Technology, People and the ‘Collaborative Pyramid of Needs’ in the Age of COVID-19

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Technology, People and the ‘Collaborative Pyramid of Needs’ in the Age of COVID-19

We must align our increasingly complex technologies with the increasingly complex human needs they meet as we move up the Collaborative Pyramid of Needs and recognize that remote work is here to stay.

As you can imagine, COVID-19 has heightened our clients’ interest in numerous tools that enable workforce collaboration. While you can purchase some of these tools, others, such as Microsoft Teams, might already be available but not yet deployed. Still others, including the ubiquitous Zoom, provide free basic services to anyone with a browser and good Internet connection.

To complicate matters, all indicators imply the shift to remote working is probably not temporary. Nearly 75 percent of chief technology officers say working at home will be the new norm, not an anomaly, going forward. COVID-19 forced us into a transition that has been underway for some time. In one case at the University of Sussex, they deployed a five-year digital strategy in a week to directly support its remote-workers’ needs.

However, getting collaboration right affects how we work. We must remember who we are as leaders, as employees, as colleagues, and as community and family members.

The Collaborative Pyramid of Needs

One challenge we see organizations struggle with as we rush to switch to remote work is remembering we are people first — no matter what technologies we use. Our team spends a good amount of time in the field thinking about employees and how they work. We’re fortunate that we can do the same within Centric—employee satisfaction, engagement and collaboration are core parts of our culture.

All of this caused me, recently, to think more deeply about the human side of collaboration. More than a decade ago, a communications consultant named Daniel Baverly came up with the term “Collaborative Pyramid of Needs.” He adapted it from psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” which proposes our basic needs go through five stages as we mature: physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization.

In this post, I will build on Baverly’s concept by tying it more closely to specific technologies. My idea is to capture the idea that as organizations move up each of the Collaborative Pyramid of Needs’ five levels (outlined below), the technologies each level represents become more complex, as do the human needs that they fulfill. And, just like in Maslow’s theory, organizations must master each level before they can move to the next, though they can slip back.

Let’s take a closer look.

Level 1: Email — Fulfilling the Need for Basic Communication

Today, email is an organization’s most basic communication tool—it’s the “food, shelter and clothing” of the workplace. For many organizations, Outlook—part of the Office 365 suite—is the standard tool for email communications. Many people today can’t imagine life without email, though that is changing.

The ability for people to access work email through personal and mobile devices has transformed communication. I am old enough to remember when the ability to access my email through a flip-style, one-pound, belt-worn Motorola pager was a game-changer. Today – such mobile access to email is a necessity, but it carries a threat to work-life balance.

In any regard, email is basic, asynchronous, and prone to what I’ve affectionately called the “Email Dance.” Fortunately, we saw a more synchronous means of communication emerge – real-time chat. For many, real-time chat provided a safe space to connect and do so quickly and in real-time.

Level 2: Audio Chat — Fulfilling the Need for Immediacy

Workers move out of Level 1 when they realize the risks and frustration of waiting for a reply to an important email. They need the comfort of knowing the recipient received and acted on their message today.

Like email, early real-time chat communication tools—AIM, Jabber, and Google Hangouts—have now moved into the mobile world, with even greater threats to work-life balance. In response, organizations need to remember the human side of these platforms. They must clearly communicate some basic guidelines, such as when it’s OK to mark themselves “unavailable,” or how to recognize when it might be best to put thoughts into an email after all.

Level 3: Video Chat — Fulfilling the Need for Visual Contact

As humans, seeing a person’s face is an essential part of connecting, engaging and creating a community.

Many organizations already had corporate-approved “video conferencing” solutions before coronavirus, but they didn’t often deploy these on an individual basis. Although the list of reasons is long, many organizations simply made the decision based on cost. Instead, they would encourage a shared model or one which brought employees together in a physical space, gathering with a teleconferencing setup to meet virtually with employees at another location.

COVID-19 shook all of this up – and created a demand for personalized video communication: person-to-person, engaging, simple. Although the data isn’t quite there yet to quantify the claim, it is likely the demand will grow exponentially.

Where prior investments in tools such as Skype for Business did empower one-on-one video conferencing for some organizations, employees in other organizations who felt the same need took a similar path using Zoom or other “freemium” tools with personal accounts.

Unfortunately, and like most shadow-IT solutions, security concerns abound with this ad hoc approach.

As a result, as we move up the Collaborative Pyramid of Needs, creating a secure space to collaborate becomes the next level.

Level 4: Beyond the Shared Network Drive — Fulfilling the Need for Security

It is not an exaggeration to say most organizations struggle with security. Even before COVID-19, security was an ever-present topic, guiding how organizations invested in IT infrastructure, how employees worked, what they shared, and more. Now that we are working remotely, the need for security is acute.

In this new, nearly fully remote model, many employees have one foot in legacy investments in shared network file systems. At the same time, their organizations—or parts of them— also support cloud-based collaboration tools.

The result is a lack of centralized reporting and difficulty determining the authoritative version of a document, how you can share it, and whether that document is private, public or confidential.

How employees work with these documents further complicates security. For most employees, they often split documents between works-in-process (things they need to create, share and manage to do their jobs) and content they need to control, approve and regulate, like SOPs or HR documents. Accessing, sharing and interacting with these different types of content proves challenging in fully remote organizations that lack a tool built with security and collaboration requirements specifically in mind.

Level 5: Microsoft Teams — Fulfilling the Need for True Collaboration

Once your employees master the various forms of modern electronic communication, from email and audio chat to video chat and take the time to make the appropriate security decisions, they are ready for a true collaborative environment.

What does this mean? Well, in the email world, collaboration meant emailing a document to someone else. That person then made their changes, renamed it (hopefully) and sent it back. Then the originator would have more changes, and so on until both parties finally decided the document was final—in other words, the “Email Dance.”

With true collaboration, employees work on documents together in real-time — no more need for formalized check-outs and check-ins. You can manage versions inherently and on the fly. No need to email the document around, either – you can share a link to it, paste it into a collaboration channel, and then open, view, discuss and co-edit content in real-time.

With this greater level of collaborative freedom comes greater collaborative responsibility—translation: training and governance. You need to think about training and adoption to head off potential chaos. In particular, consider rolling out your true collaboration platform in a measured, sequential process.

If done correctly, you’ll help your employees work well, collaborate effectively, and safely implement a remote work model.


It’s always tempting with a system like the Collaborative Pyramid of Needs to assume organizations at a “lower” level—say, one that relies almost 100% on email—are less evolved than those at higher levels. But technical reality, just like psychological reality, is far more complex.

Organizations don’t progress neatly from one stage of the Collaborative Pyramid of Needs to the other any more than people move up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Instead, we fall back, learn and adjust. We have learned through COVID-19 that we are all in this together, and whether that means learning about the disease or learning about these new technologies, it’s a group effort.

Yes, there are setbacks and frustration. But together, we can get through it, and together we can all work toward becoming fully self-actualized, and fully collaborative organizations.