Collaboration and communication platforms have never been as important for businesses as they have been during the COVID-19 crisis, especially for remote workers. The proof is in the growth numbers. In December 2019, there were 10 million daily Zoom users. By March, there were 200 million and 300 million by April. In November 2019, there were 20 million Microsoft Teams users, a number that grew to 75 million daily users in April. 

With a remote workforce came the need for more efficient and effective communication and collaboration platforms, and the platform providers stepped up to deliver additional features. Done right, best-in-class platforms, when paired with effective practices, enhance and improve the employee experience.

The Challenges of Digital Communication and Collaboration

The ability to communicate in real-time is what brings people together. As smartphone use has grown over the last decade, our reliance on these devices as the primary communication mechanism has grown exponentially. According to statistics from TechJury, a business software review site, there are 3.5 billion smartphone users around the world and 77% of Americans now have smartphones.

Before COVID-19, it was not uncommon to see people in public staring into the screen of their smartphone, watching videos, texting, gaming and talking with one another. Since the pandemic began, smartphones have taken on a new level of importance as a way to stay connected in a socially distanced world. A Twigby report indicated that there has been a 37% increase in texting and a 32% increase in video calling since social distancing practices were put into place. 

But moving to a digital communication channel isn't without challenges. In-person discussions can occur spontaneously and decisions can be hammered out in real time. That spontaneity doesn’t occur as easily with asynchronous communication as the conversation doesn’t occur in real time. It does, however, allow workers to prioritize tasks and reply when convenient, unlike in-person communication. 

When we communicate face to face, we also interpret body language, tone and facial expressions. With software-based communications, it is more difficult to evaluate the tone of a message although there is still a fair amount of meta-communication.

It's important to understand the needs and requirements of employees when it comes to communication and collaboration, said Kara Korte, director of product management at TetraVX, a communication and collaboration systems integrator.

“The usage of the platform is key when it comes to keeping your workforce connected," she said. "It's important to understand how your workforce collaborates and find a tool that fits those needs. It really boils down to understanding your employees, understanding what they need, and training them appropriately on the tool you put in place."

Users have so many tools at their disposal that they are confused about which they should be using, Korte added.

Related Article: Overcoming Communication Silos in the Digital Workplace

Videoconferencing Comes of Age

After March 2020, many businesses were forced to implement a fully remote or distributed workforce and video meetings became vital. Video conferencing and chat tools such as Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, GoToMeeting and Microsoft Teams have enabled businesses to continue to have virtual face-to-face conferences, meetings, webinars and interviews. Even the medical industry has embraced video for patient visits. The transition, however, came with its share of challenges. 

Todd Greene, CEO of PubNub, a San Francisco-based communication platform, said his company's surveys indicated that 42% of remote workers said laggy video calls annoyed them and 25% said video calls and conferences were the biggest distraction. "While many new tech and tools have been helpful, they can also cause fatigue and the barrage of services at our disposal can hinder our productivity when they don’t work as needed," he said. 

Aside from functionality, videoconferencing tends to be presented in a “Brady Bunch”-style screen with all the participants facing the camera, which can be tedious for all involved and often make participants feel like everyone in the videoconference is staring at one another. Some employees are also often uncomfortable appearing on video.

Research conducted by High Five and Zogby Analytics indicated that 59% of people feel more self-aware when they are on-camera, and 48% worry more about how they will look on-camera than what they will talk about during the conference. Worse yet, 39% said they do not like being on camera in general. Another problem is brevity. Rather than being overly talkative on camera, employees often opt for shorter communications that leave the rest of the team trying to determine exactly what was meant or implied. 

Other potential challenges include cultural differences, non-verbal cues, a lack of collegiality, time zone differences, slow internet connections and compatibility issues. That doesn’t mean that videoconferencing isn't useful. On the contrary, video is more engaging than audio alone, allows employees to build camaraderie, get to know one another better, and can help them avoid feelings of isolation. It also facilitates the sharing of common experiences and allows them to enjoy the feeling of chatting by the virtual water cooler. 

By using best-in-class videoconferencing software, standardizing software and hardware, replacing antiquated legacy technology, and providing transparent guidelines for what is expected, most of these issues can be minimized. Many employees have begun to get used to being on camera during meetings and have realized that others worry about the same issues while on camera.

“When it comes to collaboration, sometimes employees can suffer from channel overload," Korte said. "What justifies a chat vs. call vs. video and so on. Make sure you’ve clearly articulated what your expectations are for employee engagement while still promoting today’s tools no. 1 value, which is flexibility."

Tools such as B2M’s Elemez, a real-time device health monitor, uses predictive analytics to enable companies to proactively manage and maintain enterprise mobile devices often detecting problems before they occur. Although it may not be practical to provide standardized devices for employees, it is still important to ensure that employees have the equipment they need to effectively participate in videoconferences and meetings, and to have equipment on hand to immediately dispatch to an employee with a dysfunctional device.

Learning Opportunities

Related Article: New Together Mode Shows Microsoft Teams Is in It to Win It

Collaboration Platform Providers Step Up

As businesses and employees rose to the challenges of the remote workplace, the collaboration platform providers immediately went to work to improve, update and evolve their software. Many collaboration platform providers, including Microsoft, Google, Slack, Zoom, Cisco, Chanty and LogMeIn, even provided businesses with free versions of their platforms along with subscription-based premium features. 

Microsoft released a “broad set of new meeting experiences that address some of the most pressing challenges people are facing in a world where teams are more geographically distributed than ever before,” said Jared Spataro, corporate vice president for Microsoft 365. Here are some of the highlights:  

  • Together Mode: "New scenes give meeting organizers more ways to set the tone for their meeting, and AI-powered enhancements automatically resize and center meeting participants in their virtual seats for a more realistic visual experience.”
  • Custom Layouts: Custom layouts allow presenters to customize how content is presented to participants. "For example, they can choose for participants to see the presenter’s video feed transposed onto the foreground of the content being presented on screen, similar to how a weatherperson appears in front of the weather map on the news.”  
  • Meeting Transcripts: “After a meeting, a recap with the meeting recording, transcript, chat, shared files and more are shared with participants in the meeting Chat tab and viewable in the Details tab for each meeting.”  
  • Attendee Reporting: “For more structured meetings, such as customer presentations, attendee registration with automated emails makes it easier to manage attendance and view a reporting dashboard after the meeting to help understand attendee engagement.”  
  • Updates to Room Devices: “Updates to Microsoft Teams Room devices in workplace conference rooms enable social distancing, touchless meeting experiences and more inclusive, collaborative experiences for people joining meetings from home.”

It's a similar growth story at other vendors. "As a result of COVID-19, we are experiencing the largest remote work experiment the world has ever seen and in turn, the use of collaboration tools has skyrocketed," said Mark Strassman, senior vice president and general manager of unified communications and collaboration at Boston-based LogMeIn, a provider of cloud-based collaboration and engagement software. That created a new set of challenges.

"At the start of the pandemic, companies were forced to make quick decisions on communication tools for their teams to ensure business continuity when going fully remote. This caused many businesses to implement a variety of disparate tools to meet different needs, creating silos between these tools and wasting time for employees who needed to switch between platforms for different tasks,” he said. 

Strassman said the most important part of collaboration software is that it should be a unified platform. He pointed to a 2019 survey his company conducted that showed that 56% of employees used at least three different tools to collaborate, causing workers to lose momentum and focus when switching different solutions. 

"Rather than relying on separate solutions for customer communications and internal collaboration, it is now more important than ever for companies to invest in a single, unified collaboration platform that allows employees to manage all collaboration tasks within a single system,” he said.

Focus on Features and Functionality

When looking for a best-in-class collaboration platform, consider a platform that is accessible via both desktop computers and mobile devices to allow employees to stay in contact no matter where they are located. Optimally, platforms should also support: 

  • Multiple devices
  • Project/task management
  • Deadlines
  • Screen sharing
  • File sharing
  • Multiple storage options
  • Direct messaging
  • Session recording
  • Videoconferencing
  • Virtual chalkboard
  • Content search
  • Collaborative document creation

Korte said it comes down to recognizing business needs and how the collaboration platform fits into the current tech stack. “Finding the right technology fit can help with cost efficiencies, IT management and integrations," she said. "Understanding your tech stack can also help you find overlap. For example, running Zoom and Teams side by side may not be a cost-effective option and opting to leverage Teams as a single source of collaboration may be easier for users and IT alike.”

Companies are placing a great deal of trust, and making big investments in, remote work technologies that promise better collaboration and productivity, said Peter Jackson, CEO of San Carlos, Calif-based Bluescape, a provider of a visual collaboration workspace. "The reality, however, is the opposite, due to fragmented tools and apps that don’t work together and can result in huge setbacks for businesses later on. Creating an environment that improves the employee experience means going beyond throwing a range of different tools at your workers,” he said. 

Like many other leaders, Jackson recognized that working remotely can cause employees to feel emotionally unhealthy. A Gallup report from November 2019 reported that isolation and loneliness are a problem for nearly 25% of remote employees. Creating a unified workspace may help, like stepping into a virtual office, he said.

Today’s business landscape remains in flux and many employees continue to work remotely, while others are slowly migrating back to the office. Used right, communication and collaboration platforms can bridge the gap between remote and in-office workers, building camaraderie, engaging employees, easing isolation and loneliness, maintaining culture and improving the employee experience.