Can digital work spaces be designed for collaboration?

About the Author ­Nithya takes care of marketing and customer support at SupportBee. SupportBee has a 100% distributed set up and she passionately advocates remote working for start ups.

Technology has contributed to a huge shift in the way we work today. More and more companies are encouraging remote work to cut down on travel time for its employees and tap into the global talent market. A consequence of that culture is having digital workplaces instead of the traditional co­located office spaces. Here, everything from a team meeting to brainstorming is carried out online.

The results of Professor Elton Mayo's Hawthorne studies have fairly well established that the factor most influencing productivity in workplaces is not efficiency but human relationships.

In this relatively new paradigm ­ where team members and employees have an incentive to go completely digital ­ a very crucial question is: How do we design our virtual workspaces to increase productivity?

The key ingredient in a perfect setup

For a virtual setup to be successful, it should be able to encourage communication, collaboration, and camaraderie even in the absence of everyday face­-to-­face personal communication. These elements are so important that they are widely considered to be cornerstones of innovation.

A few years back, Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer brought in a strict policy that work­-from-­home will not be an option for Yahoo’s employees, and the reason stated was this:

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side­by­side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”

As we can see, the common understanding is that an environment that encourages interaction is the sine qua non for a successful workforce. Can we simulate that environment in our virtual work spaces? Absolutely, if we have the right technology infrastructure. Our choice of technology will be the primary factor in driving people and processes in the right direction.

Our experience with remote working

At SupportBee, we have a 100% distributed setup; we depend heavily on technology for interaction and collaboration. Over the months, we have tried out several tools to find the ones that suit our workflow. There are hundreds of apps and tools ­ from project management to bug tracking ­ that companies use, to make remote working possible. While those tools are absolutely necessary to have a seamless workflow end to end, we have learnt from experience that the key component in setting up an environment that fosters interaction is real time communication.

Real time communication

Tools that aid real time communication for business teams have become the foundation for employee interaction in a remote setup. These tools have effectively replaced office spaces. They offer a variety of features that make interaction and collaboration so natural that the lack of a physical space is seldom felt.

Further, these tools increase productivity by integrating with all other tools involved in a day to day work flow. For example, businesses will have the ability to integrate their customer support tool, project management system, bug tracking system, Twitter & Facebook feed etc., to their communication tool. All notifications can be received directly in this tool which can help team members avoid having to constantly switch between apps. Everything from support requests to error logs and sales leads can be channeled to be received in this centralized virtual space.

Currently we use FlowDock for our interactions. While it integrates well with all other tools in our workflow, it would make everything even more seamless if conference calls can be initiated from this virtual office environment.Today, we have to step away from that environment to make calls through Google Hangouts or Skype.

Bots and the future

There are a bunch of real time communication tools available in the market today which are geared for businesses and teams. However, holds the promise of future with its concept of bots. bots interact with other apps integrated with for notifications and updates. Not only that, there will soon be a feature where users will be able to instruct bots in natural language to do all sorts of jobs ­ anything from pulling out reports to reminding other members of the team about a meeting. bot will be your new personal assistant in the virtual workspace!


Remote working is not the norm today. However, it is definitely growing as a trend because of the constant innovation in the space of communication and collaboration. If we are keen to tap into the advantages of having remote teams, we should pay close attention to technology solutions that promise productivity without short changing human relationships.

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