Nutshell: Working inside the Tower of Babel (and other dangers of digital collaboration)

Written by
Future Talent Learning

Published
01 Dec 2020

01 Dec 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

Used well, online collaboration platforms enable dispersed teams to thrive, but we must develop strategies to counter the associated distraction and disruption.

Are you a Slacker or a Yammerer? Do you love the ease of digital communication, or find yourself struggling to concentrate amid the babble of notifications?

As businesses adapt to a hybrid workforce comprising a mix of remote and office-based workers, digital collaboration tools are becoming a standard feature of many workplaces.

And there are plenty to choose from: Slack, Yammer, Workplace from Meta, Trello, Teams, Fuze, Kissflow, Twist, Tandem – and even WhatsApp. All these (and many more) make it easy to communicate with our colleagues, wherever they are located; they help to keep dispersed teams aligned and connected across geographical boundaries, allowing groups to work together through an online portal that is often password-protected and limits access to the team. Most provide voice, video and instant messaging options.

Slack is arguably the best known of this panoply of options, allowing us to conduct group and individual conversations (some private, some public) via a simple user interface on our laptop or phone. The cheery, casual interaction it encourages makes work communication increasingly indistinguishable from social communication.

But we have to question whether this is always a good thing. While such tools link us effortlessly, potentially breaking down silos, puncturing the isolation of remote working and reducing the number of lengthy email exchanges we need to wade through, they bring with them a plethora of potential dangers to consider and address.

1. A blurring of boundaries

The first is a debilitating ‘always-on’ mentality, where we’re expected to respond to messages at a moment’s notice, whatever we’re doing, within or outside of hours. Since we often have collaboration tools on our phones, it can be hard to tune out work ‘noise’ even on days off, when we’re ill, or simply trying to switch off during the evening. While there are productivity gains to convening diverse individuals across teams and time zones – and connecting with colleagues at ad hoc times – constant interruption can be disruptive and stressful, undermining wellbeing and eating into our personal lives.

This, of course, might be more reflective of the ‘always-on’ culture of the organisation than of the communication platforms it uses, but collaboration tools leave people exposed to 24-hour intrusion.

For example, Bill works for a global company from home in London, but many of his colleagues are based in California in the US. Just as he is finishing work at around 6pm, he often gets a flurry of messages from colleagues across the pond who are starting the working day. He generally feels obliged to pitch in – and even when he’s not directly involved in an exchange, he gets notifications throughout the evening from group chat. Meanwhile, Bill’s immediate boss is also based in the UK, but likes to get up very early and fire off questions and instructions to his team at the start of the day, so Bill often wakes to find discussions underway before he is fully awake. He feels under constant pressure to be both available and firing on all cylinders 24/7.

2. Ceaseless babble

Even within working hours, the cacophony caused by collaboration tools can be highly disruptive, stealing time from under our noses, and preventing us from ever reaching a state of flow. While emails can be intrusive, they are easier to defer than instant messages, which command a different level of responsiveness. The sheer number of notifications can damage productivity, invading our mental space and undermining our ability to choose how and when we communicate.

This is particularly true where multiple collaboration platforms compete for attention. When working on cross-departmental projects, it’s easy for workers to be receiving notifications from Trello, Slack, WhatsApp and Teams simultaneously. Given that these platforms are not always compatible with one another, it can no doubt feel a little like working inside the Tower of Babel.

For example, Priya’s trying to do ‘deep work’ on a complex project which requires focus and attention. She checks email only sporadically, but finds herself constantly distracted by other notifications. While members of her team contact her via Teams Chat (and she’s involved in many different conversation threads), Priya’s boss likes to video-call her to discuss issues that crop up at least once a day. Priya’s also in three separate WhatsApp groups for work and she uses Yammer to communicate with a key client. Muting a Teams chat got her into trouble when she missed an urgent discussion relating to her project, so she’s wary of doing so.

3. An outlet for time-wasting (which feels like work)

Online chat is a rabbit hole which feels like productivity. It’s also habit-forming. Writing about Slack in New York magazine, journalist Molly Fischer argues that it “has made work, like the rest of the internet, a passive addiction”. Endless ‘notifications’, received from a range of platforms, bombard the brain with dopamine.

“Employer-sanctioned social media” can act as a proxy for effort and engagement but often achieves little more than enjoyable-but-pointless chatter, she warns. Bonding is good, but whiling away hours discussing the latest box sets is no more work that watching them during office hours.

“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,” writes Fischer. There’s a clue it its name, after all.

Such channels also give us a false sense of privacy as we pivot between group and individual conversations. By entering a forum that gives “the illusion of intimacy in a public space”, we are opening ourselves up to everything from minor indiscretions to major leaks.

Gossip flourishes in group chats – where the quiet presence of some members may go unnoticed. A casual communication channel encourages casual (often unprofessional) messages. It’s easy to mistake one group for another and to make career-damaging faux pas. A high incidence of these may lead to a surveillance culture within our organisations – and it should be noted that any electronically stored information can be subject to discovery in litigation.

For example, Fran misses the social interaction of an office when working remotely, spending a lot of her day enhancing relationships with her team (some of who she has never met in person), flitting between Trello and WhatsApp. She sees it as core to her role as a manager. Because the tone of communication is informal and she feels among friends, she often shares jokes – including one that is considered to have racist undertones by a group member who rarely contributes. When reviewing the complaint, Fran’s boss notes how much time she spends ‘chatting’ on Trello and, looking back, comes across an unflattering exchange about herself. Fran feels that she’s now under surveillance and worries she’s seriously damaged her reputation.

4. A barrier to real conversations

Perhaps most damaging of all is the fact that in gaining swift real-time access to colleagues, we may be losing the art of ‘free- and full-flowing’ conversations.

Digital collaboration tools have a range of benefits but they’re a poor substitute for spontaneous interactions or the real exchange of views and opinions that generate ideas and create trust. Conversation involves thinking out loud, being challenged and ideating. It’s immediate and multisensory, allowing us to tap into non-verbal communication. Face-to-face tends to be preferable for complex or difficult exchanges, when there’s a possibility we might be misunderstood. Speed shouldn’t automatically be prioritised over face time and the forging of genuine connections; although conversation can be messy and awkward, we need to develop our ‘interpersonal courage’.  

While embracing the benefits of messaging apps for remote connectivity, leaders therefore need to make room for real conversations inside and outside of their organisations and create opportunities to have them, whenever possible.

For example, Neil’s interactions with other board members were mostly reduced to emails and instant messaging during the COVID-19 pandemic, bolstered by the occasional face-to-face video call. While online tools got them through the tricky period of lockdown, he’s missed the spontaneity of discussions in the office, feels cut off from some of the decision-making, and has struggled against ‘groupthink’ in Teams chats, where it’s more challenging to articulate or pick up on dissent. He hasn’t yet formed a relationship with a new colleague who joined during the pandemic. As soon as the office opens, he pushes for an in-person board meeting and, with all members in the same room, is able to gain consensus over whether to launch a new project (after months of trying and failing) and to gain useful perspectives from his colleagues. Afterwards, he goes for coffee with his new colleague, finding him less blunt and much more forthcoming than in online chat.

In Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread – The Lessons from a New Science, computer scientist Alex Pentland discusses 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 collaboration and satisfaction, generated the company an extra $15m in terms of annual productivity.

So, how can we use collaboration tools effectively?

Realistically, traditional office culture is giving way to hybrid working patterns in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In most organisations, some level of remote working looks set to stay, and with it, the web-based communications tools that underpin it.

How, then, can we get the best out of digital collaboration while reducing its drawbacks?

Choosing which tools we use, and how and when we use them, is key to success. Decisions shouldn’t be made in isolation by a senior technical member of the company; neither should it be left to every team to choose their own platform. All employees should be consulted about which collaboration tool would best suit the way that they work and decisions made on the basis of this information. Effective digital collaboration requires consensus and unity.

Staff also need training and support to use new platforms. In a 2021 Harvard Business Review article, the authors stated: “Companies are increasingly realizing that training in the social and relational aspects of remote work is at least as important as training in technology and company policies.”

They highlighted survey results, showing that 64% of executives planned to invest in training leaders to manage a more virtual workforce. The authors’ own research found that, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, only 30% of companies trained employees in virtual work skills, and that training overwhelmingly focused on software technology and company policies.

Certainly, it’s important to gather feedback a few months in to find out how a tool is being used and what is or isn’t working, in order to address issues, create user policies and monitor levels of adoption.

Serious thought also must be given 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.

Mutual trust, healthy guidelines and culture-building

In his book Rise of the Humans, Dave Coplin, former Microsoft chief envisioning officer and founder of The Envisioners, 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 is easier said than done if messaging apps are core to our organisation’s communication strategy – so how business leaders use (and advocate use of) collaboration tools is equally significant. Role-modelling by managers helps to encourage not just the adoption of tools, but also the healthy use of them.

Some organisations implement strict rules around using tools out of hours to prevent the ‘always-on’ affliction. However, mutual trust and guidelines tend to work better than inflexible directives or micromanagement. Building an overall culture that values work-life balance and the wellbeing of its people is the important thing here. This involves ensuring people know how to employ restrictive notification settings and ‘do not disturb’ mode, and feel empowered to use them at appropriate times. Staff also need to be trained in when it’s appropriate to post messages that generate notifications to large numbers of users – and when not to do so.

Last but not least, we must make space to have real, face-to-face conversations whenever possible and encourage them proactively. While online collaboration is good at solving certain kinds of problem – and can be more effective than face-to-face interactions in particular circumstances – it is not sufficient on its own.

“We need to treat online and in-person collaboration as complementary ways of working, suited to different contexts and problems,” advises Alexandra Samuel, author of Work Smarter with Social Media.

Coplin agrees. After all, physical proximity does not automatically lead to effective face-to-face communication. He is critical of open-plan offices, which he considers destructive to deep productivity. “People like a sense of personal space. 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,” he argues. 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 they are doing – and are aided by the communication tools at hand, not overwhelmed by them at the expense of productivity and wellbeing.

 

Test your understanding

  • Describe three ways in which online collaboration tools can hinder productivity.
  • Outline three ways in which we can help our teams to take back control.

What does it mean for you?

  • Make a list of the online collaboration tools you use at work and consider how they are affecting your own productivity.
  • Draft some guidelines to enhance your own use of these tools and test them in practice.

 

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