How does 100% digital collaboration perform now that we really have to?

What have the first two weeks of telework in times of the coronavirus been like for the Infranea team? From strict meeting etiquette to virtual coffee breaks, as well as some hardware tips. Five lessons for better digital collaboration.

Like many people, Infranea’s digital engineers have been working from home for two weeks now to slow the spread of the coronavirus. This has meant organising a team of over forty people in three different countries to work on projects in the areas of 3D design, BIM services and VR simulation. We have asked the Infranea team what lessons they have learnt after two weeks of completely digital collaboration.

Lesson 1: Stay social in times of distancing.

‘What strange times.’ This is the first reaction of Jaap De Boer when we ask him how Infranea is dealing with the lockdown as a result of COVID-19. Although many of the digital engineers are also digital natives, they miss the social moment of having a chat at the coffee machine. ‘Due to the nature of our profession, we have a lot of experience with telework and the work-life balance,’ Jaap explains. ‘But even so, nobody was prepared for 100% digital collaboration. The balance has been disturbed. A friendly group chat by video call, a nice WhatsApp message or a simple old-school phone call bring the people behind the computers a little closer together.’

Some practical tips from our employees:

  • mute your microphone when you are not talking in a group (video) call
  • let others finish what they are saying
  • keep interventions short
  • agree on fixed times for meetings
  • after a meeting, put the action points online
  • avoid ad-hoc calls in between
  • address people by their first name (if there is no eye contact)

Jaap de Boer

Lesson 2: Gather more work into packages.

Consulting with people online is an art in itself. When you meet virtually with several people at the same time, there is a risk of interminable discussion. Even so, meeting online can save time if you do it well: you do not lose time travelling, meetings are shorter and more to-the-point. By gathering shared matters in a clearly defined agenda, there will be more focus. ‘At Infranea, we try to limit online meetings to half an hour, and, if it is really inevitable, to a maximum of one hour.’ Apps such as Microsoft Planner or Trello help to efficiently divide the work package into smaller tasks. At Infranea, this is done according to a set process, which consists of SCRUM-style morning briefings, weekly round-ups and the legendary Friday drinks – which are now virtual.

Digital Drink

Lesson 3: Make sure the hardware does not become a problem.

No sound. No image. Slow network. Nothing is more annoying than an online team meeting being delayed for these reasons. Obviously, the basis of digital collaboration is hardware that works properly. A computer with a microphone and a webcam, a decent headset and a good Internet connection are essential tools. Testing everything fifteen minutes before the start of the call can prevent a lot of lost time afterwards. For Infranea, this is clearly a new etiquette teleworkers are expected to follow.

Lesson 4: Make maximum use of the cloud.

Share literally ALL data and materials in the cloud. To digital engineers this is obvious. The integrated solution Microsoft Teams is popular among the team at this moment. It is a handy and safe platform to keep sharing, calling, chatting and other tasks within a single ecosystem. Autodesk BIM 360 is also being used. ‘In accordance with ISO 27001 sensitive information is only being shared through specially protected Virtual Private Networks (VPN) with strict access control. Fortunately, at Infranea this homework had been done in advance, in consultation with parent company VK Architects & Engineers,’ Jaap confirms.

Lesson 5: Make sure to separate work and private life.

Some employees feel working from home is more intensive than working at the office. Establishing clear rules with colleagues working remotely and with the other members of the household can prevent problems. Think, for instance, of screaming children appearing behind you during a video call. This requires answering a lot of questions, such as: When does the workday start and end? Who looks after the children during working hours? How do I separate my workspace from my private space? Have I discussed the work-life balance sufficiently with the other members of the household? We must accept that we may need to change our routines and that everyone will have to adjust to the new situation. Therefore, we need to be more tolerant than usual. Sufficient mental breaks are also something to work on, our survey has shown. So do not forget to regularly get some fresh air or relax for a bit. Contrary to what you might think, for some people the problem with working from home is not too many distractions, but working for too long without taking breaks. In the medium term, this is counterproductive.

What can the infrastructure sector learn from this experience with COVID-19?

Infranea will work together with the different areas within the construction and infrastructure sectors to see what can be improved in the future and what good practices when it comes to telework could also become standard in normal times. ‘We are already finding that time is saved by using certain methods, that some cloud solutions are better suited for heavier digital applications, and that new procedures in the areas of data sharing, storage and security could be interesting at sector level,’ Jaap says. ‘Frustration does not solve anything. The current situation is highly unusual, and we cannot control it. Our passion for digital engineering also automatically results in a passion to improve digital collaboration,‘ Jaap concludes. ‘We are learning from this, looking ahead and trying to seize new opportunities. It is in our nature.’ (laughs)


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