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Technology Trends: Workplace Collaboration Environments - Executive Leadership Articles

Technology Trends: Workplace Collaboration Environments

Executive Leadership Articles

Technology Trends: Workplace Collaboration Environments

A few years ago, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game called Glitch went offline after just a year of beta testing. The game, which focused on collaboration and exploration rather than combat and warfare, attracted a small but rabid community of fans whose affection seemed to border on love. The developer, a company called Tiny Speck, attempted to return what remained of its funding, but its investors instead encouraged the team to try something else with the intellectual property it had accumulated in launching Glitch. Among this IP was the in-house messaging system that became Slack, a collaborative, multiplatform working environment that reached one million active users in its first two years and earned a one-billion-dollar valuation for the company (now Slack Technologies) in record time.

Like other collaborative project management tools such as Basecamp and its tag-team partner Campfire, Slack allowed selective teamwork within specific groups, with real-time messaging. But something about Slack resonated with its users in a new way, so that many firms, in luring new talent, mentioned that they were using it. Slack wasn’t just conducive to productivity; it was also fun. New features rolled out as quickly as its users could request them, and integration with Google Docs, Dropbox, Trello, GitHub, and Zendesk added native functionality to elevate it beyond email- and IM-like communication. Slack suddenly seemed to stand alone in a niche nobody knew existed.

In the past few months, both Facebook and Microsoft have announced launches of their own Slack competition: Facebook Workplace and Microsoft Teams, both in introduction and trial stages. Workplace boasts the advantage of an already familiar environment that users will have little trouble adopting, with functionality that’s already been developed and sharpened over the years within Facebook. Workplace is like a private Facebook with a business-related focus. MS Teams will be part of the Office 365 subscription, which includes integration with Microsoft’s suite of Office products, including Skype, OneNote, and OneDrive. Companies already paying for Office 365 will use Teams for no additional cost, a huge price advantage over the other options.

All three services offer real-time collaboration on work in progress as well as cute messaging features such as stickers and animated GIFs, for those who like a little bit of playfulness in their daily interactions. For many, the appeal is a more relevant stream of daily communication, unlike the old email, which is frequently cluttered with reply-all and send-all missives having nothing to do with large portions of the company. With defined groups, conversations can be limited only to those who need to be in them, and groups can be created on the fly, so breakout chats or private messages can keep the work flowing without cramming everyone else’s in-boxes.

Obvious downsides include reluctant adapters and tech-of-the-month syndrome. Systems like Slack are only as useful as users’ buy-in, and if everyone is not involved, key communication will have to be sent to non-participants via email or some other medium, defeating the purpose of the all-in-one-place environment. Firms who have histories of introducing and then abandoning new tech may see similar feet-dragging, as weary employees are reluctant to invest the time in getting to know a new system they suspect won’t be around for long. For both situations, a gradual roll-out might be in order, with a core team of pilot users (eager volunteers and key decision-makers, for instance) testing it out first, and then gradually letting in the rest of the firm, perhaps one department at a time. The keys to making any environment like this work are commitment for the longer haul, leadership buy-in, and consistent use.

Survey after workplace survey points to the same two culprits when employees talk about obstacles to productivity: email and meetings. These methods of communication are supposed to encourage productivity, not wreck them, and collaborative online systems such as Slack, Facebook Workplace, and Microsoft Teams attempt to address this problem. Although it seems unlikely they will ever fully replace them, they seem to be putting a dent in the situation, and many companies are discovering that the effect is worth exploring.


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