When 13 employees decided to quit email for a week, the results were surprising. They had more face-to-face conversations, their stress decreased, heart rate monitors showed they moved more, and they spent more time on tasks before being interrupted. Endless emails and meetings are productivity killers, making social tools like internal instant messaging platforms a silver bullet for collaboration. Cloud-based or mobile tools can be particularly beneficial in an age where 1.7 million Canadians now work from home.
McKinsey found that social collaboration tools are nearly universal: 93 percent of executives report their teams use at least one social platform, which is typically mobile-accessible, and 74 percent report that these tools are somewhat integrated into employees’ work flow. Platforms like Google Hangouts, Skype, GoToMeeting, and Slack have revolutionized the way we view real-time communication at work, but do they have a measurable impact on productivity? Are they really a one-way ticket to agility, or are they just a necessary risk?
The pros of social tools
Gautum Roy, vice president of IT at Waste Management, based in Texas, told CIO he has been able to “embrace the best-performing attributes of consumer social networks by bringing those characteristics inside the company, to increase productivity, efficiency and improve business processes.” Their IT team saves time and money during time-crunches, such as critical outages, by communicating internally using Twitter. Their customer-facing staff have also successfully improved the customer experience with collaboration tools.
Large-scale studies, like the one by McKinsey, indicate that most industry tech leaders believe social collaboration tools have the potential to improve communications and make work more fluid. Among them, 66 percent believe that chat and internal social networks can break down communication barriers across functions and roles, and while 48 percent anticipate an increase in project-based work, 40 percent are confident that there will be more self-organization. For the majority of tech leaders, social tools are viewed as a way to achieve agility and productivity.
Social tools can have surprising benefits on employee happiness too. One Deloitte study found the right digital collaboration tools resulted in a 17 percent higher satisfaction rate within workplace culture. When you consider that engagement is worth 19 percent of the operating income: Employee happiness and engagement can be directly tied to engagement, retention, and even profitability. However, this same research found that only 9 percent of employees believed their employers’ tools were highly effective, and that the best solutions support transparency and trust.
… and the cons
Despite all the success stories, there are organizations who’ve quickly abandoned a new chat software post-implementation. Can these platforms lead to over-socialization, or more specifically, a fast drop in productivity? Health technology leader Christopher Batts expressed frustration with popular chat solutions, believing they increased his exposure to irrelevant comments while forcing him to still repeat all the email stuff he “did in the olden days anyway.”
Batts is likely not the first—or last—user to believe that chat tools have the potential to increase distractions. However, designer Ben Brown suggested that frustration with chat tools in the workplace can be connected to user expectations. Brown tells Fast Company, “[Chat] is a secondary and additive communication tool, and doesn’t replace process, documentation, and other tools like the wiki or company intranet.”
In other words, IT leaders should take caution before implementing any solution, be it chat or an internal social network. Trying to force a chat-shaped peg into an internal wiki-shaped hole can lead to fatigued employees and disappointing project results. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of any product ahead of time is key.
Frank Sielaff, head of digital media at Merck, a pharmaceutical company based in New Jersey, recently found himself on a tight deadline to launch an internal collaboration platform during a period of company rebranding. However, he was aware of the risks of unchecked “group” creation powers, and the risk that their platform would “soon have a couple of thousand groups, many of which are never used … lead[ing] to duplication and groups becoming orphaned when the person who set them up loses interest or leaves the company.”
Sielaff opted for “governance first,” stating that the goal wasn’t to create a “straight jacket” effect around employee approval. With clear criteria and a simple approval process, this project was able to proactively avoid messy results.
Productivity dream or nightmare?
When you dive into success stories of social collaboration implementations, you’ll start to notice that tech leaders talk frequently about governance and custom experiences. Organizations that drive results with collaboration tools typically have strategic implementation in common. CIO Angela Yochem of BDP International, a global logistics and transportation solutions provider based in Philadelphia, emphasized deliberate planning in her advice to other organizations. “Providing access to such a platform is not enough,” she told CIO. “Companies must be willing to seed conversations of interest, and let the conversations go where they may.”
Social tools are neither a silver bullet nor a nightmare. Like any other category of technology, they defy simple classification as either “all good” or “all bad.” Your organization’s experience and success will largely depend on your expectations and approach to implementation.