According to a Microsoft and Forrester study (pdf), adoption of Microsoft Teams in a 5,000 user organization reduces meetings by 18.9% and frees up 4 hours per week, as well as providing a net benefit of over $27 million over three years. Yippee! More time, fewer meetings. Digital nirvana.

Yet, according to Harvard Business Review, collaborative overload is sinking productivity. Time spent in collaboration and communication tools, such as video meetings, email and digital conversation has rocketed — and surely accelerated during the pandemic.

So which of these is correct? Many of us are using Teams, and have been since before the pandemic. Would you say you are receiving the benefits Forrester reports, or are you seeing something else?

I’ve been working with some large public and private organizations on improving digital leadership and collaboration over the last 18 months, and have seen the following typical working practices:

  • Tools such as Microsoft Teams still being used only for calls and chat. Asynchronous working in channels is largely unknown or untested.
  • People are interacting with colleagues in multiple ways, resulting in digital overload and lack of connected working.
  • A lack of digital leadership from line managers to engage their staff in Microsoft 365.

It’s rare to see the benefits Microsoft and Forrester cite, but that’s not to say it’s impossible. High-performing users of Teams are out there, they're just in the minority at this stage. Teams is not being used to its potential. At the same time, we’re also adopting some unhealthy digital habits which affect our work, no matter which platform we're on.

The Signs of Unhealthy Teams in Teams

The last 18 months has produced a massive change in digital culture. Even the refuseniks have had to come up to speed as we’ve adapted to digital working at an unprecedented scale.

The question is do we actually need to further mature? We’ve mastered working from anywhere and as the return to the office begins, we really don’t have to waste time commuting. We don’t have to be in the office, trying to avoid the team lunch at the pub where the carpet is always sticky and the kitchen’s hygiene is even stickier.

However, working from anywhere without improving our digital team skills means the opportunities are far reduced. The outcomes can be more unpleasant than the sticky carpet. The promises of flexibility and productivity have been replaced with more structures and poorer outcomes as we become unhealthy digital teams.

You can tell you’ve reached this point when:

  • You feel always on, with no time to take a break.
  • Interruptions are taking over, there’s no focus time.
  • Back-to-back video meetings are still de rigueur.
  • Notifications are coming from everywhere and it’s hard to prioritize what needs action.

We desperately need new digital habits. To move from a tools-first mindset to a team-first mindset. To find ways of work that meet our needs as people, rather than replicating all of the things we did in the office in Teams.

Related Article: Why Are We Still Emailing When We're Using Microsoft Teams?

Learning Opportunities

It’s Not an IT Issue, It’s a Leadership Issue

Adopting these new digital habits is challenging. We’ve typically seen IT oversee any technology change — from the infrastructure, the software through to the guidance and change management. And this can work when the tools concerned are more focused on a specific task or have a narrow enterprise-wise role.

Teams, however, is different. What is right for IT may not be right for your team. What is right for your team may not be right for someone else’s team. It’s not as simple as senior leadership telling us how to use Teams from the product’s perspective. The way to use Teams is based on the way your specific team works. And this is something you may not have even discovered when working in the same room, let alone as a digital team.

Which makes this not a technology thing. It’s about good team working practices which we can apply using the available technology.

Related Article: Make 'Work in Threads, Play in Chat' Your Mantra

What Can We Do?

If this all sounds a bit hard, there are actually some really simple things we can do in Microsoft Teams to start working as a digital team — and to move us towards the opportunities the Forrester report mentions. Things that you and your team leader can do, such as:

  • Do you know who is in the team with you? If not, this could be a forum, a community or an activity that doesn’t require your constant attention. Mute these non-core teams if they are distracting. Focus on the ones you do your day job in.
  • Create Teams channels based on the topics and deliverables your team performs, ensuring conversations are context based.
  • Hold regular status update, stand-up and other repeating meeting types as posts in these channels instead of as a live meeting.
  • Communicate with individuals as well as the team as a whole in these channels, @mentioning people as and when needed, instead or using email or chat.
  • Only invite people to Teams meetings if they need to participate.
  • Foster a culture of honesty and transparency. Share where everyone is working, what you’re working on. Surface problems and issues as well as the good things. The more we post in Teams about what we’re doing (bad and good) the less time we waste in meetings or solving problems when it’s too late.

Most of these are team working habits. The tools are simply where we make them happen. And that’s what Microsoft Teams is — a tool that we practice our work in. Traditional IT-driven change management for Teams can’t tell us how to work, it’s up to us. But one thing is sure: using Teams for video calls and chat is actually making things more difficult for us if that’s the only way we use the tool.

Think about the rituals that define your team. Think about the knowledge that your team is built on. How can these best be seen and used in Microsoft Teams? Understand these and you’ll be on the right path. And with some good digital leadership, maybe, just maybe, you’ll actually find using Microsoft Teams can be a positive experience.

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