolved enough to allow for faster internet, remote data security, improved shared drives, and other collaboration tools, forward-thinking companies jumped on opportunities to provide remote collaboration as an option for employees.
COVID-19 has changed how employers and employees think about remote work
Remote work options changed dramatically in 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing many workplaces into a totally remote environment. Organizations had to rapidly build remote-work infrastructure to avoid a loss in productivity and earnings.
How and why is remote work changing?
COVID-19 has shifted the attitudes of both employees and employers toward remote work. As remote collaboration becomes more efficient and findings illuminate that productivity levels are better or unaffected, more companies are taking advantage of remote work benefits.
Going a level deeper, respondents who were working remotely — either originally or in response to the pandemic — had a stronger preference to remain in environments with a remote component. Of these respondents, 42% favored completely remote work and 39% favored blended options. Only 19% of remote employees indicated that they would want to work primarily in an on-site location.
A significant number of workers still prefer to work on-site, perhaps because they were accustomed to an on-site location for work.
So what are businesses planning to do when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted? All indicators point to remote work continuing to expand, even after COVID-19 is controlled.
We asked participants if they planned to return to a physical workplace after restrictions are lifted. The responses reflected that more than half expected that their roles would be either remote (18%) or hybrid (35%).
Forty-eight percent of respondents reported that they would return to on-site work when it is safe to do so again. There was a gender split for those planning to return to the office full-time, with 36% of women versus 59% of men choosing this option. A distinct split in this preference still remained when comparing women and men with parenting and childcare responsibilities.
In contrast, 18% of respondents indicated that their preference is to work primarily in a remote environment. Many employees wanted a hybrid approach that would let them have the flexibility to choose when to go into the office. This is a growing trend, and employers are seeking to offer more of this flexibility in the future.
The new normal
Many employees have experienced the upsides of fully remote or hybrid work and now prefer those work styles. Determining how strong employees’ preferences toward remote work are can help employers make the right decision for their workforce. We asked, “For your next job, would you consider taking a role that did not offer a remote option?”
Having no remote option was a dealbreaker for a large number of people. Twenty-six percent of respondents answered that for their next job, they would not consider taking a role that did not offer a remote option. With so many companies, from Amazon to Zillow, adopting new ways of work, employees seek out the ones that can provide the best options for them. Companies that don’t offer alternatives to on-site work will see their job pool shrink.
The highest proportion of respondents who would not consider a role with no remote options came from industries that tended to employ knowledge workers. Finance and financial services led the way, with 36% of respondents indicating they would not consider an on-site role. Surprisingly, government work was another leader, with 33% of respondents saying they would not consider an entirely in-person position. Professional services such as legal or consulting work came in at third for those who would decline a role without remote options.
Hire the best talent
By offering remote positions, companies can expand their applicant pool and broaden their horizons when it comes to hiring the best talent.
Diversity of thought is essential to an innovative workplace, and diversity in gender identity, race, and sexual orientation all increase the range of possible perspectives that bolster a diverse workplace. Remote work opens the door for many people to step over hurdles that traditionally kept them from some types of work, such as high cost of living near the office’s location or prohibitively long commute times.
Support workplace flexibility for parents and caregivers
Balancing work and family life has always been a challenge for parents and caregivers. Remote work can help employees by providing a number of opportunities to be more present with their children and partners.
One of the ways companies can improve retention is by breaking the barrier of location. Providing remote work options can boost loyalty and retention by minimizing the downsides of in-person work like stressful commutes and undesirable office conditions, allowing employees to focus more on the nature of the work.
Many employees feel less distracted and stressed while working at home, so they are better able to focus on their work. When asked if employees could still come up with good ideas at home, 85% said they had no problem.
Cost of labor
Remote work allows companies to save vast amounts of money on office-related expenses. Depending on a company’s location, rent, property taxes, and utilities eat up cash quickly.
Other benefits of remote work include environmental benefits, which businesses often overlook. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have already started to see a reduction in traffic, decreased air pollution, and wildlife territory expansion . The more we cut out lengthy commutes, office waste, and business travel, the better companies will be able to positively impact the environment.
Because work will no longer be location-centric, regions outside of traditional large metros may benefit from the more mobile workforce and see substantial economic growth. Prudential notes that “rural workers show deep concerns about job opportunities — with nearly half (46%) stressing that their community does not have enough jobs.” Removing geographic barriers means that members of rural communities will have greater potential to access new opportunities.
Finally, this new mobile workforce has a varied skill set that they’ll carry with them to new regions, keeping expertise from being geographically gated. Wooing high earners (and their taxable income) to smaller cities could potentially level out disparities between city and rural earnings, bringing a higher tax base to fund schools and community services. In its 2020 study “ Fastest-Growing Cities in America ,” WalletHub found that many small cities are seeing high population growth and a reduction in poverty rates.
One of the most obvious drawbacks of remote work is the lack of daily in-person interaction and team building that is often a part of traditional work environments.
When welcoming new employees, setting the right tone is essential for building positive relationships. Many companies have strategies for this that they have perfected over decades, but remote work can make some of their past methods difficult or impossible to use. Being on-site for training and onboarding can be a boon to get a feel for a company and its culture.
Another challenge in onboarding remote workers is meeting their equipment needs. Before, in-office employees had access to all of the hardware and software that was necessary to do their jobs. Maybe the most considerable drawback to the remote onboarding process is that it can be a precursor to other problems with remote work — isolation, lack of engagement and a negative perception of company culture.
IT support and compliance
Tech support and compliance are two departments that help keep companies protected. Remote workers still face a variety of technical support issues, but without on-site office assistance, they often have to solve those problems on their own. IT personnel at on-site locations can usually solve issues in a matter of minutes by gaining direct access to phones or computers. However, resolving employees’ IT issues, especially if they’re on personal computers and networks, can be difficult and leave the business vulnerable to cyber security issues.
Keeping remote employees engaged can be a struggle if they are used to working on-site with their team. With much less face-to-face interaction, some find it hard to stay motivated and find meaning in their work.
While remote workers have done a remarkable job of collaborating in virtual work environments, it is usually harder than collaborating in person. When we work in offices, it is generally easy to ask questions or grab a few people for a brainstorming session. In a virtual office, we must make extra efforts to bring people together.
Everyone has a different way of learning, and many people use multiple learning styles to process new information quickly and efficiently. Organizations must take into account that what works well when teaching and training one employee may not work for others. The different learning styles are outlined in the VARK learning model .
Learning styles play neatly into how we prefer to have work materials presented. In on-site professional settings, there are many communication styles to choose from, but remote work constrains these format choices.
Thirty-three percent of respondents said they prefer to have materials presented to them through hands-on experience. But for remote positions, hands-on experience is limited to virtual collaboration techniques. Hands-on and physical learners may need extra attention to walk them through new processes. Tools like screen sharing can make this easier by allowing supervisors to watch employees go through tasks — to learn by doing — and give them immediate feedback.
Overall, no single format for learning was overwhelmingly more effective than others. One respondent noted, “I find [communicating ideas] takes a combination of approaches and most remote scenarios end up being rather limited in that regard.” Another wanted “tools that meet every personality type via visual, voice, and other mediums.” Using a combination of methods is the best way to ensure that the entire audience is engaged.
Remote team collaboration preferences
Unsurprisingly, video conferencing is preferred to any other method of communication in remote work. The format allows for a level of communication that is second only to face-to-face conversations, and respondents cited a desire for “video conference software that works like you’re in the same room as your team.”
Results show that team members like to get as close as possible to face-to-face communication, with 42% of respondents choosing video conferencing as their preferred method of remote communication. A respondent noted, “Body language is an important way for me to relay what I’m thinking.”
Phone calls came in at number two, and they happen to be the second most personal form of communication. Phone calls may be so high on the list of preferred methods of remote communication because people still have the comfort of hearing someone’s voice; phone calls allow workers to hear tone of voice and convey large amounts of information more quickly than in an email or chat. As one respondent indicated, “It’s hard to judge tone in the written word.” Phone calls allow for nuance and intonation.
Email is a popular choice for asynchronous communication and is useful for keeping track of information from multiple stakeholders. Interestingly, email preference skewed more positively with older respondents; only 10% of those in the 18-24 age group indicated that it was their primary preference.
Chat communication (like Slack or Microsoft Teams) came in as the top choice for about 16% of respondents. These chats were initially designed to convey quick bits of information and updates in real time, but are increasingly being used in asynchronous applications.
The least popular communication option, by far, is wikis, with less than 1% of respondents indicating them as a top choice. Wikis are collaborative tools with open editing systems where people can add text and notes, have discussions, and communicate. Some popular options include Confluence and Notion. While wikis are great for asynchronous documentation, they are typically most useful as a secondary source or repository.
Work-from-home communication needs improvement
When working in different locations, communication can be less effective than when you are together and the team is available for face-to-face discussions at any time. More than half of respondents claimed that they found working remotely made it more challenging for them to communicate clearly. One respondent noted that virtual work “feels more disjointed and harder to collaborate,” and another emphasized that there are “challenges to present what I do online.”
Employees reported three main reasons why their remote communications are less effective. The top reason: 20% of remote workers said that they weren’t able to communicate in the way that they prefer, be it drawing or presenting in person. The proportion of those who cited lack of preferred communication style rose to 67% in professional services (consulting, legal) and in finance and financial services. This proportion rose to 83% in healthcare and pharmaceuticals.
Around 18% of respondents felt that their colleagues were too busy for them to share their ideas. In a remote environment workers can end up overly focused and siloed on their own tasks. With 2020 bringing disruptions to childcare and school systems, there are more distractions than ever before. Additionally, waiting for emails or documentation updates has a longer turnaround than having a quick chat with someone on-site to clarify points.
Approximately half of respondents (52%) indicated that working from home made it more difficult to express themselves. Many noted that remote communication felt more disjointed and disconnected.
The top reason cited for difficulty expressing themselves when working remotely, accounting for 22% of respondents, was that they didn’t feel like they had the tools and resources needed to express themselves in the way in which they were most skilled.
Of those who responded that they found it more difficult to express themselves in remote work, around 15% said that they simply don’t have the energy to adequately express themselves in the virtual environment. Remote collaboration can be taxing. Taking the extra effort to clarify what they are feeling on projects can be too exhausting to those who are already overcoming other drawbacks of remote work.
Twelve percent of respondents felt that the time it would take to express themselves through remote tools would be too time-consuming. The extra time it takes to present ideas adds up with every project, and this can become overwhelming when speed is often an important part of completing daily workloads.
These challenges all stem from a lack of tools for remote workers. Twenty-two percent of respondents said they didn’t have the resources to express themselves effectively. Having proper resources can alleviate the challenges of insufficient time and lack of energy, empowering employees to communicate effectively.
Forty-six percent of respondents expressed that they wanted more brainstorming sessions via phone or video conference to improve collaboration efforts. An easy fix for leadership is to schedule time for conference calls with existing virtual collaboration tools.
About 30% of respondents wanted to be able to collaborate visually with an interactive whiteboard. Using a tool like this would help those visual and hands-on learners from the previous section. Touch interface interactive whiteboards allow users to draw, take notes, present visuals, and brainstorm much like you would in an office setting. They can provide a useful fix for workers who desire more expression tools.
Hardware and home office
While software allows greater levels of collaboration, remote work wouldn’t be possible without the hardware that workers use every day. A good home office setup that allows for comfort and ease of use will inevitably boost productivity and make for a happier team.
With employees working remotely, organizations are finding different ways to provide the tools needed for home offices.
Most employees (67%) said that their company gave them a work laptop to take home, with a rising number going beyond the basics by providing standing desks, ergonomic chairs, and digital whiteboards.
Digital whiteboards were one of the most desired tools from employees for expressing ideas. More than 30% of all employees thought that having a digital whiteboard, like a Vibe board, would make virtual collaboration easier when working from home. In the technology industry, this number was even higher at 47%.
In lieu of providing employees with work-from-home equipment from the office, many employers opt to give a remote work equipment stipend. This can come as a one-time payment that may cover the basics, or employees can ask for funds to purchase needed supplies. An allowance for equipment can provide a more comfortable space for workers to put in their hours at home. Of the total respondents, 40% received a stipend for remote work equipment, with that number rising to 70% for workers in the technology sector.
Remote collaboration overview
Gauging trends in the new remote landscape is important for us to keep up with how we can be prepared for workplaces of the future. Understanding the nature of collaboration is essential to finding effective communication solutions and making remote work better for both companies and employees. We saw how work has been shifting toward a new digital way of working and telecommuting, and then saw how the shift accelerated due to COVID-19.
By studying employees' attitudes about working from home since the pandemic, we can better plan to keep them happy and keep organizations in good shape. Remote work will be here to stay; it suits a growing number of people and comes with many benefits. We also saw the drawbacks of remote work, such as isolation and increased difficulty of collaboration, and how we can account for and solve these issues. We also learned about some specific items that employees need to be successful in remote work. Now, we can use these lessons to build organizations that thrive alongside their workforce.