With services like Skype, Slack, Yammer and Teams nearing ubiquity in offices across the world, a conversation in the workplace is only ever a hastily typed message away. Digital collaboration and communication tools empower professionals to work together instantly and conveniently across oceans and offices alike; according to one 2016 survey by McKinsey Global, 93% of businesses use at least one social technology at work, while 74% say that social tools are “at least somewhat integrated into employees' work.” This is a significant leap from even two years before, when only 67% reported having integrated collaboration platforms.
For business leaders, these quick-at-hand tools offer an invaluable opportunity to optimize talent and teamwork across geographical bounds. Having collaboration platforms allows organizations to pull in top talent for their projects rather than relying on those who happen to be located near a given brick-and-mortar office. These capabilities are already impacting workplace hiring trends; statistics published in a 2018 issue of the Harvard Business Review suggest that the number of remote workers has increased by 115% in the last decade.
The benefits of collaboration software
The benefits to office-wide knowledge-sharing, collaboration, and productivity are similarly impressive. A 2010 study conducted by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University found that the instant messaging facilitated by collaboration tools has an "overwhelmingly positive" impact on intrateam trust and communication quality, as well as a 'significant" influence on group interactivity. Moreover, they reported, because increased interactivity and trust can have a profound positive impact on teamwork quality, digital collaboration platforms play a crucial (if indirect) role in promoting high-quality work.
Given all of these benefits, the trend toward greater adoption of in-office collaboration platforms seems to be a positive one; for my part, I firmly believe that we will continue to see an increase in the use of virtual teamwork in business as the collaboration tools continue to improve. However, the benefits provided by such platforms won’t automatically come along with the installation packages. Effectively integrating a digital collaboration platform is a task that demands directed – and prolonged – effort from leadership.
The leadership problem
Simply put, not all employees – or their managers – intuitively know how to maximize their virtual work. As researchers Barbara Z. Larson and Erin E. Makarius described the matter in a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, "While technology and virtual work itself has advanced dramatically in recent years, our preparation to work virtually has not." Successful online work requires an array of social skills and behaviors that employees may not pick up without specialized training and support from management. Larson and Makarius estimate that only a third of companies train employees in virtual work behaviors – and even then, the instruction centers more on hard software skills than it does on social or interpersonal skills.
In theory, our ubiquitous collaboration tools can provide invaluable aid to our businesses. In practice, though, the effectiveness of these platforms and employees’ abilities to collaborate virtually across sites, cities, states, countries, continents are contingent upon the leaders learning how to adapt to the unique demands of digital leadership. If leaders cannot evolve with the times, they may find their businesses not making the most of the benefits the collaboration platforms are meant to provide.
Tips on how to effectively implement collaboration software
Here, I share a few best practices leaders should adopt when integrating or facilitating an online collaboration platform in the workplace.
Be willing to let go
As a leader, it can be tempting to step in when employees begin using online collaboration platforms to hold social conversations. It seems logical to set policies that limit the chatter – but in doing so, you may inadvertently undercut the collaborative effects of having a digital communication platform. Instant messaging usage only accounts for 6% of work interruptions while the potential benefits to office knowledge-sharing, collaboration and achievement are incalculable. Try to avoid imposing strict policies around digital communication if you can; even the conversations that seem personal can be vital to building a cohesive team. As the above-mentioned study from Hong Kong Polytechnic found, allowing people their digital communications can build relationships, increase team trust and ultimately bolster achievement.
Facilitating online group chats can also optimize what management professionals Paul Leonardi and Tsedal Neeley refer to as metaknowledge: the understanding of who knows how to solve a given problem. In a report on their research, the pair reported that employees who used an officewide digital collaboration tool were 31% more likely to "find coworkers with expertise relevant to meeting job goals." These employees were also 88% more likely to know which of their colleagues would be able to put them in contact with a person who had the expertise they needed.
However, encouraging metaknowledge and productive interpersonal bonds requires more than simply allowing employees to chat informally. For managers, cultivating digital collaboration and trust means finding ways to create a shared sense of purpose across a digital landscape and to whittle down the language and cultural barriers that might otherwise separate geographically diverse employees in a shared digital space. Thus, managers don't just need to step back and allow relationships to form naturally – they need to take an active role in creating opportunities for digital team-building and facilitating collaboration on their company's online tools.
Set expectations early on
Employees need to have a clear understanding of the collaboration platform's purpose, or else they may never utilize it to its full potential. Consider millennials as an example: While leaders may expect younger employees to readily take to social tools in the workplace while their older co-workers struggle, Leonardi and Neeley's research indicates that the opposite may be true. According to the two researchers, millennials are so used to using digital tools in their personal lives that the idea of using "fun" and "personal" social media tools feels uncomfortable – or even unprofessional.
Leaders need to frame the tool's purpose clearly, lead by example, and go out of their way to encourage employees to use it. If they never personally utilize the platform – or, worse, never take active strides to establish it as a necessary venue for collaboration on company projects – employees will see the collaboration tool as yet another means for broadcasting information or an uncomfortable social media site rather than an active social venue for productive communication, troubleshooting, teambuilding, networking, and collaboration.
Don't overlook offline culture
Collaboration tools are an invaluable teamwork tool, but it shouldn't – and can't – replace the culture you develop in a brick-and-mortar office. Encourage employees to hold in-person conversations and chat with their colleagues rather than simply texting them. The conversations around the proverbial water cooler matter just as much as any group chat. Free-flowing and in-person conversations can – and often do – inspire innovative thought.
It is also essential to recognize that some talented employees may not gravitate towards collaboration environments as much as their peers. While some people are able to share practical knowledge and insights through a digital platform, others may be at their collaborative best in more analog environments. However, because respect and recognition follow visibility, some employees' offline skill sets and contributions may inadvertently be overlooked and underappreciated in the workplace. This occurrence can be damaging, as – according to Gallup – employees who do not feel adequately recognized are twice as likely to quit than their recognized peers.
Offline culture and appreciation matters. Make a point to understand your team members' strengths and weaknesses – and if they aren't adequately highlighted in the digital sphere, make a point to celebrate their achievements. Similarly, if you notice someone struggling to understand or make use of a shared collaboration platform, provide them the educational opportunities they need to feel more comfortable online. In time, they will be better able to adapt and contribute to digitally-facilitated projects.
Digital collaboration platforms have the potential to boost leaders into a new era of productivity, team achievement, and communication – but we won’t get there unless leaders adapt their interpersonal skills and tactics to suit the modern age.