Working apart together? Time to Strengthen Your Enterprise Collaboration Capability

At the beginning of this century, management teams in many IT organizations shifted their focus to improving business continuity. After the devastating attacks of September 11, 2001, companies invested in technology and process improvements to help ensure that their workforces could be quickly relocated to alternate facilities where work could continue as usual. Successful business continuity meant that after a major disruption in operations, they could quickly activate backup communications and information management systems, including telephony , productivity applications, database applications and proprietary business applications.

Almost 20 years later, many organizations are prepared to divert entire business operations centers to alternate locations (or activate redundant business systems that can be used from anywhere) to ensure that business continues mostly uninterrupted. But what happens when the physical offices remain intact and the workers are sent away?

In just a few weeks’ time, the threat posed by COVID-19 has caused most organizations to send their knowledge workers home to work remotely, away from the centers of operation. Almost overnight, the number of employees working ‘apart together’ has skyrocketed. The challenges we face during this unprecedented event can be used to inform and enhance the way our organizations use collaboration tools. It’s a chance to observe what works well and not so well under the current pressure of an organization-wide crisis of communication and collaboration.

For Most, the Current State of Workplace Collaboration Isn’t Pretty

Today, many of us already work remotely and routinely collaborate via video and voice conferencing. We share documents, co-author content and communicate through chats and texts. We have myriad tools from which to choose, including suites from Microsoft, Google, Box and dozens of smaller, niche solution providers. How many is too many?

Besides the sheer number of product options available, implementation is often inconsistent. Furthermore, a lack of training resources and end-user support can lead to misunderstandings about product capabilities as employees are left to “figure it out on their own,” resulting in inconsistent usage patterns, half-baked processes and underutilized applications. Organizations that are well down the path of their Office 365 implementations still have decisions to make: What collaboration apps should be used? In what context and usage scenarios? Skype vs. Teams? Teams vs. Slack? And what about the newest options, like Kaizala, the recently introduced workforce management and communications application that is now available to users in Microsoft Office 365? In my experience, few IT organizations have mandated a set of approved collaboration solutions, or have even made recommendations to their end users. As a result, they have little control over the solutions that end users choose.

And as any IT manager knows, these applications are subject to change at any moment. Add to the pile the dozens of other commercial applications that provide similar functionality, and it quickly grows into a complex problem. So, how can IT organizations use this time of shelter-in-place to improve their enterprise collaboration services?

6 Things You Can Do to Improve Enterprise Collaboration Services During Shelter in Place

1. Work closely with the business to understand how they’re using collaboration.

Conduct quick interviews, surveys or even send short texts to provide proactive support and to identify issues in the field. If your knowledge workers have a choice of collaboration options, document the solutions they choose to use and why. Deputize IT or business users into a focus group or advisory committee, and charge the members with identifying needs and requirements within their own areas.

2. Take collaboration user adoption to the next level by sharing best practices.

A quick assessment of our largest clients suggests that enterprise collaboration is widely implemented but only partially in use. In other words, most knowledge workers have access to collaboration solutions, but they’re using only a small amount of the available functionality or they aren’t using them at all.

The chat and filesharing functionality of a collaboration solution may be useful to a team of workers, but that same team may not be aware of the benefits of creating a permanent team room or site for a project or campaign. A group of colleagues that regularly meets via a voice teleconference may not have experienced the benefits of doing so with live video. When they can see the faces of their colleagues, people communicate more effectively. They’re less likely to multi-task, more likely to stay focused and will be more participatory. In this time of social distancing, meetings with video can improve morale and foster a positive attitude.

If we want users to benefit from the use of collaboration solutions, we need to find the best ways to demonstrate the potential benefits, gain their interest, drive adoption and then measure the effects.

3. Use this time as an opportunity to understand how you may be able to reduce the number of collaboration solutions that are already in your inventory.

Most of Doculabs’ clients have multiple collaboration solutions, and often the business users are free to choose whatever solutions they believe will be best for their team or for a particular business process. Less is often more when it comes to management and governance, so compare functionality across the existing collaboration applications being used and create a shortlist of those that end users are most satisfied with.

  • Are their favorites based on ease of use?
  • Do the favorites offer better mobile functionality?
  • Is there a certain feature that solves a business problem? If so, are there better collaboration solutions that can also meet that requirement?

In my experience, sometimes the people on a team or in a department have grown accustomed to a solution and have no motivation to try anything new. A common example in our client organizations is the use of GoToMeeting, Cisco Webex and Zoom, which are popular for teleconferencing.

Until recently, Microsoft Office 365 Teams was not favored for this use case because of its lower video quality, lack of scheduling options, inability to display a video grid of all participants and no easy way to include third-party guests who don’t have access to Office 365 or Teams installed on their devices.

Microsoft continues to add to the product’s functionality and has greatly improved its integration with the full suite of Office 365 applications, including Outlook, which means that a Teams meeting can now be scheduled and managed just like the competing solutions that have been available for much longer. This opens the door to consolidating three or more vendors to just one or two.

4. Make collaborating easier, faster, and more reliable.

Why does it still seem like the first 10 minutes of every meeting are spent waiting for people working through technical issues while trying to join? Why are we talking over each other in a frustrating loop of “Sorry, you go… no, you go!”

It’s no wonder why this occurs: Too many options and a lack of training (or documentation) can result in a lot of confusion and wasted time at the start of each working session. Reducing the number of applications used for collaboration will help, of course. Just yesterday, I was invited to two separate online meetings from within one client organization. The first invitation was a Skype meeting, and the second invitation was a Zoom meeting — both from the same client, in the same city and even in the same building! Consolidation is usually the best option, but having a simple “what to use when” usage guide can help people choose the best solution.

Lastly, help users understand the various keyboard shortcuts, scripts and phonebook functionality that will allow them to connect to a conference with a single click. It’s the little stuff that counts, such as encouraging the simple habit of muting microphones (or setting the collaboration application to automatically do so). These tips are often overlooked by busy knowledge workers with little time or appetite for reading instruction manuals.

5. Create a collaboration support network.

Enlist volunteers to participate in an ad-hoc collaboration support group. Workers with flexible schedules or those who now have more availability than normal can help. Create simple usage guides or job aids that provide tips for a better teleworking experience, including setting up a temporary working space that is better suited for video and audio conferencing.

6. Plan as though this will be a permanent change.

In our roles as IT leaders, planners, implementers and advisers, working completely remotely is commonplace — but for most knowledge workers, commuting to an office is still the standard mode. As we continue to fight this pandemic by sheltering in place and working from home, we are also learning how to build a better, more efficiently distributed workforce. In many cases, our entire organizations have left the building, and this is a valuable opportunity to fortify and optimize our global collaboration capabilities, but perhaps more importantly, to do our part to help “flatten the curve.” The solutions and standards we develop now could prepare us for when we do eventually return to the office — or usher in a new age of remote workforce collaboration that is free of the frustrations and inefficiencies of the past.

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Rich Medina
Jeff Phillips
I’m a Principal Consultant, specializing in strategies for using ECM tools such as Microsoft Office 365 for information management.