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Communication and Collaboration at a Crossroads

August 26, 2022 Collaboration and Productivity
Stefan Pfeiffer
By Stefan Pfeiffer

Businesses today are facing broadscale challenges that are playing out on a global stage: the continuing COVID-19 crisis, the Ukraine war, a looming economic downturn and climate change, to name just a few. Along with these comes the uncertainty in the face of hacking attacks and security threats to governments, administrations and businesses. Perhaps for the first time, the broader public is taking notice of what is called critical infrastructure. Critical infrastructure includes energy supply and healthcare, power plants and clinics, ministries and even the defense forces, to name just a few components.

However, the Ukraine war and the pandemic in particular continue to have a major impact on companies, as seen in the emergence of the hybrid work model. The hybrid work model calls into question how collaboration and communication works when employees communicate with each other from the home office as well as in a central office? How are ideas developed and processes handled as optimally as possible? How do you work together effectively? How do you create a sense of belonging and loyalty to the company?

It's about productivity and empathy, about hard facts and figures, but also about soft factors and leadership skills. All of this is needed for success. And to achieve this success in these times, communication and cooperation must be effective. The following are nine trends around communication and collaboration I've noticed over recent months.

Email and Messenger Live Side-By-Side Now

1: Email lives on as the greatest common denominator in communication, especially when communicating with external parties. But collaboration products and the messenger features in Slack and Microsoft Teams continue to gain ground in daily work. The pandemic has been a big contributing factor here. Since its onset, communication in real time has been viewed as a necessity, either one on one or with teams.

2: The success of Teams and Slack leads to confusion around which communication channel was used for conversations and how to find them again. What's in the emails? What's in messenger? Enterprise search, the ability to find information in all information sources in one search process, is still an unfulfilled vision in most companies. Instead, users have to submit their search queries in multiple places. This is not only inconvenient, it's a real loss of productivity.

Related Article: Internal Communications: Email vs. Chat vs. Discussion vs. Meetings

Against the Volatility of Information: The Intranet as a Bulletin Board

3: Slack is great for dialogue, but intranets still are king for information dissemination and retrieval. Practice shows that Slack or Teams are made for communication and for dialogue, but information in the channels of these tools is volatile. Perhaps Microsoft also realized this as it built tight integrations between Teams and SharePoint. Every team automatically also has a SharePoint instance and other functions for information provision and preparation. Such repositories, wikis and intranets remain indispensable as central sources and reference works. In addition, a defined communication strategy is needed: Which information should users be able to get when they need it (pull principle)? Which information should be actively sent to them via which channels (email, messenger) using the push principle?

Related Article: Intranets Are Back, But Not How They Used to Be

Every Meeting Needs an Agenda, Moderation and Minutes of Results

4: We are now firmly in the age of video conferencing, whether based on Zoom, WebEx, Teams or other tools. Never before have so many employees had to communicate with each other in online meetings. This is both a curse and a blessing, because we haven't developed the necessary meeting culture at the same time.

It doesn't matter what tools you use. Meetings are a big waste of time if there's no agenda, moderation, protocol of results and lack of discipline. So look at all meetings with a critical eye ... and if necessary, don't attend.

5: Let's not forget about in person meetings in the office. The same rules apply with regard to agenda, moderation and minutes. The same applies to discipline. Working on the smartphone or computer on the side is not the order of the day. Face-to-face meetings make particular sense when it comes to creative processes, exchanges and the development or advancement of ideas. This can be more productive if you sit together in one room. In fact, sitting might be the wrong word: I'm a fan of boards and moving around the room (so no one dozes off).

Related Article: 'Giving Back Time' and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves About Meetings

Going Into the Office to Participate in Video Conferencing?

6: Going back to the office is especially important from an employee interaction and collaboration standpoint. Certainly, other motivations may play a role with some supervisors. A return to the office, even a compulsory presence in the office, only makes sense if the day in the office involves active communication and collaborative work. All too often, I see employees in companies sitting at their desks in telephone and video conferences for most of the day. What's the point of being present in the office in that case?

If you want to, you should be able to. And of course it is accepted that an office makes sense if the infrastructure, necessary quiet and environment is not available at home. The social aspect, team building and togetherness, also plays an important, non-negligible role. And perhaps the canteen is also an acceptable reason?

In a nutshell: Only if there's a focus on direct collaboration, interaction and communication does coming into the office make sense.

7: But let's not kid ourselves: Offices and their equipment need to change. Open-plan offices with shared desk concepts are the death of any constructive collaboration. They are made for production workers in the office, for people who do repetitive standardized work. They are not made for constructive collaboration and project work. It's not for nothing that even before the pandemic, companies sent their project and creative teams to co-working spaces, because they have the equipment and environment for collaboration. And by the way: those places usually design for social interaction as well.

In general, I believe that hybrid workplace models will be the future. Two days in the office for joint project work and productive meetings, three days at home for other work like research, documentation and other things. Whichever mix makes sense for employees in each case.

Related Article: The Future of Office Design Post-Covid

Offices as a Place for Collaboration and Social Interaction

8: Beyond technology and products, desks and co-working spaces, another aspect has top priority: Working together must be wanted and exemplified. To a large extent, this is a leadership task. The supervisor or supervisors are the ones who drive and promote collaboration, who have to communicate transparently and also keep the motivation, the social aspect of work in focus. If they are smart, they look for their allies and change agents in the teams. Many employees still need to be motivated, inspired by ideas, projects and working together. Old-school command-and-control leadership, however, is the death of any constructive collaboration.

Zero Trust Must Not Lead to Zero Collaboration

9: Security is important, but so too is communication and collaboration. Hacker attacks, extortion, espionage or ransomware have rightly led to greater sensitivity in the area of security. Companies are tightening the reins at the instigation of the CIO and security managers. Controls are being tightened in many places. Bring-your-own-device may no longer be so desirable. Communication and collaboration with external partners, suppliers and customers will be much more strictly regulated — but hopefully not prevented.

Zero trust, zero confidence, log in again and again, two-factor authentication are all justified, but can annoy employees and hinder collaboration. Zero trust must not lead to zero collaboration. Finding the balance between the necessary security on the one hand and productive communication and collaboration on the other is key. And the secure operation of the infrastructure, taking into account both security and compliance requirements, must always be ensured. The digital workplace services must simply work.

Related Article: You Rolled Out Your Workplace in Record Time. Now Let's Talk Governance

Crossroads in How and Where We Work Together

We've seen a surge in the use of collaboration tools over the last two and a half years. Messaging and video conferencing have had a critical breakthrough. But many of the old complaints around collaboration remain: Employees still send file attachments. It's still rare to have a universally accepted and used electronic document repository.

But the pandemic and the home office in particular have hopefully raised awareness among managers of how collaboration can and should work. It won't be done with a "just come back to the office" and "we'll work like we used to," because employees won't accept that and will vote with their feet. There's no going back to 2019. 

Companies should take this opportunity to build hybrid workplaces and working time models that accommodate business needs and employee preferences. They should redesign their office environments while they're at it. The need for modern communication and collaboration technologies is just as important as a high awareness of cybersecurity. Managers must model this, be trained in modern methods of collaboration and people management, in order to help employees succeed.

Communication and collaboration are indispensable components of the critical infrastructure. We must continue to evolve them to suit the demands of the workplace while doing so securely and reliably. 

About the Author

Stefan Pfeiffer is working in communications for Kyndryl, one of leading providers of Managed IT Infrastructure Services and Digital Workplace Services.

Prior, he worked in marketing for IBM after joining IBM through the FileNet acquisition.

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