4 Drivers of Effective Collaboration and Productivity in the Hybrid Workplace
If the past year taught us anything, it was that work will come to a standstill without the ability to adapt and be flexible. Many companies came to rely upon platforms such as Zoom, Slack, Google Meet or Microsoft Teams, and the growth rates for these communication and collaboration platforms went exponential.
Before the pandemic, in December 2019, there were 10 million daily Zoom meeting participants, but by March the number of participants had grown by 200 million, and further still to 300 million by April. Similarly, there were 20 million Microsoft Teams users in November 2019, a number that grew to 75 million daily active users by April. Similarly, Google Meet has over 100 million Meet participants daily, a number that is growing by roughly 3 million new users a day.
A December 2020 Spiceworks Ziff Davis research study on communications indicated that, several months into the COVID-19 crisis, 81% of businesses were using business chat apps such as Slack and Microsoft Teams, up from 67% in 2019. Because of the need for real-time discussion, communications preferences also shifted. 37% of IT decision-makers said employees preferred to use business chat apps to communicate rather than email, a number that was up 31% from the previous year.
As we enter a period where hybrid working — some time in the corporate office, some time remote — becomes more widespread, effective communication and collaboration tools will become even more essential to increasing productivity and enhancing engagement. The growth of these tools and the rising sophistication of practices that enabled businesses to remain operational and productive in the middle of a pandemic will continue to be critical. Agility and flexibility will be key.
Agility and Flexibility Enhance Productivity
The use of SaaS communication and collaboration platforms continued to increase in popularity due to the fact that they can be accessed from any location. A recent report from Zylo revealed there was a 26% increase year-over-year in spending on SaaS apps, with G Suite, Microsoft 365, Slack, Zeplin.io and Miro leading the pack.
Smartphones also played a huge role in the hybrid workplace over the past year. Statistics from TechJury, a business software review site, indicate there are 3.5 billion smartphone users around the world, and 77% of Americans own smartphones. In fact, according to a report from Statista, as of March 2021, less than 40% of US households have landline phones, instead relying upon smartphones for their communication needs.
The use of smartphones and mobile apps for both business and pleasure increased dramatically during the pandemic. There was a 37% increase in texting and a 32% increase in video calling since social distancing practices were put into place, according to a report from Twigby. It’s hard to find a business today that does not rely on mobile devices, and employees used them to a great extent during the pandemic, a trend that is expected to continue.
Agile businesses were able to more easily adapt as the pandemic forced companies to move to a mobile or hybrid workforce. Ellen Thorne, vice president of global HR at CloudBees, an enterprise DevOps solutions provider, said finding the right communication and collaboration tools and platforms for an effective and productive hybrid workplace is going to be different for every company, but being flexible and agile is the key.
“Promoting flexible schedules for employees has been the key to our hybrid model the past 10 years," she said. "When employees are empowered to make decisions that are best for their families, they can be their best selves at work." That message of inclusion, that everyone has a place whether in the office or not, fosters trust, she said.
"We’ve also made a concerted effort to make small changes that have a big impact like enabling the use of pronouns in our tech platforms and email signatures,” she said.
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Don't Neglect the Basics: Good Internet Access
It may seem obvious, but adequate internet access is vital to employee communication and collaboration. What may be fine for casually browsing the web or watching YouTube videos is not likely to be good enough for Zoom meetings. Many remote employees were caught short when the requirements of the remote workplace overwhelmed their bandwidth.
Todd Greene, CEO of PubNub, a San Francisco-based communication platform, said research by his company revealed that 42% of remote workers said laggy video calls annoyed them, while 25% said video calls and conferences were the biggest distraction.
"While many new tech and tools have been helpful, they can also cause fatigue and the barrage of services at our disposal can hinder our productivity when they don’t work as needed," he said. As a result of the increased need for bandwidth, many employees upgraded their internet connections to avoid buffering and lagging when using video conferencing.
Matt Stevens, CEO of AppNeta, a network monitoring solution provider, said many employees now have internet access at home that is better than what they previously had at the office.
“For the last year, employees have been investing in their personal networks, be it for work or for supporting those critical streaming sessions of ‘Schitt's Creek,’ with the end result that many knowledge workers now have superior connectivity at home vs. what they had in their offices in early 2020," he said. "And they won't tolerate going backwards. This connectivity has helped support the 1:1 and small ground video conferencing that is here to stay thanks to a forever hybrid approach to work from home and work from office.”
A report from whistleOut revealed that internet speeds have actually increased across the United States during the pandemic, rising from 84.9 Mbps to 94.6 Mbps, on average. The reason this occurred is because many consumers upgraded their internet plans due to an increase in internet usage by family members working and schooling at home, and the huge increase in the number of remote workers.
Tear Down the Departmental Silos
Lars Hyland, chief learning officer of Totara Learning, a provider of enterprise learning, engagement and performance management technology, said eradicating the silos between learning, engagement and performance teams is the key to greater productivity. In fact, in hybrid settings, it’s vital.
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“Getting your HR team on board with uniting your learning, engagement and performance functions as a cross-functional team enables your entire people management department to work towards common goals and achieve them faster," he said. "Too often, employees feel like they’re being bombarded with conflicting information and everyone loses out as attention is pulled in multiple directions.”
To engage a hybrid workforce requires clear processes, workflows and systems that enable effective collaboration in synchronous and asynchronous forms. Many companies have failed to review their daily work practices to make good use of virtual meetings, blended learning and virtual collaboration and knowledge sharing.
“This has damaged their culture as dysfunctional remote working is not sustainable," Hyland said. "However, when support is balanced and considerate of well being and the tools used do not cause frustration, then hybrid working can improve culture."
There are many cases where organizations are finding productivity has risen during recent times, particularly where the company has taken steps to avoid overuse of meetings and developed a respectful communication style between managers, team members and cross-functionally, he added.
"Flexible, open technology is key to organizations retaining control and staying adaptable in a future filled with uncertainty," Hyland said.
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Don’t Overuse Videoconferencing
Pat Sheridan, co-founder and managing partner at Modus Create, a digital consulting firm, said companies need to understand that they should limit Zoom or other videoconferencing platform usage to avoid fatigue. "Zoom fatigue" describes the feelings of tiredness, worry or burnout associated with overusing virtual platforms of communication, a surefire productivity killer.
“Unless it is a directed and organized workshop, our company has a strict 2-hour time limit for Zoom meetings and collaboration sessions,” he said. “Break up a half-day workshop into two 90-120 minute sessions. One in morning, one in the afternoon to allow for teams to mentally reset between sessions.”
Additionally, there are other collaboration tools that can be used in place of or along with Zoom or Teams, such as Miro and Trello. For companies that rely on whiteboard sessions, Miro can be used to run collaborative workshops similar to those that would typically occur in a traditional conference room.
Sheridan suggested the whiteboard be prepared beforehand and that leaders take time to consider how it can be facilitated to maximize the outcome. “Focus on your key outcome(s) and design your workshop around those," he said. "If you need to do a couple different workshops within one session, set them all up on a single board. Use voting for group alignment. If you don’t have voting tools in your online whiteboard, have everyone put a dot on the item(s) they like."
Communication should always be in the channel best suited for purpose, with Zoom and video reserved for key meetings where face-to-face interaction is essential. “Project issues should only be discussed in Trello or similar platforms, quick questions and coordination should be worked out in Slack, collaboration is best done using whiteboard tools like Miro,” he said.
Today’s rapidly changing business landscape requires agility and flexibility in order to remain operational and productive. By using the right collaboration tools, having adequate bandwidth, and tearing down departmental silos, businesses build the foundation to enhance productivity in the hybrid workplace.