Skip to main content

E260 | Igniting Team Collaboration in the Digital Age with Jim Kalbach

Does it feel like something is missing in your remote work environment? Have you been told to just schedule more virtual meetings to enhance collaboration, only to end up feeling disconnected and unproductive? The pain of trying to foster human connection through endless video calls is real, and it’s time to explore alternative ways to achieve meaningful collaboration.

Jim Kalbach had always been an advocate for remote work, long before the world was thrust into a virtual environment due to the pandemic. Working with Citrix, makers of GoToMeeting, he had already been navigating the remote collaboration space for over a decade. But, he quickly realised that the conventional etiquette of an in-person office setting didn’t translate well into a virtual space. The norms, the rituals, and even the simple act of turn-taking in a meeting required a rethink. 

It was this realisation that pushed him on a journey to find alternative ways to foster human connection in a remote work environment. He began experimenting with intentional habits and rituals, aiming to create a sense of inclusivity and equity in virtual participation. Introducing microstructures such as popcorning, a method of taking turns in a meeting, proved to be a game changer, fostering a sense of connection among team members. His efforts were guided by a single principle – intentionality. The pandemic may have ripped off the band-aid of conventional norms, but in its wake, it also presented a unique opportunity to reimagine and redefine the remote work experience.

In this week’s episode, Jim will uncover the untapped potential of remote work and the transformative power of collaboration tools and will walk us through the common pitfalls of virtual meetings and how to turn them into productive engagements.

Download and listen to learn more.

On today’s podcast: 

  • Harnessing digital tools for effective team communication
  • Using Mural to enhance team collaboration
  • Team agreements in remote work
  • Diving into the Jobs To Be Done framework

Follow Jim Kalbach:



Jim’s books

The Jobs To Be Done Playbook

Mapping Experiences 

Designing Web Navigation

Killer Walking Bass 

Unleashing the Potential of Remote Work: Jim Kalbach’s Guide to Fostering Human Connection

Jim Kalbach is the Chief Evangelist at Mural, (the leading online whiteboard). He is a noted author of several books, speaker, and instructor in innovation, design, and the future of work. Jim is also the Co-founder and Principal at the JTBD Toolkit, an online resource with learning, training, and content. 

Jim has worked in various design and innovation consulting roles for large companies, such as eBay, Audi, SONY, LexisNexis, and Citrix. Living in Germany for 15 years before moving back to the USA in 2013, he was the co-founder of the European Information Architecture conferences. He also founded the IA Konferenz, a leading UX design event in Germany.

For many years, Jim was an editor with Boxes and Arrows, a leading online journal for user experience information. And also served on the advisory board of the Information Architecture Institute in 2007 and 2005. His second book, Mapping Experiences (O’Reilly, 2016) was a #1 bestseller on Amazon in the Business Development section. 

As remote work becomes the new norm, the ability to foster human connection and effectively collaborate in a virtual environment is a skill that professionals cannot afford to overlook. This shift has led to the emergence of new norms and best practices aimed at making remote work as productive and engaging as possible. With a focus on enhancing connection in virtual meetings, establishing clear team expectations, and leveraging digital tools like visual collaboration platforms, remote work can be transformed from a challenge into an opportunity. By adopting these practices, professionals can not only improve their productivity but also strengthen relationships with their colleagues, paving the way for a more successful and fulfilling remote work experience.

Harnessing digital tools for effective remote collaboration

In the evolving world of work, it has become increasingly crucial to understand and integrate effective digital tools to foster seamless remote collaboration. Amidst video calls, virtual whiteboards, and shared documents, the real challenge is not just using these tools but using them optimally. As we navigate the digital landscape, it’s imperative to rethink not just our workflows, but also our workplace social bonds. 

The true power of these digital tools emerges when we use them intentionally, supporting productive work and promoting significant human interaction. We must be deliberate in maintaining our team’s traditions and ensure that we find suitable, meaningful replacements for those water cooler moments, coffee breaks, or the after-work happy hour that build stronger team connections. 

“What do I do before the meeting starts? How do we get it started? How are we going to decide? What do we do afterwards? What do we do after that? How do you follow up? And you need to reimagine it. So I think what it brings is an intentional mindset on the one hand, but on the other hand, reimagining things.”

Jim draws upon his experiences at Mural, the online collaborative whiteboard platform, which has been remote for several years. Creating an environment conducive to remote work is not just about taking offline practices and forcing them into a digital format. It involves understanding and accepting the fundamental differences between both modes of operation. For instance, the dynamics of a meeting conducted in a physical conference room differ significantly from that of a Zoom call. Thus, intentionality in how we interact, conduct meetings, share ideas, and work collectively in a remote setup is essential. 

Jim emphasised the need to adapt and encourage deliberate practices that foster inclusivity, engagement, and effectiveness while building a sense of virtual presence and connection. 

“I think even the way that meetings happen. We need to rethink at a fundamental level what is a meeting. And how does that happen? And really think about the skills, the norms and the conventions that we bring to the table. That’s what we’ve been trying to do at Mural. And that goes as far as human connection because, in the physical office, we have water cooler conversations and happy hours and lunchtime conversations. And when you miss all of that too, you actually don’t connect as a team. So what can you do remotely to help your teams connect? Those are things that we work on here at Mural.”

Empowering teams with visual collaboration tools like Mural

As modern professionals continue to grapple with the shifts seen in the workplace, particularly in the context of remote work, the concept of visual collaboration has taken centre stage. As the underlying backbone for teams functioning in a virtual space, these tools empower teams by providing an engaging platform to pen down their ideas, brainstorm together, and cultivate the essence of being in a shared workspace.

Not just limited to replicating the tangible brainstorming sessions, they bring along myriad other benefits covering improved brainstorming, enhanced comprehension, and team integration. It becomes clear how Mural, the visual collaboration tool, has transformed remote collaboration for many. With Mural, says Jim, team members can contribute ideas and content in real time. 

This concept of a visual canvas facilitates even introverted team members to voice their thoughts without hesitation, as opposed to traditional meetings where they might hold back. It also allows parallel processing, enabling multiple team members to contribute simultaneously. 

Participation equity is more difficult when your interactions are mediated through technology. And I think the way that you solve that is with intentional habits, rituals and practices. Rather than just letting things happen organically and letting the conversation happen, you can bring in little structures of things, little moments of intentionality, and say, okay, now we’re going to Popcorn – everybody gets to speak once. You got to call out somebody’s name, and we cycle through the whole list. Just that little moment of intentionality really changes how everybody perceives the session.”

Innovative visual collaboration tools like Mural could revolutionise the nature of teamwork and communication in remote work environments. The contribution of visual collaboration tools extends beyond merely bridging the communication gaps in a virtual context; they also aid in harnessing the collective creativity and productivity of the team. 

The importance of explicit team agreements in remote work

In today’s interdependent and geographically dispersed work environment, we’ve seen a transformation in traditional work norms and structures. One significant aspect that has gained focus with the rise of remote work is the need for clear and explicit team agreements. This isn’t just about stating team goals or project objectives, it’s about understanding the unique dynamics of each team member. 

By establishing explicit agreements, we set a collaborative tone where everyone has a solid understanding of shared expectations, behavioural norms, and communication practices. This eliminates ambiguity, fosters better communication, increases productivity, and cultivates a shared sense of ownership and responsibility. From Jim’s perspective, explicit team agreements play a pivotal role in ensuring effective collaboration in remote teams. 

“It’s about intentionality and making it explicit. And it only takes half an hour or an hour to say ‘What are the channels that we want to use together?’. And what are the expectations that the team has from each other in terms of response times or how we’re going to behave? What should it feel like to collaborate in this team? And you can actually make a team agreement, which is you record it and everybody says, I agree to that.” 

With work environments being globally dispersed and digitally driven, it is no longer enough to rely on unspoken norms or traditional interpretations of professional conduct. A well-crafted agreement sets the groundwork for collaboration, engagement, and openness. It minimises misunderstandings and conflict while promoting a sense of belonging and commitment. Also, it provides the impetus for a shared vision, mutual respect, and common goals. 

Jobs To Be Done as an alignment tool

If you Google “Why do startups fail?” you will find that one of the top reasons – if not the top one – is that almost always startups didn’t understand the market needs, says Jim. Typically, they already have a product and wonder how they can find people to use it. That’s when the Jobs To Be Done framework comes into play. It is about trying to understand the market needs before making the product. 

“The Jobs To Be Done is a way to listen to the humans that you want to serve as human beings, not as users or customers, but what are they trying to get done?”

For Jim, there’s a relationship between collaboration and Jobs to Be Done, because ultimately Jobs To Be Done is a collaboration tool. That’s how Jim positions it in his book, The Jobs To Be Done Playbook. It’s a collaboration tool because you very often assume alignment in an organisation, and you assume agreement around your strategy and the nature of the problem, he adds.

“If you do that on a Mural canvas, you’re literally getting that out there, and you’re saying, who are the people that we’re trying to help? What’s their job? Where are their unmet needs? Everybody can see that at the same time so that they can have a conversation in the name of alignment. So Jobs to Be Done is really an alignment tool, and it feeds into some of the points that we were just talking about.”

Book recommendations 

Playing to Win

A New Way To Think

Reinventing Organizations

Enjoyed the show? Leave a Review

    Fantastic! Give us your details and we'll call you back

      Enquiry | Scaling Up Master Business Course