Digital collaboration platforms - the benefits and pitfalls for employers

Written by
Ralph Jones

30 Apr 2019

30 Apr 2019 • by Ralph Jones

Ian Price is a performance psychologist with expertise in workplace psychology. Recently, he heard of a sales director who didn’t trust his employees: were they really working remotely, or bunking off at the golf course? To prove his suspicions, he used tracking software on his employees’ phones to check where they were at all times, firing one of them as a result.

Surveillance at work is not a new phenomenon; what has changed in recent years is the proliferation of digital workplace tools, and the ever-increasing number of platforms on which employees are readily available. Because these are so easy to use, is there a risk that bosses expect employees to be always available, responding to messages at a moment’s notice?

As the workforce becomes increasingly remote, businesses are having to adapt. A 2018 survey by IWG found that 70% of people work remotely at least once a week. Some companies, for example Yahoo and IBM, are attempting to resist this trend, by asking their employees to remain at their desks as much as possible. Where organisations can afford to offer trimmings that undermine the appeal of remote working, they often do. For instance, Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters in California is replete with table tennis, gym, hairdressing and multiple restaurant facilities. Why would you ever want to leave?

But this set-up is anomalous. Remote workers rate themselves more productive than desk workers, and the inherent flexibility suits a workforce tailored to the gig economy. Most pertinently for employers, in a FlexJobs 2015 survey, 82% of participants said that they would be more loyal to their employer if they offered flexible working arrangements.

For internal office use and for disparate groups of team members, digital collaboration tools have become something of a necessity. With Slack, Facebook Workplace, Trello, Microsoft tools such as Yammer and Teams; even WhatsApp – it has never been easier to communicate with colleagues.

Especially with Slack – the king in this panoply of options – the cheery, casual interaction it encourages makes work communication increasingly indistinguishable from social communication.

Or, as Molly Fischer put it in her New York Magazine piece on Slack, “it’s definitely possible to get work done on Slack; it’s also possible to make yourself feel like you’re working without actually accomplishing anything.”

However, it can reduce the “clutter and noise” surrounding emails, potentially boosting productivity.

“I first used Slack when I got a short-term contract to do content production for a small tech startup,” explains one worker. “It was so efficient as a method of communication that I received only four work emails in the four months I was there. I now work for a huge company where it takes 40 emails before you can even have a conversation with someone. I’d love Slack to be introduced here, but it does require wholesale conversion from everyone in the workspace to make it work.”

Another employee echoes this view of the email culture, but although he says he doesn’t explicitly link his almost-24-hour availability to his rise through the ranks to sales director, he does imply causation. For him, this degree of responsiveness simply comes with his role – “during an evening I might have to answer a question and I’m fine with that, it’s my own choosing”. However, it is emblematic of the near-invisible boundary between private time and work time.

Former Microsoft chief envisioning officer Dave Coplin, founder of The Envisioners, helps businesses to engage with the potential of new technologies. He points out that digital collaboration tools can create an unhealthy worklife balance. Since they are “as much fun as using social media tools in your personal life”, people get into the habit of using them, “whenever or whatever they are doing”. Employers must help people to develop different habits.

In his book Rise of the Humans, Coplin explains that, at any moment of the day, we need to ask ourselves whether what we are doing can be aided by technology. “If the answer’s no, turn it off,” he advised.

This, of course, is easier said than done. In her aforementioned piece, Fischer wrote of Slack that it “has made work, like the rest of the internet, a passive addiction”. And as Price says, “one of the big problems with productivity in the 21st century workplace is that people are constantly distracted.”

This problem can be exacerbated when multiple collaboration platforms compete for attention. When working on crossdepartmental projects it’s easy for workers to be receiving notifications from Trello, Slack, WhatsApp and Teams all at the same time. Given that these platforms are not compatible with one another, it can no doubt feel a little like working inside the Tower of Babel.

Ceaseless ‘notifications’, received from a range of platforms, bombard the brain with dopamine hits. “It’s well established now that if you have too much dopamine flooding into the pre-frontal cortex, it sends functionality south very quickly,” continues Price. He views email as one of the culprits in the productivity decline, with modern tools such as Yammer and Slack potentially representing a step forward. But they need to be used correctly. So what does using them correctly entail?

Alistair Milnes, director of global HR and communications at Gazprom Marketing and Trading, argues that “the whole point about collaboration is agility and breaking down organisational silos and breaking down silos in mentality and thinking.”

Gazprom started using the learning platform, Saba, in 2016 and Milnes believes that it is an enabler for people to be more successful in the job. But the platform certainly isn’t intended to unseat email altogether. As he explains, “it was about opening up a different channel; it wasn’t to remove or slow the usage of email down. It was to create more conversations – which you can’t do on email.”

Crucially, he says that the company makes sure it builds a culture permeated by collaboration. The company does not monitor employees’ usage of Saba. “If you treat people like children, you tend to get a child-like response,” says Milnes. He also notes that even the best collaboration tool shouldn’t replace human contact.

How business leaders use and advocate use of collaboration tools is significant, according to Dux Raymond Sy, chief marketing officer at software company AvePoint. Without role-modelling by leaders, it is challenging to implement and encourage adoption of a system. This, however, is a difficult line for senior staff to tread. If someone influential within a business responds immediately to a Slack message, the inference on the part of junior employees is that they need to follow suit. Such tools can act as a proxy for effort and engagement, while invading people’s mental space and undermining people’s ability to choose when or how to communicate.”

Face-to-face contact is important. In Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread – The Lessons from a New Science, computer scientist Alex Pentland wrote about studying the way in which people communicated in a Bank of America call centre. He recommended that the business reschedule its coffee breaks to enable everyone in a team to take a break at the same time. This opportunity to talk, and the resulting boost in employee satisfaction, generated the company an extra $15m in terms of annual productivity.

This finding isn’t necessarily consistent, however, with the lay of the land in other offices: the 2018 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report found that 44% of respondents believe that face-to-face communication would decrease in future.

Of course, physical proximity does not automatically lead to effective face-to-face communication. Coplin is critical of open-plan offices, which he considers destructive to deep productivity. “People like a sense of personal space,” he says. “They don’t want to talk to their colleagues all the time and so they end up collaborating digitally with the people they’re sat next to.” This seems like the worst of both worlds.

“What we should be doing is ensuring that people have the ability to work in an environment that’s appropriate for the work that the are doing. If someone actually needs to be collaborating with their colleagues, perhaps they should be sitting in the same room. But if they need to be creating something, maybe they need to be in a quiet space, alone.”

Warrick Beaver, global head of human resources for Thomson Reuters global growth operations, recognises this issue. A digital collaboration tool is “a poor substitute for ideation, conversation, challenge,” he says. “In the very early stages of team formation for a particular project, I think there needs to be a lot more face time and there needs to be a lot more iteration in terms of goals, roles, processes and interactions so that expectation-setting is clear from the get-go.”

He adds that, on a collaboration platform, groupthink is at risk of taking over because people cannot pick up on the non-verbal cues that might indicate dissent. “It’s not easy to challenge on a collaboration tool in a way where you don’t feel you’re the voice in the wilderness.”

Expectation-setting is the key, according to many. One director of consulting at a start-up brand consultancy explained that, worried about some of the Slack behaviours in her team, she “banned” them from using the tool to send messages when they are ill or on holiday.

She has worked in businesses where people made themselves available on Slack even when unwell, presumably out of a sense of obligation. She argues that strict usage rules therefore have to be implemented, for everyone’s sake.

Beaver disagrees. “One of the greatest advantages of these collaboration tools is the minimisation of downtime. So people can work when they need to, when it suits them,” he says. “You would be doing the tool a disservice if you started to create some fast rules around that.” Similarly, Katherine Hutchins, senior manager of talent acquisition and culture at AvePoint, uses Microsoft Teams and believes that “mutual trust”, rather than directives from on high, ought to govern this area of communication.

If you want your staff to work well together, investing in a slick collaboration tool isn’t going to be sufficient. And choosing which tool to implement ought not be a decision made in isolation by a senior technical member of the company. It shouldn’t be left to every potentially intersecting team to choose their own platform either: all employees should be consulted about which collaboration tool would best suit the way that they themselves work.

As users attest, the platforms can risk not only fuelling surveillance culture, but tying people up in enjoyable-but-pointless chatter. Serious thought must therefore be allocated to the type of work people are carrying out, and whether the tools are genuinely making this work easier. Employers interested in eliciting deep productivity in their workforce would do well not just to give them space to think, but also to embrace the rich variety of ways in which people function.