The Secret to Collaboration: Visual Technology Plus In-Person Interactions

Social Networks, Video Calls, and Global Meetings Foster Cross-Office Teamwork

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A meeting of Grey's global creative council at Neemrana Fort-Palace near Delhi, India, earlier this year.
A meeting of Grey's global creative council at Neemrana Fort-Palace near Delhi, India, earlier this year. Credit: Courtesy Grey

Collaborating with colleagues in one office can be a challenge in and of itself. Add in co-workers spread across other cities, states and countries, and the task can become exponentially more daunting. But with the help of innovative technologies, creative and marketing communications agencies aren't letting obstacles get in the way of teamwork.

Huge, with 13 offices in six countries, keeps staffers connected through Honey, a private social platform the agency developed and launched out of its Huge Labs division two years ago. The product, which Huge CEO Aaron Shapiro referred to as a "corporate version of Reddit," was originally created to help the firm maintain its culture worldwide and meet internal communications needs.

Once it was successful within Huge, Honey was introduced publicly and is now a separate, venture-funded business; companies such as Lyft and Initiative are now using it.

For location-based mobile advertising network xAd, visual engagement is key, which is why all of its 11 offices across five countries added Nest Dropcams 18 months ago, said Monica Ho, head of marketing at the shop. "We're big believers in face-to-face communications," she said.

The cameras help xAd team members see what other offices around the globe look like and how they operate. The company also has bimonthly video conferences involving all offices, followed by a Q&A session for staffers.

A year ago, xAd CEO Dipanshu Sharma also tried an iPad-toting Double roving robot in New York so he could video-chat and roam around the office when not physically present. It was an innovative idea, but the robot never made it to other offices because "people were creeped out," said Ms. Ho.

Similarly to xAd, brand communications agency Imre relies on video conferencing, specifically Google Hangouts, to foster collaboration among 90 people across its Baltimore, New York, Los Angeles and Raleigh, N.C., offices. Crystalyn Stuart, partner and president of the agency's consumer marketing practice and New York office leader, said the Hangouts help "Icreate watercooler moments."

Every Thursday, the Baltimore office holds a virtual yoga class, and all staffers participate regardless of age or fitness level. Unlike most yoga, Ms. Stuart said the class is anything but quiet and can often be "hilarious" for all involved. On Fridays, New York leads a Google Hangout for a sports barre workout across offices.

Additionally, Imre uses the messaging platform Slack for internal communications. "It's not turbo tech-based," said Ms. Stuart, "but as a communications portal, it has made a huge impact."

To make Slack more Imre-centric, the agency has created its own emojis and automated responses for certain keywords. The firm has a general channel, as well as ones for each office and every single account, which has helped reduce the time spent on new business by more than half, said Ms. Stuart.

Havas, which has 17,500 staffers, also uses Slack, but primarily for its interactive and digital teams, said Alex Wood, global digital product director for the firm.

Another platform the agency began using about two years ago, Docurated, has "revolutionized our business development function," she said. The tool allows staffers to search the firm's content across myriad sources, such as its server or Dropbox accounts, for specific information. For example, someone can put in the term "Dos Equis" and Docurated will generate Havas case studies, PDFs, videos and other content about the brand from all offices worldwide.

To facilitate human collaboration, Havas launched a mobility program called Lofts last year that allows employees to work with other agencies within the network in different parts of the world for one month. Lofters pay their way by blogging and being social about their experiences during the 30-day assignment.

Huge also encourages relocations to get staffers moving around between markets, said Mr. Shapiro, and some of the firm's most innovative ideas come out of in-person events, such as its Brooklyn 1.0 conference in October.

For Digitas North America, in-person interactions reign supreme, according to CEO Tony Weisman.

"Elevators are collaboration killers," he said, "so I mandate that [staffers] hold team meetings on different floors and we move people around a lot and force people to connect with others not on their floor."

Each of the seven offices in the U.S., he added, is designed specifically with "dozens of impromptu areas" to encourage teamwork and brainstorming sessions, with items such as whiteboards and beanbag chairs.

Grey, which spans 96 countries and 135 offices, uses a number of digital tools, such as Skype for daily meetings. But the firm attributes much of its collaborative success to something a lot less technical: its global creative council meetings. The outings take place twice a year with 25 to 30 creative officers in unexpected places. Most recently, the council went to Victoria Falls Safari Lodge in Zimbabwe. "Of all the things that we've ever done, that was probably the smartest decision we've made, and it's what has influenced where we are right now the most," said Per Pedersen, deputy worldwide chief creative officer at Grey.

Phone calls and Skype sessions have been even more productive because of the connections built by the in-person meetings, added Mr. Pedersen. "Creativity happens when you talk to each other," he said. "You have to be able to not have a protective facade up, and that can be difficult because it's all about trust."

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