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Collaboration tools are more popular than ever, but they have an insidious side

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The many benefits of collaboration tools - such as Slack, Trello, Asana and Zoom - are well-documented. The ability to communicate with colleagues instantaneously, to video chat with remote or international co-workers, and to organise large and disparate teams is invaluable to businesses.

The umbrella term covers quite the range of applications, from messaging and task management to conferencing and file sharing. The string connecting each of these technologies is a shared ambition to streamline communication and allow team members to work together effectively.

New tools are entering the market every year and companies are rushing to get their hands on the latest and greatest. According to new research from access management firm Okta, some businesses are using upwards of 200 tools and applications simultaneously. The report also found the average number of applications used by businesses rose 6 percent year-on-year. 

However, it’s possible that amidst the excitement, a number of issues caused by their introduction are going unnoticed. Despite the obvious benefits, these tools could be changing the workplace in ways businesses never intended and might live to regret.

So, are collaboration tools overall a force for good or for ill?

Culture clash

The rise of flexible and remote working has been meteoric. It’s now almost expected that companies will allow employees to work from home for at least a portion of the week, and rejig their hours to align with personal schedules.

Figures from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) show that 54 percent of UK workers were allowed to operate outside of traditional office hours as of mid-2019. That’s up from 9.5 percent in 1999, as per the Office for National Statistics’ Labour Force Survey - an increase of over 450 percent in 20 years.

It’s fair to say this development is largely down to the proliferation of collaboration tools, that make long-distance communication a possibility. For this, in theory, they should be celebrated.

However, as a result of the rise of these technologies, employees today are replete with opportunities not to engage with each other face-to-face. This could mean we’re more likely to operate in social silos in the workplace, which makes cultivating a business culture challenging.

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Adam Harding, Chief Technologist at business technology provider Softcat, points out the rise in popularity of the open-plan office, designed to eliminate the sense of hierarchy and improve communication, has ironically coincided with the construction of a different type of partition.

“The move [towards text-based communication] has turned the open-plan office back into an office of virtual private rooms, with noise cancelling headphones de rigeur, especially in occupations such as software development,” he told TechRadar Pro.

“While this has the obvious benefits of removing barriers to productivity such as geographic immobility, some organisations have found that this has led to an erosion in company culture and camaraderie.”

The picture he paints is a frightening one, in which Spotify and our podcasts speak to us more frequently than the people sitting to our right or left, with whom we work every day. Despite claiming to achieve the opposite, collaboration tools could be pushing us further into siloed ways of working.

Always on

Another common cause for concern is that collaboration tools blur the boundary between home and work, demanding round-the-clock attention irrespective of the hour. In other words, their most useful trait (the ability to work on the fly) becomes their most damaging quality.

Mental health charity Mind acknowledges the value in workplace technology, but also believes it can contribute directly to mental health issues.

Emma Mamo, the charity’s Head of Workplace Wellbeing, says “issues like stress, anxiety and depression are common among staff. The causes of stress and poor mental health vary from one employee to another, but frequently cited contributory factors include excessive workload, long working hours, and a poor work-life balance.”

Mind is campaigning for a redefinition of ‘disability’ under the Equality Act 2010, to encompass mental health issues if they have a substantial effect on day-to-day activities. The change would see sufferers receive greater rights and protections at work.

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Some countries have introduced legislation establishing the ‘right to disconnect’, designed to protect workers who struggle to check out from work mentally.

In 2017, France introduced legislation that requires companies with more than 50 employees to designate hours when staff should not send or respond to emails. Italy and the Philippines both introduced similar laws, while many German companies (such as Volkswagen and Allianz) implement the policy voluntarily.

Andrew Johnson, Finance Director at online meeting solution provider PowWowNow, says vendors could look to tackle the issue by building in settings that actively enforce work-life balance, in the absence of UK legislation.

“We may see tools roll out features that prevent staff from accessing messages outside of set work hours or even enforce a full shutdown over the weekend or holiday periods,” he told TechRadar Pro.

The idea that businesses might intentionally prevent employees accessing materials at certain hours might appear farfetched. But as the importance of work-life balance is more widely acknowledged, businesses could look to actively dissociate themselves from the always-on culture encouraged by collaboration technology.

Are we enabled?

Plenty of vendors will tell you collaboration tools make the workforce infinitely more productive, by streamlining communication and allowing managers to delegate effectively. But it’s worth asking whether collaboration and productivity tools actually do what they say on the tin.

According to Geraldine MacCarthy, who heads up EMEA Business at content collaboration platform and file hosting giant Dropbox, workplace technology might in fact be slowing us down.

“Instead of fuelling creativity and collaboration, [the proliferation of tools] has actually inundated employees with busy-work; constantly managing communications across different channels, searching for files in a variety of applications and coordinating work between different formats and systems.”

“This ‘work-about-work’ saps people’s energy, drowning them in frustrating administrative tasks and taking time away from the kind of strategic and creative tasks that actually drive the business forward,” said MacCarthy.

Whether tools serve to improve productivity or hamper it has a lot to do with the specific ways they’re used within an organisation, something over which vendors have little control. To an extent, the onus is on the organisation to ensure tools are working for them, and not the other way around.

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Luxury luggage company Away, whose CEO recently resigned over alleged misuse of IM platform Slack, held strong opinions about the precise manner in which tools should be deployed.

Employees were actively discouraged from using Slack for private messaging, and all communications were to take place in public channels. This rule was supposedly introduced in the name of transparency and inclusion, but instead served to create a culture of constant surveillance.

Away makes for an excellent case study in how not to do it. But the company was perhaps right to define a clear structure for the use of collaboration tools within the organisation, even if the model it settled on proved disastrous.

Anne Marie Ginn, Head of Video Collaboration EMEA at computer peripherals manufacturer Logitech, also believes that context in king when it comes to successful implementation.

“If the collaboration tools we use are selected carefully, and tailored directly to the needs of individual businesses and employees, they can be instrumental in increasing productivity. No business operates in an identical way to another, and the key to productivity is to establish how employees work best, and install tools that complement it,” she said.

It seems a generic approach will do very little for a business, and may even actively hamper its productivity. At their best, collaboration technologies allow employees to optimise their working day, but only if businesses take a bespoke approach to selection and implementation.

Attention economy

According to the theory of attention economics, brainchild of US psychology professor Herbert Simon, the human attention is a finite resource. As per Simon’s theory, which he first spoke about publicly in 1971, we begin the day with a limited amount of attention that we’re able to allocate to tasks until reserves run dry.

It follows that, because attention is scarce, it should be assigned with extreme care. But this can prove difficult in an environment in which the attention is pulled in many different directions at once.

It could be said that collaboration tools represent yet another tax on our attention, pulling us away from deep focus on a given task with a never-ending stream of push notifications. The issue is made more acute with each additional tool a team or individual is asked to juggle.

Attention economics is perhaps routed in pseudoscience, but the idea that it’s probably not good to subject workers to continual distraction seems sensible enough.

Of course, workplace distractions are nothing new. Previously, the piercing trill of incoming phone calls provided the soundtrack to the working day. Nonetheless, businesses could benefit from undertaking a technology audit and cutting applications that only add to the notification storm.

Data explosion

There are a hundred and one ways in which business data can find itself in the wrong place, or in the wrong hands. Keeping track of business data has been made ever more difficult by the proliferation of connected devices, which produce and transmit information at a rate of knots.

Collaboration tools aren’t the number one cause of data breaches and hacks. But it’s still worth considering the security implications of a group of applications fueled by the exchange of huge volumes of (often personal) information.

Regus, a major office-space provider and competitor to WeWork, recently suffered a breach that exposed the performance data of more than 900 employees. The information was accidentally made public after an incognito, mystery shopper-style staff evaluation was conducted by a third-party firm.

The firm had mistakenly published the data on Trello, a web-based task management tool that allows managers to assign tasks and keep track of progress. The spreadsheet containing names, addresses and performance scores was discoverable via a simple Google search.

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Though this is an example of simple human error, which is near impossible to eliminate from the cybersecurity equation, Trello provided the platform for the mistake.

Insider threat solution firm Code42 believes collaboration tools make it increasingly difficult for businesses to keep track of their sensitive data. Further, employees are taking it upon themselves to introduce new tools to the mix, without approval from internal security teams.

“While these hallmarks of the modern workforce yield critical innovation, they also can be a breeding ground for dangerous data security risks – especially when employees use collaboration tools not sanctioned by their information security teams,” said Richard Agnew, the company's VP EMEA.

The ease with which information is exchanged on and between professional and consumer platforms might make the lives of employees easier, but security analysts likely feel differently.

The future for office collaboration

Today’s tools allow employees to work in ways they never could before. Flexible and remote working have flourished, information has never been more readily available, nor communication as frictionless.

However, collaboration solutions aren’t without their flaws. It’s likely that future iterations will be designed expressly to mitigate the issues they have created as a by-product of their success.

Many believe AI and machine learning will play a significant role in the future of workplace collaboration. By harnessing these emerging technologies, tools will offer workers the ability to navigate swiftly to the most pressing and relevant queries, sort through the chaos of files and data, and surface necessary information.

Collaboration tools may also learn to detect the user’s mood or stress level, directing them towards tasks that best suit their frame of mind or the time of day. Further, mechanisms could be built in to discourage lengthy sessions, or working into the small hours of the morning. The tools we use will simply become smarter.

Businesses can’t afford to forgo the clear benefits collaboration and productivity tools deliver, especially as workplaces become increasingly global and remote working increasingly common. But, what they can do is foster a keen awareness of the limitations and potential pitfalls associated with technologies of this kind.

In recognising the potential for disaster, and not seeing collaboration tools as a cure-all solution to inefficient teamwork, businesses will set themselves up to reap the greatest rewards.