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Managing Social Technologies in the Work Environment

Brief

Organizations have the ability to use collaboration software such as Slack, Microsoft Teams and WhatsApp to drive better connectivity between employees and improve overall productivity. This is especially important in areas where there are workers in different time zones or remote work is involved. According to McKinsey, these technologies have the ability to enhance productivity by 20 to 25 percent. Throughout the journey of collaboration, teams are faced with the task of defining communication within and determining what kind of communication the collaboration software is intended to facilitate. This article will look at the top 3 communication and collaboration platforms and some of the main challenges that often arise and steps that can be taken to ameliorate the work environment.

Top 3 Communication & Collaboration Platforms

The top 3 communication and collaboration platforms in the market today

  • Atlassian – Jira/Confluence: JIRA is a collaboration platform that includes tracking tasks and issues in an agile project management environment, augmenting team’s productivity and visibility. Confluence serves as a team workspace and repository for materials, resources and know-how that are important to the team and organization.
  • Slack: Instant messaging platform that allows users to create shared channels for organizations or teams to help drive improved contribution and communication. It has been in business since 2013 and has recently reached a deal with IBM to provide services to all its 350,000 employee worldwide.
  • Microsoft Teams: A proprietary communication application built in part, to augment the Microsoft stack (MS Office, cloud, etc). It allows users to chat with co-workers, join video conferences, file storage and many more.

Managing Expectations

Sometimes, organizations may find collaboration platforms being used for social purposes. In some cases, it may be preferable to keep the social aspect outside of the main channel (by providing an area where individuals can socialize), in other cases, it may be preferable to allow socializing to a certain degree, on the main channel. Every team and organization needs to understand the pros and cons and build guidelines accordingly (which may include deciding to not take any action at all).

When NOT to use Instant Messaging environments

Social technologies are often not built to cover all aspects of organizational interaction. It is a part of an overall solution that often involves e-mails, IM, face-to-face, video conferencing and others. Many IM solutions have built-in integration options to allow for a seamless transition between the collaboration stacks. Below is a list of items that may be better accomplished via e-mail instead of IM:

  • Announcements (E.g. Quarterly earnings, leadership insight)
  • Official point/stance (E.g. Performance feedback, HR/IT/PR related requests)
  • Document distribution or storage
  • Long Text – If it fills the screen of a cellphone x2, then it is probably not a good idea to have it on an IM collaboration software. In such case, use the IM to link to the relevant material or sending it directly via e-mail.
  • Key Information/Drivers (e.g. Change Requests, Technical Implementation, Project Requirements, Sales Forecast in excel, etc). Anything that is expected to be searchable or revisited at a later time should then be moved from an IM collaboration software to e-mail or another source. This action should be done, preferably by the owner of the item that has been raised to decrease the risk of miscommunication, forgetfulness, etc.
  • Communication with external sources (E.g. clients, suppliers). Although there are cases where different solutions are used to communicate with external sources, e-mail remains the gold standard for such communications.

User Tag

Make use of user tag (E.g. @username for Slack) to drive your message to the individual that is expected to be the recipient of your message. Always assume that if the message is not tagged, some users are likely to skim through the message or ignore it.

If the tool allows, have priority levels to tagging. For example, if a mission critical environment failed, structure the sentence like this: ‘@username Critical Priority: Environment X is offline, we need your support in resolving this matter.’

Avoid tagging multiple people/groups to messages, the more people are tagged multiple times, the less effective the message tends to be in the short and long run.

As teams grow beyond a certain size (5 is often the case), user tag becomes essential to ensure that the recipient reads the message.

From Conversation to Actionable Items

Use IM to help support actionable decision making. Every action/task that needs to be completed should move from IM tools into a board or task management tool of sorts where members are able to take better ownership of the action/task. It should include line items such as deadlines, definition of done, priority level, commentaries, etc. One of the key challenges of collaboration tools is to ensure that action/tasks are not lost in the stream of messages flooding the IM channels.

Define & Realize Urgency

Always remember, if everything is an emergency, nothing is an emergency. Create a guideline that defines the action that needs to be taken when an emergency occurs. The best policy in such case, is to ensure that emergencies are resolved or at least started via text or preferably, a call. Managers and self-managing agile teams, should take steps to police themselves to ensure this is followed.

Managing Non-Essential Channels

Every once in a while, revisit the list of channels available and clean out the ones that are not relevant anymore. The less is often better in such cases, as it allows attention to be focused on what matters. Mute channels that are non-essential to the individual’s operation. Ensure that the mute option still allows you to receive and/or be tagged to information that is relevant to you. Take steps to keep the channel board well-managed to facilitate personal use. This may involve creating sub-directories for different areas, trimming the number of channels, etc.

Checking & Responding to Messages Too Often

Whether someone is checking their messages to see whether X has been resolved or simply responding to a request that has been made on chat, checking and responding to messages have become a major feature of today’s workforce. The rapid response nature of social media technologies allows teams to be more responsive and increase productivity.

Fact Source: RescueTime

Image Source: Icons made by Freepik from Flaticon is licensed by Creative Commons BY 3.0

However, issues regarding overuse of technology has become apparent, in fact, according to a research done by RescueTime, most workers check IMs and e-mails every 6 minutes. Interestingly enough, through a randomized study also made by RescueTime, self-assigned productivity increased throughout the period in which Slack – a major instant messaging collaboration tool – had an outage in 2018. When checking and responding to messages occurs too often, it often drains the focus from more productive tasks. Therefore, team members should be encouraged to create a habit of checking messages once every 15, 30, 60 or 120 minutes depending on the current business environment. If a text conversation is expected to take over 15 consecutive minutes, it may be better to have a call or face-to-face conversation. In some cases, a well structure e-mail may be enough to help support the cause.

Challenges with out-of-office instant messaging (Evenings, Vacations & Weekends)

Everyone is bound to have a life outside of the office, but in some cases, IM collaboration environments may breach that invisible barrier, allowing others to reach out at potentially inconvenient times. There are many valid reasons for it to occur, whether it is an emergency, a task needs to be accomplished out of normal scheduled hours or team members are located in different time-zones. In such cases, teams should make sure to have the right framework to determine how, when and if engagements should occur in out of office periods.

Team members should be encouraged to set-up timers for messages to arrive to the recipient whenever it has been created in out-of-office periods. For example, if work is done on the weekend, IM should have a timer to arrive to the recipient on Monday morning (assuming Mon-Fri workdays). In cases where time-zone is a concern, follow company guidelines or use the time-zone associated with management or the team majority.

Not every organization/teams will have the ability to get everyone to agree not to message each other at certain times (E.g. evening, weekends). In such cases, it may be beneficial to change preference settings or manually turn off the collaboration tool. Remember that if the process is done manually, it increases the odds that it may be forgotten offline for periods longer than intended, which could lead to issues with the team.

“If work is done on the weekend, IM should have a timer to arrive to the recipient on Monday morning”

Steps to Limit Disruption

Some teams have found to be beneficial to have a team-wide ‘blackout’ from collaboration software. This can come as a ‘Rule’ where the tool or certain channels will not be used for a portion of the day or even some days. This allows team members to focus on tasks and action items. Most IM collaboration software will have a ‘Busy’ or ‘Do Not Disturb’ status that allows the user to essentially mute all incoming traffic for individuals to work uninterrupted. Be mindful not to overuse this setting, as most team environments expect a certain degree of communication and this setting can pose a challenge to collaboration.

Team Collaboration Framework Example

  1. We shall use [ABC] tool to support myself and the team towards the end goal of creating value to our customers.
  2. We shall limit the use of [ABC] at out-of-office hours (Evenings, Weekends, Vacation) unless stipulated otherwise or determined to be an emergency where only a certain individual/team may be able to resolve it.
    1. An emergency is something that needs to be resolved within the same day, or [insert definition of emergency].
  3. We shall not use [ABC] for things that are considered out of the scope/capability of the tool (E.g. Document storage, official announcements, communication with external sources, document storage, long text, etc).
  4. We shall use text or calls in cases of emergencies.
  5. We shall take the necessary steps to transition words from [ABC] in to action/tasks in [Insert Task Management tool or e-mail] to ensure good team and self-management.
  6. We shall use [ABC] in a social aspect, allowing for building relations as long as it does not impact productivity.
  7. We shall have a ‘blackout’ time between [Insert Time(s)] [Date(s)] [Time Zone] to allow for unobstructed work outside [ABC].

Conclusion

Organizations have a great opportunity to improve synergy and productivity by utilizing collaboration software such as Slack, Microsoft Teams and WhatsApp. Although challenges may often arise when new tools/technologies are used, it is important to construct the right mindset and environment to decrease risks and improve productivity. Building an individual and organizational framework for the use of collaboration software can help enhance the benefits of technology. Teams should be encouraged to create a Team Collaboration Framework to help everyone be on the same page regarding IM collaboration environments.

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