working on a laptop while on a video call
PHOTO: Nathan Dumlao

There is certainly no shortage of articles championing how Microsoft Teams, Slack and Zoom are helping organizations maintain productivity during the  COVID-19 lockdown. And if the number of users is any indication of productivity, then something positive has happened during the last three months.

Microsoft claims over 100% growth in Teams usage since the crisis began, with a whopping 75 million daily active users as of last week. All sorts of organizations are jumping on the Teams bandwagon. Even the normally conservative US Department of Defense has enlisted Teams for non-secure communications for its 4 million employees, with a rapid rollout uncharacteristic of such a large organization with more than 250,000 accounts added in a single day. Zoom’s growth is even more impressive, with the number of users jumping twentyfold, from 10 million to over 200 million users in just three months.

Survival of the Most Adaptive

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change” — Charles Darwin

The rapid adoption numbers above indicate that most organizations were unprepared for this business disruption and trying to adapt on the fly.

Recent interviews I conducted with the IT leaders of large enterprises clearly showed that while many of them had over the last year been looking into using Teams, the current crisis kicked their initiatives into overdrive. A senior IT person at a European government agency told me “this lockdown has pushed our organization towards the solution I have been proposing for the past six years.” Other organizations agreed with the statement. A typical response was provided by a compliance manager at a large construction company who said that while they “had been looking at Teams for the past year,” this crisis has pushed them forward, “primarily because it is easy to install, it works well on their mobile Apple iPhone and iPad devices,” which is critical for getting everyone connected, wherever they are.

Taking the Easy Route to Collaboration

So, what exactly are people trying to achieve with these collaboration/teamwork tools? During a recent webinar entitled Strategies for Remote Working with Microsoft Teams, I polled the over 330 attendees and asked them what capabilities they were using in Teams.

how companies use Microsoft Teams

 

The most popular use of Teams is remote meetings and chat (89% and 79% of respondents, respectively). Almost two-thirds of respondents are using Teams’ SharePoint document sharing capabilities. Unsurprisingly, very few people are using the more sophisticated Teams functionality, such as integration with business software to incorporate process workflows.

During the webinar, attendees were also asked if they are still using email, in light of their new adoption of Teams, to communicate with colleagues. A whopping 96% of respondents replied they are using emails to communicate with external parties like customers, suppliers and partners, while only one third said they are (also) using Teams for this purpose.

It makes sense that people are using the easy features in Teams to help them connect with colleagues, but not yet using more sophisticated capabilities that change the way business transactions are completed. This finding isn't unique to Teams. This conclusion is consistent with the rapid growth of Zoom usage — simply put, people are looking for quick and easy ways to connect to colleagues, not to optimize business processes.

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The Biggest Priority? Connecting With Colleagues

The IT leaders I spoke with provided some additional insights. What stood out most of all was that connecting with colleagues was the highest priority when using these tools today. Here are some of the things they had to say:

  • A Digital Workplace Lead at a global contractor said there is a push to use Teams to facilitate a daily “non-work” discussion: “we check in with each other and make sure everyone is coping.”
  • An Assurance Manager at a global construction company said they started looking at Teams about a year ago, but they didn’t see any benefits over Skype. With the advent of the current crisis, there has been a rapid migration to Teams because “it is easier to set up and it is an easy to way for the team to check in with each other during the day.”
  • A Business Analyst at a large system integrator that already used Teams has noticed that since the crisis started, “people are more willing to spend more time to socialize on Teams chat” than before.

A clever video demonstrating how collaboration tools are bringing remote workers together was posted on LinkedIn by Babock International.

Related Article: What We Can Learn From Zoom's Privacy Problems

Adoption Numbers ≠ Productivity

From the unequivocal responses to my poll and small interview series, most organizations appear to be exploiting collaboration tools to tread water, to keep people connected. With all the discussion about rapid adoption of Teams, Zoom and Slack, I haven’t seen organizations launching significant business initiatives in the last three months, other than those related to finding a cure or treatment for the coronavirus itself, or its effects on society.

To me, the hype about how productive companies are during the COVID-19 crisis lockdown seems like a mix of public relations and wishful thinking. Rather the productivity discussion is more like a collective sigh of relief, a sign of how relieved organizations are at being able to function considering how much worse things could have been.

Have we really maintained productivity while working from home? There is certainly something to be said about the eliminated commute time and the lack of workplace distractions. But for most folks, these have been offset by disruptive schedules driven by a need to care for children and the complex coordination of precious workspace with other family members at home. In the aggregate, I would bet that for most people, productivity has suffered rather than increased. For those of us who have not been laid off or furloughed, things could have been much worse.

Related Article: Working and Managing Remote: What's Realistic to Expect?

What Will 'Back to Normal' Look Like?

As business gets back to normal, business practices that worked well during the crisis will likely remain in use, at which point organizations may increase productivity after all. What have we learned during the crisis? Here are some thoughts offered by my interviewees:

“I am hoping to see more companies relax ‘work from home’ rules. To enable people to pick and choose when they will be ‘on’ and ‘off.’"

“Some people will be itching to get back to the office. At first, people will want to get back to a normal routine, only realizing later that they actually enjoyed that time at home and extra focus time and additional time for ourselves.”

“I think we will see people picking up some self-reliance of IT skills where before they may have called the help desk. Amazing what self-reliance can do.”

“We have always had a very flexible approach to home working and hours, but I think that this will be rolled out more widely across the company as the workforce has proved it’s possible to continue operations in these circumstances. I think I will value my time in the office (a few days a week); time that I used to begrudge."

“I hope people will continue to be understanding of the background noise and interruptions from pets and children that would have been scorned before.”

“I foresee a future blend of work 10 to 50% from home, depending on one’s personal preference and situation. Sure, Teams and other applications will used more than today, but project teams heavily utilize face to face meetings and workshops for project kickoffs, process design, UX and design thinking/innovation, relationship building, celebrating achievements, performance reviews and so on — so I think a lot will return to the 'old' normal once this crisis passes.”

The COVID-19 lockdown is a unique opportunity to take stock of how we spend our time. While business focuses on how technology can make us more productive, perhaps now is the time to think less about "getting more stuff done" and concentrate instead on "stuff worth doing." Stay safe.

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