too much to process
Rather than being less busy, employees are more flustered than ever, jumping from one message thread to another PHOTO: Day Donaldson

Remember when siloed email was the biggest problem enterprise collaboration tools tried to solve? 

That seems almost quaint in the face of the current onslaught of team messaging apps in the enterprise. 

With all the buzz surrounding Slack, Microsoft Teams and Workplace by Facebook, you’d think the challenges of productivity, engagement and fragmentation were all but solved. Unfortunately, for many companies, overcoming those challenges is becoming more difficult than ever. It's time to ask whether these solutions truly enhance collaboration.

Recently, Harvard Business Review combed through more than two decades’ worth of data and found that the amount of time managers and employees spent in collaborative activities “ballooned by 50 percent or more” over that period. Yet meetings, phone calls and, yes, emails still eat up 80 percent of an employee’s day. 

With all the effort and energy expended on them, at their most basic, collaboration solutions should make employees more productive. 

Ideally, they should also improve culture, increase engagement, reduce turnover and contribute to valuable corporate memory.

Finding the Collaboration Signal in the Noise

Ask any leader and they'll say that successful collaboration should be measured by business outcomes rather than social interactions. 

Yet, as basic collaboration tools become more widespread and enter the commodification stage, many vendors are offering up products that, far from providing answers, make positive results more difficult to achieve. Rather than being less busy, employees are more flustered than ever, jumping from one message thread to another, frantically replying in real-time lest they be left out of the conversation. 

Besides exponentially increasing distractions, chat-based apps also force constant context-switching, which, according to the American Psychological Association, “can cost as much as 40 percent of someone's productive time.” 

Another downside of these products is that they carve up already opaque silos into ever-narrower slices. Important insights are lost, documents get swept away in a tsunami of chatter and, in the end, a lot of time is wasted. Between the cat gifs and office gossip, valuable work is undoubtedly being done but, if you’re like many people, you’re lucky if you’re able to find it.

Lost Information in the Stacks

Elsewhere in the collaboration ecosystem are stack solutions such as Microsoft’s Office 365, Yammer and SharePoint, among numerous other products. Yet, while Microsoft’s suite of solutions is chock full of features and capabilities, many users are perplexed when they find out that, in most cases, all those disparate tools don’t do the one thing successful collaboration demands: they don’t connect with each other in an intuitive way. 

Employers end up with several overlapping solutions and only a vague sense of how to deploy them (much less convince employees to use them). Should you share a document in Outlook or SharePoint? Touch base in Yammer or Teams? And where should you store materials when you’re collaborating on them versus when they're ready for consumption and search? 

With team messaging apps, important information gets swallowed up in all the talk, with stacks it’s lost amongst the tools themselves.

What's the Cure for Employee Collaboration Blues?

On the other side of the productivity paradox are employees. While business leaders are scratching their heads over which systems to use and when, workers just want to get their jobs done in the most straightforward, efficient way possible.

Based on the points above, it won’t come as a surprise that a recent Planview report (pdf) identified the following top five employee collaboration challenges:

  1. Struggling to stay focused in the face of too many emails, 
  2. Inaccessible information (too many silos),
  3. Lack of project visibility (who’s responsible for what and when?),
  4. Confusing cross-functional team collaboration (including clashing workstyles) and 
  5. Communication chaos (the result of all those disparate tools). 

The report notes that 43 percent of teams wanted a single online workspace to cut down on the confusion.

One Online Workplace

“One online workplace” may sound like a utopian tagline dreamed up in one of those big software vendor’s marketing departments, but it already exists in many organizations — and it’s helping them successfully navigate the tumultuous seas of enterprise collaboration. 

A well-designed, well-implemented interactive intranet can act as an activity hub that integrates the tools companies have already invested in, while offering employees a vendor-agnostic experience for all their work. Companies are embracing a bidirectional approach that allows people to work together seamlessly across teams, departments and geographies. In short, they're providing employees with a universal inbox into which all those disconnected tools, messages and content flow.

By aggregating information into a single work hub, companies can break down silos, minimize context-switching and capture valuable corporate memory, making it accessible and usable across the entire enterprise well into the future. 

The point of collaboration should be to make people and businesses more efficient. When organizations find a way to bring all their people and solutions together, there is no paradox, there’s only productivity.