Innovation in Remote Digital Collaboration

By Lin Grensing-Pophal June 1, 2023

​One of remote work's challenges is how it hampers the ability to create and maintain relationships that spur the collaboration required to help businesses achieve their goals. Out of sight isn't necessarily out of mind, yet remote workers may struggle to get to know colleagues. That doesn't mean it can't be done, though, as many companies are finding.

As companies—and employees—have gained experience in collaborating remotely via various digital tools, new best practices have emerged.

Leveraging Digital Collaboration Tools

OssoVR, a surgical training platform based in San Francisco, began piloting virtual reality in 2019 for training and assessments, using Meta's Quest headsets. The company officially integrated Horizon Workrooms, a collaboration platform that uses the metaverse for meetings and activities in place of video meetings in 2022, said Brian Gordon, the company's partner success enablement lead. They've onboarded about 75 employees—approximately 40 percent of their remote-first workforce—this way. In addition to practical uses like onboarding, Gordon said, "most of us use it for our weekly team check-ins and casual meet-ups, from meditation to mini golf."

The recognition that these digital collaboration tools can, and should, be used for interactions not related to work is a best practice for ensuring employees will use them.

Courtney Stratton, employee experience manager at Donut, a virtual collaboration software firm, named by Fast Company as one of the most innovative workplace companies of 2023, said Donut uses its own tools, as well as tools like Figjam, an online whiteboard, to help staff develop and maintain connections. Employees across departments and levels get to know each other through an "Intros" tool. In addition, she said: "We use Donut's Watercooler tool to spur friendly debates and conversations on fun, nonwork-related topics. Watercooler pushes out questions like 'Do you make your bed?' or 'Do you prefer the beach or lake?' which spurs friendly banter and bonding. We can also create our own custom questions that are unique to our company culture."

Digital whiteboards can be especially powerful when connecting remote teams called upon to create together—like tech and product teams.

Rachel Olchowka is chief people officer at Fetch, a rewards app and consumer engagement platform. At Fetch, "we have whiteboard cameras and smart whiteboards so folks can work together as if they're collaborating live, even when they're remote or in another office," she said.

Another interesting method of digital collaboration comes from translation tools like Wordly that enable communications between employees from different global locations. 

Because many companies are operating under hybrid work models these days, it's also important to ensure engagement in traditional, in-person settings.

At Fetch, Olchowka said, "our offices are set up with options for every type of work—quiet spaces, standing desks with monitors, cubbies to curl up in, booths for small group collaboration, comfortable couches with nearby smart TVs." They've made sure, she said, that "for every type of worker and every type of work, there's a good fit in our workspace."

Best Practices and Processes to Boost Engagement

Many of OssoVR's employees are remote, Gordon said, so the company has consciously worked to increase the "feeling of presence" in its meetings. "We've found it easiest to create spaces that are easy to pop into, like you would during an in-person workday, which is why we give all 75 employees in Workrooms access to four conference rooms that they can schedule and use at any time." It's important, Gordon added, to make it easy for employees to reach out to each other in ways that are best for them.

It may sound obvious, but making technology work to optimize remote digital collaboration requires employees to actually use the technology, he said, adding that leadership needs to set an example.

"I made a point to spend a lot of time—usually about 35 percent—in Workrooms, which encourages my teams to do the same," Gordon said. "I use it for everything from short conversations to heads-down working sessions with my colleagues, but I do host all of my weekly team meetings in VR. It's genuinely more collaborative, and I can see my teams engaging more when we're in it."

Joseph Toma, CEO at Jugo, a virtual meetings and events platform in New York City, does the same, encouraging other organizational leaders to host regular digital check-ins with team members, as he does. "Visibility and a virtual open-door policy are key," he said. "Scheduling one day a week to offer a chat can go a long way to involve, engage and empower remote workers."

Interestingly, having a technology-rich infrastructure to boost digital collaboration may not diminish the level of in-person collaboration taking place. Erin McDannald, CEO and co-owner of Environments, which creates customized environment controls via Internet of Things technology, said that since launching the metaverse in her own company, she's seen an increase of at least 30 percent in her team's in-office population. The digital interface, she's found, has actually boosted in-person participation.

Digital solutions aren't one-size-fits-all, of course; nor are they either/or. Both in-person and remote collaboration is important, and both can be achieved in a wide range of ways. Companies have to navigate the options that work best for them—and for their employees, whose needs also are different.

As Stratton said, for Donut, "flexibility is a core component of our philosophy, because individual people have all kinds of wants and needs when it comes to work." Digital technology paired with traditional interactions can help meet those needs while driving desired business results.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance writer in Chippewa Falls, Wis.



Hire the best HR talent or advance your own career.

Member Benefit: Ask-An-Advisor Service

SHRM's HR Knowledge Advisors offer guidance and resources to assist members with their HR inquiries.

SHRM's HR Knowledge Advisors offer guidance and resources to assist members with their HR inquiries.



HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.