Sometimes you need to collaborate in real-time to get the best results. Here’s why it can beat async working and how Switchboard can help.
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The first documents are thought to have been papyrus leaves inscribed with ink, used by the Ancient Egyptians sometime before 3100 BCE*. Pasted together, these scrolls of written thoughts helped share information, visualize ideas, and teach scholars in a uniform way.
Fast forward to today, and documents are a central part of our working lives. From digital presentations to client pitches to remote team projects—what we achieve with async and real-time document collaboration is beyond the ancient scholars’ wildest dreams.
To help your remote teams hit their goals every quarter, you need to know when to work side by side on something and when to let people move ahead at their own pace. Sometimes, a conversation is necessary to solve complex problems or challenges, so you need to collaborate in real time.
In this article, we’ll discuss the benefits and challenges of real-time document collaboration, when you should work async or in real time, and best practices for successful collaboration. Get the most out of your collaborative process—and make the Ancient Egyptians proud.
Want a tool that’s built for real-time document collaboration?
Switchboard lets you work side-by-side on any file or document—and get crucial face time with your team.
Benefits of real-time collaboration
Collaborative documents let you share information and express ideas, which is essential for remote or hybrid teams.
Here are some of the benefits of working on them together at the same time.
When you can see who you’re working with on a document, you’re more productive and engaged. There’s less back and forth and you can discuss and fix issues as they come up. Instead of scrolling through Google Docs comment threads, or trying to find that one vital email in your inbox, you can simply talk it out on the fly and find solutions fast.
Better quality work
Having more than one pair of eyes checking and contributing to your work can improve the quality of your output. If you were in the same office as your team, you’d be able to walk over and tap someone on the shoulder for input. Real-time document collaboration lets your remote team recreate that feeling.
Working together on documents means you can check in with your team so you know if you’re heading in the right direction. And if not, you can course-correct quickly to avoid bottlenecks or backlogs.
Less gets lost in translation
When you’re collaborating in real-time, you get better, faster communication between your team members.
Interpreting multiple comments on a living document can be like trying to decipher hieroglyphics. So getting together to work on it instead means important information is less likely to slip through the cracks or get lost in translation.
Of course, working side by side doesn’t mean you should always be asking your team to help you locate key information or resources. But a quick collaborative session can really help speed up the flow of information and knowledge sharing.
More connected team
When your teams work remotely, you need to create opportunities for relationship building. Doing so allows everyone to get to know each other and see each other as real, rounded people rather than a 2D image on a screen.
When you’re actively brainstorming side by side with your team, you also get a chance to play around with new ideas and access new skills and techniques. And you get more room for the kind of spontaneous hallway conversations that happen in the office.
All this makes it easier for people to do well at their job by increasing team trust and camaraderie.
More room to be creative
When you’re collaborating in real time, you can voice opinions and suggestions you might not have thought of if you were working on a document alone. This means you can take creative risks, use your team as a sounding board, and make more innovative decisions together. All without waiting to hear back from someone in a different time zone or having to explain your creative process.
Challenges to be aware of with real-time document collaboration
Of course, there’s a time and a place for real-time document collaboration and it does come with a few challenges. Understanding them lets you know when it’s the right time to collaborate async or in real-time.
Let’s take a look at those challenges.
Remote employees not only have full schedules but also often work in different time zones making it hard to find a time to get everyone together in the same room or virtual workspace.
To overcome this, use scheduling apps to easily find a time that works for all your team. You can also set up a recurring meeting or virtual team huddle exclusively for collaboration. That way people know when to expect it and can come prepared with ideas, comments, or suggestions.
If you’re finding real-time collaboration a challenge, it may be because you’re not using the right tools. Amazingly, many traditional video conferencing and online workspace tools weren’t designed for true virtual collaboration. Yet remote or hybrid teams are still trying to fit the square peg of real-time collaboration into the round hole of unsuitable platforms.
For example, let’s say your customer success team wants to improve the customer experience. Using traditional video conferencing tools like Google Meet doesn’t let them bring important documents like survey results, customer feedback, and chatbot insights together in one room. Instead, they’re spending meetings sharing their screen, showing one document at a time. This makes it hard to keep the collaborative juices flowing.
Pro tip: Use Switchboard to open documents and files directly inside your room and collaborate side-by-side with your team—without needing to switch between tabs or tools.
Some people prefer async collaboration
Everyone has different working and communication styles, so some of your team will find async collaboration easier than others. To get the best out of all your people, you need to understand their preferences and strengths, use the right tools, and run meetings in the right way. For example, encouraging contributions, using an agenda, and giving everyone time to speak.
Using an online workspace tool like Switchboard makes meetings more productive and enjoyable. A hostless experience means everyone gets the floor equally and can contribute and collaborate freely. Everyone can see and work on the same content directly in the meeting room, so no one’s left out or waiting for access to important documents.
Too many cooks in the kitchen
When you’re working in a remote or hybrid team, you need a fast way to communicate with people. And when you have a document with multiple comments it can be hard to figure out what you need to do. Comment threads can send you off in all directions, so it can take extra back and forth and time to understand exactly what’s needed.
Real-time collaboration helps you focus on the task at hand and get answers, fast.
How do you know when to collaborate in real time?
Sometimes collaborating async is just what your team needs. But when there’s a time-sensitive problem, challenge, or opportunity, you need to be able to see and work together with your team to move forward.
Fortunately, these days real-time collaboration has come a long way from the days of scholars crowding around a piece of parchment with a candle, quill in hand.
Here are some of the times when you need to work together at the same time:
When it's a complex project
If you’re working on a complicated project with a lot of moving parts, it makes sense to talk through more complex concepts at the same time as your team and not have to wait for approval or your teammate to come online to keep things moving.
Synchronous document collaboration can help make the difference between a team that’s fully on the same page and one that’s left guessing about a project’s status and next steps.
You need lots of back and forth
As a remote or hybrid team, sometimes you need to over-communicate with your team to get the message across. But you also need to avoid information overload. Collaborating in real-time can help cut down on internal messaging, comments, and emails—and help you get straight to the point, saving time and keeping productive collaboration alive.
You're trying to teach someone
Research shows that more than half of the population are visual learners. Those people learn better and faster together than working async because you can explain things at the same time as they’re seeing them. It’s also great to be able to ask questions and get immediate feedback and answers to help your team improve. This makes learning stick.
Time zone is a limitation
In a lot of remote setups, time zone differences make it harder to get productive face time with your team. By intentionally setting up your working times, everyone can see who is available for some face-to-face collaboration. Some virtual offices and workspaces let you see when your colleagues are online, so you can take advantage of the time overlap you have and get together for some synchronous work.
You’re up against a deadline
To meet an upcoming deadline, sometimes you’ll find it’s easier to jump into a live brainstorming session with your team. That way, you can all focus your energy on getting work done instead of managing internal communications about the project.
Quick team alignment
As we mentioned, everyone has their own working style. Some people on your team might enjoy working synchronously more than doing their own thing—or they may need more team input and guidance from you to get unblocked. In those cases, you’ll want to hop into a meeting or collaborative call to move things forward.
Best practices for real-time document collaboration
The Ancient Egyptians had document creation down to a fine art when it came to creating, handling, and working together on ancient scrolls. Just look at how many have survived. For your work to stand the test of time, you need best practices to guide your real-time collaboration.
Let’s look at a few of those.
1. Use a dedicated virtual meeting platform
Instead of an overstuffed tech stack, you need the right visual collaboration tools to make remote team collaboration possible. This means a virtual meeting platform that goes beyond traditional video conferencing and screen sharing, to get the most out of everyone's time and your documents.
For example, when your marketing team is editing new product-page text, everyone can contribute to the same Google Doc inside a Switchboard room. Without a visual collaboration tool, one person would share their screen and make all the changes themselves.
Pro tip: Switchboard makes it easy to collaborate in real time and have all the right documents available. Upload any type of document into your virtual room where everyone can access, comment, and edit it. This lets you feel as if you’re working in the same room even when you’re worlds apart.
2. Set expectations
As a team leader, you need to set expectations around how to cooperate and what workflows look like. Also, deadlines your team should know about and stick to.
This makes sure you’re keeping a consistent and reliable process for working together, where everyone’s opinions are respected and considered.
Here are three steps to help you set expectations:
- Define your team goals. You need to communicate what your team’s goals are for each project and how those goals will help the company achieve its objectives.
- Set house rules on effective collaboration. Make sure everyone knows how to give and receive feedback in a respectful and constructive way—both in documents and during live calls. And make sure they know what your expectations are for certain actions or processes, like tagging, commenting, or assigning a task in a document.
- Make deadlines clear. Make sure everyone has the same amount of time to contribute and collaborate on a shared document and knows when to hop back out of the document, especially if it’s client-facing. You don’t want your team adding to the document while the client’s already checking it on their side.
3. Create a psychologically and emotionally safe environment
Sometimes, hopping on a call and collaborating in real time isn’t everyone’s preferred way to communicate. So you need to make sure all your team members feel comfortable contributing ideas in a way that suits them.
It’s important for your team to know their ideas are appreciated and welcome and that their contribution won’t be laughed at or ignored. When people feel psychologically safe, 57% of them are more inclined to collaborate, and 74% feel less stressed. That means they’re more likely to enjoy working together—and do their best work.
4. Track your versions
Part of excellent document hygiene is keeping a well-organized version history and being able to easily track changes. This lets you give the right people credit for their ideas and understand important changes between versions. No matter how free-flowing your collaborative sessions are, you still need to be able to see who contributed what and when.
5. Keep documents secure
For online document collaboration to be possible, you need to keep your files secure. Most document collaboration tools use password-protected cloud storage and encryption so your files are only accessible to the right people.
Beyond that, make sure to never share document permissions or links with external parties unless you know exactly who they are.
How to collaborate in real-time with Switchboard
Now that you know the best practices for real-time document collaboration, the next step is getting set up with the best communication tools for remote teams that allow for effective remote collaboration.
Here’s how you can use Switchboard for rock solid, enjoyable collaboration.
Have a kickoff call
In Switchboard, you can add all your documents into your meeting room before you start work, so everything’s ready when you are. “Meeting memory” keeps everything there so your team can pick up where you left off.
For example, if you’re in a client kickoff call, you can add your presentation, project summary, key statistics, and market research all in one place. And you can use the same room for client meetings going forward so it’s easy for both your team and your client to find key project details like timing or scope. That way everyone’s always on the same page and can work better together—as if they were in the same physical space.
To keep real-time collaboration productive, you need features that let you set and refer back to your goals.
Let’s say you and your team members have a document stating your short and long-term project goals. You can keep it inside your permanent virtual room so you always know where you stand in terms of meeting them. This lets you shout people out when they meet or exceed a goal, which helps boost team engagement, morale, and productivity.
In Switchboard, you can schedule collaborative design reviews where everyone’s sharing their work, not just their screens. See all your documents and media side by side with labeled cursors for real-time communication without the guesswork.
Keep a permanent project room
Switchboard helps you improve project management with permanent project rooms you can always come back to.
Fill your room with your project management tool, to-do lists, gifs, and other media or documents you need. That way everyone has what they need for real-time collaboration, without having to rely on teammates to find or access important documents.
Real-time document collaboration: share more than your screen
Sometimes, working async on collaborative projects helps your team navigate the flexibility of remote or hybrid working schedules. But, as the linguists who first deciphered Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs would agree, a lot can still get lost in translation.
That’s why there’s no substitute for having a conversation or working side by side in real time to solve complex problems or challenges. Sometimes it's best to hop on a call to move things forward
The key lies in knowing when it’s the right time for async or real time collaboration. For example, if you’re adding to a project that isn’t dependent on other people or on a strict deadline, async work is great. But if you’re onboarding your team to an important project or need to iron out a few roadblocks, working together in real time can help you move forward faster—and have fun while you’re doing it.
For truly productive real-time collaboration, you need to create the right environment for people to contribute, set expectations, and use the right tools. These get your teams working side by side without blockers to creativity like sharing screens.
With permanent meeting rooms and a multiplayer experience,Switchboard lets small, highly collaborative teams work alongside each other on important documents, so your team's creative and collaborative potential isn’t limited by technology.
Want a tool that’s built for collaborating on documents in real time?
Switchboard lets you work side-by-side on any file or document—and get crucial face time with your team.
*Source: Penn Museum
Frequently asked questions about real-time document collaboration
What is a document collaboration tool?
Document collaboration is software that helps you create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations and work on them online with your remote or hybrid team. Most document collaboration tools come with various templates and instant notifications when someone is adding to a document to streamline project and document management.
What is the best document collaboration tool?
While there are plenty of document collaboration tools available, some of the most popular are:
- Google Docs
- Microsoft Word in Microsoft 365
- Dropbox Paper
Is Google Docs a collaboration tool?
Google Docs is a document collaboration tool that lets you create, share, and edit documents in real time. Google Docs can also help you improve project management and document management by creating a knowledge base of documents for your team or company in Google Drive. Since it’s cloud-based and lives in Google Drive, it also lets you easily share files and access your documents across mobile devices. It also supports multiple file types and autosaves all your work.