person's sneaker-clad feet caught mid-jump, palm trees and beach scene in background
PHOTO: Nathan Nichols

Collaboration tools are meant to increase team productivity. But to do that, they need to be widely used across the team and become integrated into day-to-day operations. Seems like a given, no? So it might surprise you to learn that collaboration systems and tools meant to enhance productivity might actually deter it. This happens when tools are not matched to the intrinsic or predetermined way a particular team works together — it’s workflow dynamic.

The Workflow Dynamic

How well a team uses various collaboration tools such as project management, messaging or communication software depends in part on how well that tool is suited to the team’s workflow process and working style. For example, a marketing team that is engaged in real-time, fast-paced collaboration on a campaign that includes content, design, analytics and audience sentiment analysis requires different tools from an IT maintenance team whose collaboration consists primarily of different people with different expertise each doing their part and bringing it all together as a finished product.

Collaboration Platform Hierarchy

It might help the matching process to visualize your collaboration tool options as a hierarchy, with the primary office suite options (Google, Microsoft) as the foundation with all-in-one solutions for project management as a productivity core and messaging/video conferencing solutions as a communication core. Those can be used in addition to the office suite options depending on your team’s working style or preference. 

The major office suites include features for chat and collaboration that may suffice for simple workflows. However, large teams, geographically disperse teams, and complex workflows usually require tools with features specific to their needs. Twist by Doist, for example, is designed to support geographically dispersed teams. There are benefits to each layer of the hierarchy depending on your team’s needs.

Consider these examples: Barry runs a 10-person product development team for a large plastics manufacturer. The team operates around its six month rolling product roadmap which includes feature requests from engineering, sales, marketing and customer service. His company has standardized on Microsoft 365, with Teams for communication and chat. His team can use an all-in-one project manager like Basecamp or Asana, for example, and probably make it work. But his team will be more productive with collaboration software designed specifically for product roadmaps such as Roadmap Planner or productboard. 

Lakeisha is the marketing director at a fast-paced consumer products brand in Chicago. Her 22-member team includes web designers in San Francisco, content developers in Atlanta, social media marketers in Boston and digital advertising specialists in London. Her company uses both Microsoft 365 and G Suite and so does her marketing group. Lakeisha needs a collaboration solution for a geographically dispersed team that supports both Microsoft and Google applications. She might choose Monday.com for collaboration and the messaging app Twist for communication.

enterprise collaboration  platform hierarchy

Related Article: One Collaboration Tool to Rule Them All? Think Again

Stepping Through the Matching Process

By taking the following steps, your organization will be able to match team workflows with the collaboration software that will work best for them. 

1. Know your team’s workflow

The key questions to determine this are:

  • Does your team have a documented workflow or is it an ad hoc collection of tasks? A documented workflow will enable you to determine the best team-tools match.
  • Are member roles and responsibilities included in the workflow or is it simply based on functions? Including roles and responsibilities in your workflow increases the viability of your team-workflow match. It also helps team members effectively use the workflow.
  • Is your workflow being followed? Workflows don’t benefit the organization if they are ignored by team members. If yours are, get the team together for an honest discussion of why. Workflows, like any process, can get outdated as things change. And boy, we know things are changing fast now. An open discussion, followed by revisions, will make your workflows vital again. 

2. Determine your function/feature short list

An evaluation of your workflow will highlight the features and functions most needed by your team. Prioritize them into three buckets: must have; good to have; nice to have. Nice to haves are features your team can easily live without. Once that list is complete, do a solution check. Go beyond the marketing-speak on the product company Website. Check evaluation sites like Capterra and user reviews. For a full department or enterprise solution, make sure to get a live demo. 

Related Article: Sound Familiar? 4 Phrases That Show Your Employee Experience Needs Work

3. Focus on remote teams first

Companies used to typically purchase systems for the office workers and then roll them out for remote workers when and if they had them. Today the opposite is true. Your first consideration should be the needs of your remote teams, then collaboration between hybrid workplaces of in-office and remote teams.

4. Evaluate the tools you use today

How are they working? Have certain teams or team members become attached to specific products? Learn why and discover if that attachment is a benefit or detriment to overall team productivity.

Related Article: The Pandemic Popped These Closely Held Digital Workplace Beliefs

5. Determine integration capabilities

Some tools have broader integration capabilities than others. Determine your organization’s minimum requirements and make sure they are met.

6. Have a process for approving new software

Make sure it is known and followed. This will reduce the likelihood of teams purchasing their own mini solution, which with cloud computing, is very easy to do. Especially when the team is remote and/or geographically dispersed.

Related Article: Productivity Potholes: Bad Behavior Is Crushing Collaboration's Potential

7. Publish a directory of collaboration tools on the corporate intranet

Go beyond the list of “approved” tools and capture which teams are using what tools, how long they have had them (good indicator of value) and how often they switch tools (warning sign of a dysfunctional team). Enable reviews, feedback and suggestions for new tools in the database to capture tribal knowledge.

One Size Definitely Does Not Fit All

For cost, efficiency and simplicity reasons, companies may require all of their teams to use the same set of tools. This is usually driven from a corporate choice to standardize on one office suite, such as Microsoft 365 or G Suite for business. Once that decision is made communication and productivity decisions follow: Teams in the Microsoft office world; Google Meet in the Google space. 

With the clear understanding that no IT department wants to support a different software solution for every workgroup in the organization, limiting your productivity and collaboration choices to the two big enterprise productivity stacks will likely reduce overall team productivity. You can and should consider the range of special-purpose collaboration tools available to ensure your team executes to its highest potential.

Remember: You've Got Choices 

You have a wider selection of collaboration, messaging and communication tools available than ever before. The good news is there are tools to effective support all of your different and diverse team’s workflows. First, understand your teams’ workflow dynamics, and then choose tools that work best for them across all levels of the collaboration hierarchy. That’s the simple formula for effective remote workplace collaboration.