The use of virtual file-sharing platforms like Dropbox, Google Docs, and others has become ubiquitous in business, academic, and other settings. But is your team using such collaborative platforms as effectively as they could be?
Whether working on cancer cures or the latest consumer-tech products, how teams collaborate affects their performance and success. We know a lot about how teams collaborate face-to-face, with regard to leadership, communication, conflict resolution, and other areas. But less is known about how groups work together virtually. As more and more collaboration happens in digital settings, it’s critical to understand best practices for working in such spaces.
To address this question, we studied the virtual interactions of research teams at universities around the word on Dropbox, analyzed how the collaborative dynamics related to performance and developed a list of best practices that organizations can use on any file-sharing platform to improve team performance.
Dropbox gave us access to project-folder-related data, which we aggregated and anonymized, for all the scientists using its platform over the period from May 2015 to May 2017 — a group that represented 1,000 universities. This included information on a user’s total number of folders, folder structure, and shared folder access, but we and Dropbox employees could view no personally identifiable information. What we did see was every Dropbox folder associated with a given researcher, along with whom they’d shared the folder with, how often the folder was accessed by anyone associated with it, the duration of collaboration on a project, and how users split their time among different projects represented by the folders—a wide variety of specific touchpoints. We also had reliable data on seniority levels of users, such as whether they were senior or junior faculty. Overall, we analyzed data for roughly 400,000 unique users working on about 500,000 separate projects.
To invesitage the impact on peformance, we then compared the collaborative dynamics observed among universities in the top 10% and bottom 10% and those around average in research performance, as defined by two measures taken from the Web of Science: (1) previous impact, or how much others cite a scientist’s published work, and (2) productivity, or total number of publications.
From this analysis, we uncovered five best practices for virtual collaboration. That is, teams at the highest-performing organizations by our measures tended to engage in them below more than those at lower-performing institutions did.
- Go small: Projects at higher-performing institutions tended to involve fewer collaborators. The average number of people on a project at a top-10% university was 2.3; at a bottom-10% institution it was 3.0. That suggests the presence of too many virtual “cooks” could spoil the research “broth.”
- Take your time: Teams from top universities tended to work on projects for longer periods than those at others: 172 days on average for top-10% institutions, versus 130 days for the bottom-10%. Indeed, a comparison of individual researchers suggests those that have the most impact (frequency with which their works are cited) tend to have longer-lasting projects—perhaps, an indicator of more thoughtful collaborations.
- Increase same-team collaborations: Research teams at top-10% universities were more likely to work on more projects together (an average of nearly five folders with repeat collaborators) than were teams at lower-performing institutions (3.5 folders). It’s likely that more frequent collaborations led to positive spillover of information, insights, and team dynamics from one project to another.
- Aim for equality: People at higher-performing universities seemed to share work more equally, based on the frequency of instances that collaborators accessed project folders. Teams at lower-performing institutions were more likely to have one person or a small number of people doing more of the “heavy lifting.” The association may be related to people’s ability to put in their best work when not spread too thinly, and to perceptions of fairness about work distribution.
- Embrace experience: At the best-performing institutions, senior team members contributed a higher share of project work overall: 63% of the work at top-10% universities versus 48% of it at lower-tier ones. We believe senior scientists are likely to have more experience with defining a research vision, framing problems and goals, delegating labor, and developing norms and ground rules for effective interaction, enabling their teams to get stronger starts and maintain steadier progress. The higher share of project work performed by senior collaborators is not at odds with our equality-of-work point above, as these team members tended to do this across all projects, and higher-performing institutions had smaller teams on average (so each member did a higher proportion of work), as noted earlier.
While we studied Dropbox specifically, what we found likely applies to other virtual collaboration platforms such as Google Docs and Drive, Microsoft Sharepoint, and others. Indeed, universities, businesses, and other organizations that use one such platform are likely to use others, enabling transfer of best practices across these collaborative tools. For example, Dropbox reports that nearly half of all clients use it with another app. More broadly a recent survey shows that companies today use 16 software-as-a-service (SaaS) apps on average, up 33% from 2017, and 73% of organizations say nearly all their apps will be SaaS by 2020.
Similarly, teams within business, academic, and other settings are increasingly working on open-source software-development platforms such as GitHub. The best practices we’ve uncovered should be useful in this context, as well.
In short, as collaboration through digital file-sharing platforms increases, organizations must look to best practices for using them. Whether you aim for smaller project groups or more equal distribution of work, these ideas will help you get more from your virtual teams.