man on phone in front of "productivity" sign
PHOTO: Andreas Klassen

Despite the promise that technology will help improve productivity in the workplace, in practice it generally doesn't work that way. The employee experience has become increasingly fragmented, forcing people to work across a multitude of applications every day, constantly switching contexts and often becoming the human integration point in this messy picture.

In CCS Insight's recent survey of employees, almost 40% were frustrated with the amount of switching between applications and 46% felt there was inadequate integration between the work applications they use. Because of this, automation has become a major trend in the workplace technology market, particularly evidenced by the expansion of the robotic process automation (RPA) market, which has grown by about 60% over the past year.

However, while RPA focuses on organization-level processes, collaboration tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams and Workplace by Facebook are approaching the problem from an employee or team perspective, bringing automation to where people are working and allowing it to be personalized and customized to meet specific needs.

Managing Digital Sprawl

The most common approach sees the collaboration platform become a "hub" for work (see "The Digital Workplace Hub: The Next Wave in Collaboration"). It has prebuilt connections to business applications and tools that employees use day-to-day such as CRM or ERP, allowing employees to take action directly from within a team collaboration channel or group.

Many of these integrations do little more than publish notifications into channels based on certain events (a new sales opportunity is added, or a new support ticket is raised, for example). However, the more sophisticated ones allow actions to be taken, such as requesting a list of opportunities due to close this month, or creating a new CRM record, for example. This reduces the need to switch into another application, and can even reduce the need for training on older systems if the employee only needs access for a handful of tasks.

Integration is typically delivered as cards or buttons in the channel thread, or as a bot embedded in channel discussions. This watches for trigger phrases and then suggests actions to the user (for example, offering to provide an account summary of a client when their name is mentioned in a discussion thread). These integrations and automations allow contextual information to be captured within the discussion thread, making it easier for team members to catch up with the discussion later.

This aspect of automation is the most established and well-understood of the approaches currently taken by suppliers of collaboration software, and is also the most widely adopted by customers. Slack reports that 90% of its customers use apps and the company now has over 1,500 apps in its directory. Microsoft and Facebook also have growing collections of integrations, although the majority enable channel notifications rather than more-complex automation scenarios.

Related Article: Are Collaboration and Productivity at Odds in the Workplace?

Chatbots Replacing Intranet Functions

In addition to the use of bots as a way to interact with business applications within workstreams, there's a growing appetite for using chatbots to automate common corporate processes; for example, accessing company policies and news, booking time off, capturing employees' ideas, conducting surveys or even onboarding new employees to the organization.

This is an interesting modern take on activities that would historically have lived in the corporate intranet. It's starting to pick up traction, particularly among customers of Workplace by Facebook, where the buyer is more often from business units like HR or corporate communications.

Hospitality company Ennismore uses Workplace by Facebook. It has created more than 20 bots using Facebook partner The Bot Platform, including one to assist designers with timesheet completion and another that promotes and manages training opportunities. The most successful customer stories see each bot having a clear role or purpose, rather than a single overarching "god bot" that attempts to replicate a digital assistant.

Related Article: Intranets Get a Personality: Welcome Your Intranet Chatbot

Automating Time-Consuming Tasks

An important, untapped opportunity for improving the employee experience is to enable the automation of those small but time-consuming tasks that employees carry out daily. Examples might include sending a notification to team members when a new document is created, uploading attachments from emails to a shared file store, or creating document approval processes.

This opportunity has attracted the attention of the collaboration platform providers. For example, Google's introduction of Smart Reply in Gmail to accelerate email handling uses natural language processing and machine learning to automatically suggest responses to mails. This feature is now reportedly used for 15% of internal company emails sent by Gmail users. More broadly, Microsoft Flow (which is integrated with Microsoft Teams) and Slack's Workflow Builder (currently in pilot and based on its 2018 Missions.AI technology acquisition) seeks to democratize automation using no-code, wizard-based workflow designs and prebuilt, customizable templates.

As well as improving personal productivity, these tools allow individuals and teams to create a more tailored, personalized experience within their collaboration platform, which in turn should improve adoption. However, as yet there are few examples of customers using these tools, and though the tools do not require coding skills, they still require some technical understanding and process knowledge — they will not be easy for every user to pick up quickly.

Successful adoption of these no-code workflow tools will require change management and training, but if individual users can realize value, there are opportunities to take advantage of champions networks and viral adoption patterns.

Related Article: Why Businesses Should Democratize Transformational Technology

The Tip of the Iceberg

Automation is becoming an increasingly important aspect of collaboration platforms. Suppliers are recognizing that collaboration and communication don't take place in a vacuum and must be embedded in employees' broader daily processes.

By taking the pressure off employees to be the point of integration between the different applications they must use to get their work done, there is more opportunity to realize the benefits of collaboration — and in turn the benefits of the collaboration platforms themselves.

We're at the beginning of this trend within the market, and the technology will undoubtedly mature significantly over the next 12 to 18 months as suppliers improve their understanding of what customers need in terms of features and support. But we expect this to remain a major area of investment for the industry, both within collaboration and beyond.