Keep collaboration alive and well at your small business

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There are a number of ways that Steve Jobs taught us to ‘think different.” Not only did his innovative spirit transform the computer industry to provide a host of groundbreaking technology products for work and play, he also left behind a number of valuable leadership lessons for business. In “The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs,” which appeared in the Harvard Business Review in 2012, Walter Isaacson, Jobs’ official biographer, cited what he believed were fourteen keys to the Apple visionary’s success. Focus, simplify, put products before profits, push to perfection and bend reality are some of Jobs’ lessons.

Also on the list are the importance of collaboration and the value of face-to-face meetings, even random ones, to spark creativity. When Jobs was planning Pixar’s headquarters in 1999, he famously had the building arranged around a central atrium to promote unplanned encounters and collaborations between the artists, writers and computer scientists who worked there.

Today’s office environments have taken Jobs’ vision even further. While the Pixar office actually features private offices built around the U-shaped atrium, the walls have come tumbling down in today’s open-space office environments. Open-space offices have proliferated in the last decade to encourage employees to communicate more so that ideas flow. Forbes  writes in “Open Offices Back in Vogue – Thanks to Millennials” that “Overall about 70 percent of U.S. offices have some type of open floor plan, according to the International Facility Management Association.”

Technology trends boosting collaboration

It’s not only wide open spaces that aim to boost collaboration; several key technology developments over the past decade also are making it easier for employees to share information whether working in the office, on the road or in home offices. One of these new technologies is cloud computing, which is being embraced among small business owners. (See: “Cloud computing adoption is growing among small business.”)

With cloud computing, your company’s software no longer sits on each desktop or somewhere on your network. Instead, service providers host your applications on remote servers, which you access over the Internet now redefined as “the cloud.” These remote servers can run anything from your email to customer relationship management software (CRM) and store all of your documents. You simply log into a web-based service to access all the applications you need. Everyone in your business can access company information from anywhere at any time. That’s a great boost to productivity and collaboration as well as customer service.

Cloud computing enables your small business team members to collaborate on the development of a document or presentation using any device. One team member can create a project folder and drag and drop in files, then send a URL or invite a team working in the office or across the country to view or edit documents adding comments.

Unified communications (UC) is another technology aiding collaboration. It provide a platform to integrate desk phones, PCs, smartphones and tablets – into one integrated data and voice network so these devices can talk to each other digitally. UC also provides a host of collaboration tools – e-mail, instant messaging (IM), web and video conferencing and fax – accessible through the convenience of one interface, eliminating the time it takes to check the inboxes of multiple devices for messages and facilitating employees getting in touch with each more easily.

UC aids collaboration by making it convenient to launch a video conference, for example, and send IMs to other team members to join. On a call with a customer, you can conduct a chat session with another colleague to help answer questions. And presence, which is a status display enabling you to know if another employee is available to collaborate, is helping boost productivity, according to a survey conducted by market research firm Software Advice.

Don’t let noise and distractions get in the way of collaboration

With so much emphasis on collaboration, the last thing you want to do is let noise, distractions and lack of privacy get in the way of your small business team working together. Unfortunately, companies are finding that the open-space office has the unintended consequence of decreasing the ability to focus and seeing collaboration erode. A 2013 Gensler Workplace Study found that collaboration has decreased by 20 percent over the past five year.

If it’s not noise from conversations on the phone or between employees, it’s interruptions. In the open-space office environment, the assumption may be that everyone is available all the time so that it’s okay to stop by to chat or ask a question at any time.

And while a Plantronics survey found that flexible and remote work is helping small business owners attract retain employees, working outside the office is no panacea for the problems of noise and distractions. There’s no control over noise from others around you in a coffee shop or airport; and at home, you can’t quiet your neighbor’s barking dog or construction work down the street.

To combat noise in the open-space office environment, some companies have created spaces where employees can conduct a call or meet to conference without surrounding noise and distractions. Offices also are establishing golden rules about open-space office etiquette, which include: don’t interrupt someone if they seem engrossed in their work, avoid having a conversation by someone’s desk, turn off speaker phones, and turn down ringtones and other sounds related to message notifications.

In noisy situations both in and out of the office, a headset can help to cancel out background noise, create your own private space enabling you to enjoy your preferred sounds and ensure audio clarity on a call. Also as I recently pointed out in “Good Communication is the heart of small business success,” a headset can help eliminate the communication chaos that comes from having an abundance of devices to use.

The just announced Plantronics Voyager Focus UC headset provides noise cancellation (ANC) and dynamic Hi-Fi stereo, works seamlessly across Bluetooth-enabled desk phones, laptops, mobile phones, tablets, and smart watches. It provides seamless transition from one device to another, which supports and encourages collaboration.  Using the Voyager Focus UC, you can more easily transition from a call on your desk phone to a video conference over your desktop to brainstorm with a colleague about a client presentation.

Henry Ford is quoted as saying about collaboration, “Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress and working together is success.” Don’t let noise and distractions get in the way of your small business success.