Do You Have a Collaboration Problem?
Workstream collaboration platforms like Slack, Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex Teams, and Workplace from Facebook have taken the working world by storm. Characterized by persistent chat and unified workspaces, these platforms are a central tenet of digital transformation efforts. Gartner predicts that workstream collaboration will continue to proliferate, reaching 70% of companies by 2022. But as this technology spreads throughout organizations, questions arise. What are the benefits of collaboration in the workplace? How do we know that workstream collaboration platforms lead to effective collaboration in the workplace? Do we have collaboration that is reaching an unhealthy state? Some claim these platforms designed to promote productivity are actually destroying it. Others are simply “giving up” and moving back to email.
The true story is more nuanced. It’s not the platforms themselves causing collaboration problems, but how we use them that determines their utility. Compared to email, workstream collaboration has a lower barrier to communication. It’s easier and faster to post a message to a public channel than it is to compose an email. Part of this is due to the shift from people-centric to topic-based collaboration. In the old world, the composer had to consider carefully who needed to receive the information being sent. Now, the burden is placed on the information consumer, to follow the appropriate channels, to monitor relevant topics, and to sort out valuable information from the chatter.
Keeping track of this large quantity of information can feel like a full-time job in and of itself. The constant ping of new notifications pulls workers back out of their focused state, distracting them from the important tasks at hand. Some turn to their off-hours to finish work or to answer more messages that continue to come in. If this sounds familiar, your collaboration may be unhealthy and can result in what Gartner terms “digital dysfunction,” which is linked to a 70% increase in depression symptoms. How do you identify unhealthy collaboration? More importantly, how do you take control of your organization’s collaboration health?
Top Characteristics of Unhealthy Collaboration in the Workplace
There are a number of features that signify an unhealthy collaboration environment. While at first glance, a high number of posts might indicate positive user engagement, this is not always the case. One significant sign of collaboration problems is a high quantity of low-quality posts. Strings of disjointed unanswered posts, rapidly composed posts rife with errors, or the dreaded wall of text are all signs of a quantity over quality problem. This is not an issue with workstream collaboration but with user etiquette on the platforms.
Another user etiquette issue is using the wrong communication medium for the purpose at hand. Often this looks like long, drawn-out chat sessions where a quick call would be more efficient, or a 30-minute meeting scheduled to discuss a straightforward issue that can be resolved more efficiently over chat. Because of the power of the feature set of workstream collaboration, end-users must be more thoughtful in their choice of communication method. Top-performing organizations offer guidance on where each form of communication makes the most sense, and this behavior is then modeled by leaders.
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Workstream collaboration offers a high degree of transparency into employee actions. Most platforms highlight the status of end-users to anyone within the company, and posting in public workspaces is also visible company-wide. Knowing this information is available can lead to performative work, with end-users posting to show they are working, even where it offers little value. This is an issue of company culture, brought into the limelight by this new technology.
A related cultural issue is over-availability. Mobile-friendly interfaces encourage workers to answer messages after work hours. Even during work hours, this problem can arise when end-users feel the need to respond immediately to every message or notification, pulling them away from their to-do list. The need to be always-on is deeply damaging to effective collaboration in the workplace.
Organizational Repercussions of Unhealthy Collaboration
There are a number of consequences to an unhealthy collaboration environment. For a multi-national company operating across several time zones, end-users have difficulty catching up on conversations. Additionally, where a channel may show over one hundred unread posts, end-users skimming for anything relevant miss essential information.
The average worker on Slack receives 45 messages a day. Unmanaged, these small interruptions can be extremely detrimental to productivity. According to Microsoft, after an interruption, it takes about 25 minutes to return to the task at hand. Deep work involves 90 uninterrupted minutes. This intermittent stream of distracting notifications can bring business to a standstill.
The long-term consequences of unhealthy collaboration are severe. Workers who are always on or face constant interruptions experience a sustained stress response, leading to burnout. Burned-out employees are less productive, have higher turnover rates, and are more likely to experience digital dysfunction.
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Taking Control for Healthy Collaboration: End-User Training
Given the importance of collaboration in the workplace and the consequences of unhealthy collaboration, how can IT ensure they are tapping into all the benefits of collaboration in the workplace in a healthy way? The old way of working involved a “deploy and dash” model, where IT was primarily responsible for the technical aspects of introducing a new platform. However, the role of IT is rapidly changing to include supporting adoption efforts, and for workstream collaboration, a major component of this is end-user training. There are a few aspects of end-user training that shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes to ensuring collaboration health.
One area of user education critical to effective collaboration in the workplace is around notification settings. An ideal lesson plan should not only include how to change the settings but should also recommend appropriate ones. For instance, Slack users can change notification preferences by channel and should be advised to only turn on notifications for all messages in the most important cases. Both Slack and Microsoft Teams offer a “do not disturb” mode that can serve as a way to batch notifications and create time for deep work. This mode still allows messages from certain individuals on Teams and from users who send their messages as a high priority on Slack.
A central role of IT, when it comes to workstream collaboration, is defining cultural standards for communication. While end-users more or less understand email etiquette, this new technology presents a new medium of communication to master. End-users should keep their reader in mind, aiming for concise, thoughtful posts, while minimizing the total number of messages sent. While persistent chat feels less formal than email, groups and channels where work happens should maintain some level of formality. Although less widely used, threading replies rather than making new posts makes it significantly easier for others to catch up on conversations they’ve missed.
However, IT can only do so much in managing effective collaboration in the workplace. One of the best drivers of collaboration health is leadership modeling the desired behavior. If managers are posting on these platforms after work hours, their reports will do the same. What this means for IT is extra effort to educate a notoriously difficult group. Workstream collaboration exacerbates existing company cultural issues, so a top-level effort is necessary to repair these.
Using Tools to Measure Collaboration Health
Initial efforts to ensure healthy collaboration on a new workstream collaboration platform are just the beginning. As adoption increases and usage of the platform evolves, IT must continue to promote positive and collaboration. While these guidelines form the basis of effective collaboration in the workplace, scaling the platform introduces issues of channel sprawl or even over-burdened channels. This is where workplace analytics tools like PowerSuite are essential. Our industry-leading software measures communication efficacy and offers actionable insights for getting enterprise collaboration back on track.