At many companies, the productivity benefits of collaboration software have been long apparent: easier communications with colleagues, more effective brainstorming with remote team members, and the ability to share content, files and other resources with anyone, anytime, anywhere.
But as collaboration tools have evolved, some organizations have found benefits they hadn’t counted on, such as increased transparency, better problem-solving and more efficient crisis planning.
Here are seven unexpected ways collaboration software has bolstered enterprise productivity — along with a look at some of the challenges companies may need to address first.
1. Increased transparency
Collaboration software can provide “an increase of transparency in everyone’s work,” said Gavin Woods, consulting director at Michigan-based PITSS, which provides digital transformation and application modernization for enterprise Oracle deployments. The company’s collaboration toolset includes G Suite, JIRA, HipChat and Zoom.
According to Woods, individual team members’ tasks — and a project's overall status — have become “fully transparent and up to date” because workers can log into HipChat and JIRA to see what’s currently in the works.
“We knew from the start we’d be able to more easily monitor progress and facilitate discussions with these tools, but we didn't expect to achieve the level of transparency we have now and the benefits that brings,” Woods said.
That transparency can be used beyond just keeping in-house teams on track; it can also be used to showcase PITSS’ work to its clients.
Those clients often “serve as stakeholders, subject matter experts and product owners for the projects we work on,” he said. “There’s no better way to stay in close contact with them and display our progress than through these tools.”
Customers can “monitor virtually every level of a project's implementation,” Woods said. “The level of detail they choose to monitor is up to them. In this way, we’ve made our clients part of the process and created total transparency between our internal teams and their teams.”
Without its collaboration toolset, PITSS “wouldn’t be able to integrate clients into our project processes,” said Woods. “Our weekly status reporting would have required a more manual and antiquated effort. Instead, we have budget numbers automatically available for stakeholders to view. We have sprint progress reports viewable at any time by the product owners. We can message subject matter experts at any minute of the day for support.
“None of this would’ve been possible without these tools.”
2. Employee incentives
United Shore is a fast-growing financial services company, expanding from fewer than 1,000 employees to more than 2,100 in the past few years, according to Monica Haider, the company’s vice president of engagement. She said the company has worked to maintain an engaged, collaborative workforce during the growth spurt and discovered that one way of achieving that goal is to use collaboration software to reward workers.
United Shore uses a version of Sensei Labs’ SenseiOS collaboration and communication platform, which the company has branded UZone, Haider said. A "Pay It Forward" feature in UZone offers reward points to team members for various reasons, including "Kudos" received or "Brilliant Ideas" submitted. (Kudos is UZone’s peer-recognition feature; Brilliant Ideas is for sharing brainstorms.)
Employees can turn points into charitable donations. “Our team members really love this feature because, through their contributions, they can have a direct impact on a charity that they feel connected to,” Haider said.
The Kudos feature enables any team member to recognize other members for contributions to the company’s cultural pillars, which include “continuous improvement, fun and friendship, and service being everyone’s responsibility,” Haider said. The feature also encourages positive behavior and inspires others to contribute to those cultural pillars.
3. Crisis planning and drills
Collaboration software can enable organizations to plan for crises and emergencies, said Michelle Vincent, collaboration and training officer for information services at Mercy Ships. The organization uses private hospital ships to provide free surgeries to residents of developing nations.
Mercy Ships uses HipChat “to connect our various stakeholders during crisis drills,” Vincent said. “Hopefully, we'll never have a fire or other such emergency on the ship. But we rely on drills to keep us ready, and HipChat is a useful tool to keep us connected in real time for that purpose.”
Emergency drills on the ship are performed almost every week, Vincent said, while a crisis management team’s drills involving multiple locations usually take place every quarter. Prior to rolling out HipChat, the team used a combination of email and phone calls to communicate. That combo was deemed inefficient.
“HipChat allows the team to communicate in real time with all participants, regardless of location, and know they’re all seeing the same content at the same time,” Vincent said. “Because HipChat also time-stamps each piece of communication, it reduces the quantity that has to be manually recorded for log purposes. The team has found HipChat to be a much more effective tool for managing streams of information in the event of a crisis.”
4. Faster, more effective problem-solving
Collaboration software can be used to help users more easily trouble-shoot problems that are keeping them from moving forward in their work, said PITSS' Woods.
“Our team members can inform each other immediately if there are important developments or updates that might impact someone’s work, or if they’ve hit a roadblock in their task and need help,” he said. When that happens, team members can initiate videoconferences and screen-shares to resolve issues quickly, even if the workers are scattered across the globe.
5. The ability to start a company
Digital Reach Agency is an internet marketing firm with 25 employees. The agency has existed in its current form since 2013, with each employee working remotely from home offices in 15 U.S. states.
“Without collaboration software, we wouldn’t exist,” said Andrew Seidman, the firm’s head of operations. Tools such as Slack, Asana, GoToMeeting, G Suite and Salesforce have enabled the agency to hire the top workers wherever they live and to scale the staff quickly as needed and remain a highly productive organization.
Just 10 years ago, such a feat would have been difficult to achieve, Seidman said. “The collaboration tools were still primitive then. Today, they continue to get better, and our understanding of how to use them gets better, too.”
6. Bring in a flash team to tackle a project
Collaboration tools enable organizations to easily tap into the gig economy for a more agile workplace, assembling crowdsourced “flash teams” to come together and tackle specific projects, said Mary Hamilton, managing director of Accenture Labs, the research and development arm of consulting firm Accenture.
“Collaboration software gives you new ways to access skills and talents and bring them together,” Hamilton said. Managers can focus on which pieces of work require the most collaboration and then quickly assemble the needed expertise from inside or outside the company.
For example, a new product design project at Accenture Labs typically takes three or four months to complete. But by relying on collaboration tools such as Slack and assembling a crowdsourced flash team of workers, Accenture Labs was able to complete a one such project for a next-generation automobile seat in less than two weeks, Hamilton said.
Speed doesn’t necessarily equate to quality, of course. But Hamilton said Accenture Labs “was approached by a tier 1 car seat manufacturer” interested in the design the flash team created. The project was a success because it brought together “a diversity of ideas and people” and provided them with the tools they needed to work together efficiently, she said.
7. Learn new skills
Collaboration software, combined with the gig economy and flash teams, can also enable workers to develop new skills they might not otherwise acquire, Hamilton said. For example, in a fluid marketplace of workers, freelancers can bid for projects that will help them grow critical new skills that are beyond the scope of their current responsibilities. And managers can assign outside contractors to take on job tasks that an employee might not have time to take on or the necessary foundation that allows them to excel. That frees up an employee to work on tasks that adds to their skills.
In the same vein, collaboration tools make it easier to shift tasks from one worker to another, she said.
How to avoid roadblocks to productivity
The productivity benefits of collaboration software don’t just happen; companies often have to first overcome some challenges.
“Our greatest roadblock (to adoption) has been fighting the ‘I’ve always done it this way’ attitude with people who don’t want to change the software they use or how they use it,” said Vincent. “Providing hands-on training in how to use the software and increasing their comfort level has made a big difference. We also use social campaigns in Confluence to draw people into the tool and get them used to participating in the content.” (Confluence is Atlassian’s team collaboration software.)
While some team members may readily adopt new collaboration software, others may hold off — and that lack of engagement can make the software less useful, said Haider. “If adoption is poor, the people who are onboarded end up leaving the platform to collaborate with the people who haven’t onboarded yet,” she said. “This ultimately means they can’t benefit from the platform at all.”
Thus, it’s essential to make sure your entire team and every new hire is fully on board, she said, to get maximum value from the software.
Also, companies need to specify what content is appropriate and inappropriate to share via collaboration tools, said Seidman. For example, providers such as GIPHY offer animated GIFs, a popular form of expression in chat and messaging tools such as Slack. But at least 25% of animated GIFs “aren’t appropriate for work,” he said. So your organization needs to stress guidelines for appropriate use from the start.
What the future might look like
Collaboration tools could benefit from greater intelligence, Hamilton said, and during the next few years, companies should expect to see artificial intelligence and machine learning increasingly incorporated into the tools.
What does that look like, exactly? During an online collaboration, a virtual assistant such as Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana or Apple’s Siri might take meeting notes. The assistants might also reiterate at the meeting’s conclusion any follow-up to-do items that were discussed and who volunteered to take on those tasks, said Hamilton.
Also, you can expect to see virtual reality (VR) play a role in future collaborations, especially in design-oriented teams, Seidman said.
“In a sense, you could get the best of both worlds, virtual and physical, where you have a running transcript in VR of what’s being said in a meeting, you have remote environments connected together in a virtual meeting space, and ultimately, you have a more meaningful social environment” within a digital realm, he said.