The revolution in working together from home

Enforced absence from the workplace due to the pandemic has bought product development, training and collaboration into a new digital era, with a whole host of new technologies and thinking. Bjoern Klaas, Vice President and Managing Director of Protolabs Europe, explores how design engineers are now working in virtual collaborative hubs.

As with Google before it, ‘Zoom’ has become a verb due to increasing reliance on video meetings to engage with our teams. This has created new challenges for many people, not least for design engineers, but we are finding new ways to replicate the informal in-person discussions that often reveal the best thinking or hone a strong idea.

And we should not forget that in-person discussions are also vital for junior team members, in order to support their everyday mentoring and training.

A common and useful expression springs to mind; never be afraid to ask a stupid question. But how do you ask that stupid question when you are facing six people on a video call?

Well, by incorporating messaging it’s not just the most assertive people who get their ideas seen and, by anonymising suggestions that effectively remove the fear barrier, they are more likely to be ranked by merit rather than the seniority of the person.

These technologies are continuously improving as the realities of dealing with such interfaces become the norm and their range of benefits will no doubt grow as methods of working remain changed forever due to the impact of Covid-19.

Now that we are more accustomed to working from home, many companies are already reducing their floorspace and switching to remote technologies.

This trend does not merely solve a problem…it also creates opportunities for engagement. Due to the evolution in the way many of us work, it’s now so much easier to come together for the purpose of learning and collaboration, regardless of where we are in the world.

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The rise of the online hackathon

Online hackathons – the virtual coming together of the technically minded to learn and solve a problem – have been a growing facet of the engineering community for some years, but, since the start of the pandemic, the technology has evolved to such an extent that they are now a key tool in the usefulness of design engineering.

While online hackathons and other online collaborations won’t completely replace in-person meetings, there is a distinct advantage to be found in the virtual space – in short, there is no location restraint.

Speakers and experts from around the world are able to join a gathering (time zone permitting) and this ensures a lineup or group of people who fully represent the subject matter of the collaboration, rather than simply representing its location.

The same also applies to participants. People from a much broader background are able to join as a result of being able to do so online. This helps forge an environment potentially more fruitful due to its variety, with skills, knowledge and expertise brought in that wouldn’t otherwise be there. Collaborative working whether for product development, knowledge sharing or training, is now a truly global effort.

Recent advancements in remote technology enable training and understanding, as well as the creative development of concepts, unhindered by boundaries of physical location.

Learning directly from global experts about subjects related to design engineering – for knowledge to be shared and for collaboration to exist – is made easy with such technologies.

A perfect example is the upcoming InspirON Sustainability Training Hackathon from Protolabs, which will fast-forward participants so they are ready to meet evolving ‘green’ legislation and society’s accelerated desire for energy efficiency, plastic waste reduction and the mitigation of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.

Taking place online from April 20th until the end of May 2021, it will consist of a series of panel discussions and webinars by sustainability experts and thought leaders, including ‘innovation warrior’ Simon Lockrey, author and public speaker Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino and Chris Grantham from IDEO.

Virtual design engineering teams will never completely replace in-person interaction, but these periods of lockdown have certainly advanced the technology and, subsequently, the way we work.

The last year has meant tremendous hardship for many and I look forward to a time when the coronavirus is thoroughly beaten. I also look forward to regularly seeing colleagues in-person, but collaboration with those further afield will continue to evolve – and this is one of the great developments of our time.