Managing the oversaturation of workplace platforms

With various collaboration apps replacing traditional office communications methods, is compartmentalising different interactions a good strategy?

What does your workstation look like; three monitors powered by a laptop, a desktop surrounded by the latest mic and cameras, or perhaps just a laptop with an external mouse and keyboard? Regardless of how you work, I’ll hedge my bets and say the way you complete your daily tasks has changed somewhat since 2019. 

Without leading us down the well-trodden path of how the pandemic has changed the way we work, it’s important to establish how the effects of COVID-19 on the workplace still manifest. The rise of cloud platforms and portals businesses were forced to adopt to continue functioning during lockdowns is arguably the biggest impact we’ve seen. This is exemplified by the fact a quarter of a billion people now use Microsoft Teams on a monthly basis. 

Even 250 million active monthly users, however, doesn’t translate into total market domination. In fact, over the past year, businesses have increasingly bought into an emerging trend of choosing different collaboration platforms for different types of workplace communication. Companies such as BT and Vodafone, for example, are using Facebook Workplace to offer employees a pseudo-social media experience. There’s a risk, however, that piling yet more digital systems onto the shoulders of already digitally stretched workers might inadvertently lead to a loss of productivity and disillusionment.

No plan is an island

Using such platforms in this way isn’t a new phenomenon, Meike Escherich, associate research director for the future of work at IDC, points out. Indeed, communicating with a distributed workforce means businesses need to upgrade their communications methods, with emailed newsletters and bulletins often ending up in spam folders too. 

“The biggest issue is that staff can be given all they need to do their job in a remote setting, but they’re missing the culture of the company,” Escherich says. “That sense of community, building loyalty, and support from superiors have all gone down the drain over the last year or so because businesses haven’t worked out how they communicate, how often they communicate, and what they communicate. This is a big issue for businesses to tackle.”

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Although the intention to supplement workplace culture might be there, introducing yet another digital platform can also take its toll. Depending on their department, employees will have to log into a range of systems at once, which inevitably has a knock-on effect on productivity. In fact, RingCentral found roughly two-thirds of employees are losing over a month of their time per year just switching between different platforms. Its research also found that a large portion of employees found navigating these different platforms more annoying than spam and junk emails (45%), paying bills (52%) and even trying to lose weight (50%).

“Generally, the industry needs to recognise that none of these tools can be an island anymore,” says principal analyst for workplace transformation at CCS Insights, Angela Ashenden. “These platform providers need to look at how they fit within the ecosystem. If you're going to enable productivity and enable people to be effective it has to tie in with all the other processes and happen wherever those processes take place. Therefore, there’s a focus around integration and how to streamline workflows across multiple tools.”

That is where collaboration platforms come in. Microsoft, for example, wants Teams to serve as a user interface window, senior analyst with Cavell Group Patrick Watson, says. Employees will, effectively, use Teams as a window into their applications, with integrations getting much better. If various providers integrate into Teams or Slack, he adds, users won’t feel bombarded by different apps because they’re effectively using one interface.

Dispelling the threat of shadow IT 

Although the likes of Vodafone and BT may well have good reasons for investing in Workplace, Escherich says she doesn’t think the trend of using more than one collaboration platform will be picked up by smaller businesses. The priority, for them, is to protect their IT teams, who would be burdened with a greater workload. “When we ask our clients about digital transformation and what is needed in-house to enable a hybrid workplace, the key issue is IT support,” she says. “It’s a big issue for business and even outstrips things like security or employee experience.”

Making such a decision may not be as simple as protecting IT teams, though, with shadow IT highly prevalent in regulated industries such as finance, legal and the public sector. As Watson outlines, establishing places for employees to go for both professional and social interactions is likely an attempt to control the realm of all employee interactions, as they may not currently know what’s being shared, how, and when. According to data Watson shares, 39% of executives in charge of technology know their business is currently using Facebook Messenger, 58% are using WhatsApp, with 10% using Signal and 20% using Telegram. 

“As you can see, there’s a large uptake of the consumer applications from employees, but those are just the ones the business owner or the technology executive knows about,” he adds. “These executives won't necessarily have a clue about these sorts of shadow IT issues, such as the warehouse with its own private Whatsapp group. Within those groups, too, employees could be talking about orders and potentially sharing customer data, which is a dangerous area for businesses. That’s why we have seen a ban of applications like WhatsApp and Telegram, particularly compliance industries.”

Although there may be an appetite to phase out messaging platforms in the workplace, according to data from CCS Insights, WhatsApp is the third most popular collaboration platform after Teams and Zoom. Ashenden concludes that, by separating the social and professional aspects of the office, businesses are shepherding their employees away from private messaging platforms towards mobile-friendly solutions. 

“Teams, Slack, Workplace all provide a simple chat messaging capability within a managed environment, which is why the likes of Microsoft, Facebook and Google are investing in mobile apps and that lightweight chat. The high-turnover workforce isn’t going to buy into a productivity platform, but they might use an app if it's easy and they can use it on their personal phone. That’s definitely one of the key pieces to this puzzle.”

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