Whether yours went for Teams, Zoom, Meet, Slack or another platform, a huge number of organisations had to quickly implement online collaboration tools when Covid forced staff to work indefinitely from home – and said platforms have seen an exponential rise in users as a result. Zoom alone saw a 30-fold increase in use during April 2020, with sales during the last three months of 2020 up 370 per cent compared to the same period in 2019.
Now more than a year into the pandemic and with lockdown restrictions easing, businesses are reconsidering their working models and looking at how such tools fit into their future as more staff opt for a blend of home and office-based working. But for organisations that implemented solutions in a hurry, are unfamiliar with their full functionality or are just unsure what else is available, it can be difficult to know whether their current set-up could be improved.
People Management explores what collaboration platforms can offer businesses and their workforces, and takes an in-depth look at the pros and cons of the different products available.
What is collaboration technology?
Collaboration technology is software, mostly cloud-based, designed to facilitate group work, both in the office and remotely. There are three types of collaborative tools: communication, conferencing and coordination.
As the name suggests, communication software enables teams to easily talk to each other, particularly when working from different locations. Instant messaging apps such as Slack and G-chat are examples of communication tools.
Conferencing software such as Zoom, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams have two core functions. The first is to allow two or more people to communicate via video; and second, it enables groups to share their screens and simultaneously access apps and documents.
Coordination technology has both teamwork and taskwork functions, which allow teams to work on projects and manage schedules efficiently. Examples include Trello, Monday and Asana, as well as a range of e-calendars.
Which software is right for your business?
For those companies that brought in collaboration software in a hurry last year, Rita Trehan, former Fortune 200 CHRO and founder of transformation consultancy Dare, says now is a good time to “pause and take a look back”. “Many businesses previously had the mindset that it would take them six years to put in place a technology platform or it would take them two years to get everyone on board with the idea,” she adds. “But the pandemic has enabled them to see things differently and has shown them that, when you have a desire to do something, you can make it happen – and happen fast.”
When analysing their current platforms, Trehan says firms should avoid looking at “what hasn’t gone well”, and instead consider what they can learn from it. “The ability to pivot and change quickly tells you something about your organisation’s agility, adaptability and flexibility. It may not be 100 per cent perfect, but that’s a good thing,” she explains.
So how do you decide what type of platform is right for your company? Whether you’ve recently invested in collaboration software or been using it pre-pandemic, Natalie Swift, founder of consultancy Swift HR, says one of the first things leaders should do is identify their firm’s requirements. “When you are establishing the business needs, you’ve got to make it clear you are setting up the new systems with employees in mind. So consult with them and find out what technologies they are comfortable with as well as what the operational needs are,” she says.
“For those members of staff who are reluctant to change, involving them in the decision-making process is a good way to get them on board. And once you’ve identified the needs, you can research the technologies that fit that and decide what the right platform for the organisation is.”
But with so many platforms out there that offer similar features, how do you choose? Trehan says there is a tendency for organisations to “assume they only need to have a single platform” or a bespoke set-up, but that is “probably not the best decision if we want to truly move forward”. “We saw this with a couple of industries when the pandemic hit,” she explains. “The banking and insurance industries have always had a risk-averse approach. So when we switched to remote working, many people in the sector could not do their day-to-day job because they did not have a cloud-based system.
“While they needed the protocols in place and structures for security reasons, it not only highlighted the need for transformation and change, but also whether the industry needs to rethink its business model.”
She adds that sometimes the best option is to look at how various softwares integrate and work with each other, to ensure that teams can communicate, coordinate and collaborate effectively.
This is exactly what digital marketing agency Best Response Media has chosen to do. The company uses G-suite from Google, which comes with Google Meet, G-chat, document and calendar sharing ability and more, and alongside that they use Slack and other project management tools. Jessica Salter, people operations specialist, says the organisation has had its collaboration tools set up for a few years as its employees regularly worked remotely before the pandemic and have staff and clients all over the world. “We use Slack as our internal communication tool because we found it integrates really well with the various other software we use to get our work done,” she tells People Management.
“The project managers use Jira, a development tool, and it integrates with that, as well as with our Gmail and calendars. And we recently added PolyAI, which enables us to do polls and surveys among staff easily and efficiently through Slack.”
What are the alternatives?
Of course, not every organisation brought in collaboration software when the UK first went into lockdown, and some still haven’t. This is partly because some companies saw remote working as a short-term thing, so instead found workarounds using what Swift refers to as ‘shadow IT’. Shadow IT, Swift explains, is “unsanctioned software solutions that employees are using as an alternative” but that have not been approved by the company. This can be anything from setting up WhatsApp groups to using personal phones and laptops.
While WhatsApp, for example, has been used to either replace desk chat or collaborate efficiently, there are several issues arising when using it for work purposes. One of these is inclusivity. Swift says WhatsApp chat groups are often not overseen by management, and as a result are creating cliques. “In wider teams, we’ve seen that sometimes only selected people have been added to the chat group,” she says. “They are collaborating really well for work purposes and the chat seems very efficient. But by not including some people, it is purposefully not being inclusive, which could then inhibit the performance of other people in the team who are not in the group.”
Furthermore, because these groups are not overseen by senior management, Swift says there has been a surge in the number of incidents on shadow IT reported in the last 12 months – mainly inappropriate comments that come across as racist or sexist. “I’ve dealt with numerous discipline cases where one person in the chat has become really uncomfortable and released screenshots of it to the employer. The employer then has to take action against a number of people,” she explains.
“I had one case that resulted in a couple of people being dismissed, two others given a final written warning, two more a written warning and others dealt with informally. Unfortunately, this is the nature of it being a group chat. And with these disciplinaries, it only takes one person to report it to management for this kind of avalanche of cases to occur.”
The other issue is cybersecurity. Back up of WhatsApp messages on individuals phone are often not, and the some data is shared with and held by Facebook. This, Swift warns, means there is a real risk of data breaches to any personal or sensitive commercial information on there. There have also been security issues with workers using their personal accounts with Google Maps. For example, if a care worker is travelling to different patients’ homes to provide care and using Google Maps on their personal mobile to get directions, Google Maps will then hold those addresses. In fact, Google Maps will hold the home addresses of every vulnerable person in the district they had visited and, if their account was hacked, that information could be valuable to fraudsters, Swift warns, adding that businesses “need to be aware of these vulnerabilities” when not using proper collaboration tools.
Do you need collaboration tools at all?
The pandemic has accelerated the need for firms to invest in collaboration software, says Trehan, and there is now a “real need for companies not to fall back” into the old ways of working. Therefore, moving forward is one of the key benefits of having these tools in place – it’s “recognising the new era of inclusivity and collaboration” that embraces a hybrid approach of remote and office working.
For Swift, while collaboration and coordination are the biggest benefits, particularly when using tools such as Trello and Azure for projects, she believes that, during the pandemic, it has also played a crucial role in performance management and workforce wellbeing. “The key things for the success of any virtual team is to build trust and social cohesion, and to do that you need good collaboration and communication systems,” she explains.
“So it’s using those platforms not just for work-based purposes, but also for connection between the team, such as setting aside time to get to know new staff or find out how members of your team are doing on a personal note. This helps build relations, particularly right now.”
Which platform is right for you?
|Tasks/project lists||Y||Y – unlimited||Y||Y||Y|
|Assign tasks/projects||Y||Y||Y – paid subscription only||Y||–|
|Monitor project progress in real time/activity log||Y – paid subscription only||Y||Y – paid subscription only||Y||Y|
|Timeline||Y – paid subscription only||Y – paid subscription only||Y – paid subscription only||–||Y|
|Schedule/e-calendar||Y – paid subscription only||Y||Y – paid subscription only||Y||Y – paid subscription only|
|File sharing||Y – via Dropbox||Y||Y||Y||Y|
|Integrate with other apps/platforms||Y – paid subscription only||Y||Y – paid subscription only||Y||Y – basic integrations with Google Drive and Microsoft 365|
|User limit||Unlimited||Up to 15 teammates||Up to two on free version||Up to two on free version||–|
|Storage||Unlimited||Unlimited||600GB on free version||Unlimited||2GB on free version|
|Additional features||–||–||Zoom integration||–||Gantt chart|
Subscriptions start from $10 per user, per month
Premium from £9.49 per user, per month
Subscriptions from £7 per user, per month
Subscriptions from $7.20 per user, per month
Subscriptions from $9.80 per user, per month
Communication and conferencing apps
|Slack||Google Meet/G-chat||Microsoft Teams||Zoom||Ryver||Flock||Basecamp|
|Video conferencing||Y||Y||Y – up to 60 minutes on free version||Y – up to 40 minutes on free version||Y||Y – only on paid for||–|
|Record meetings||Y – via a third party app||Y – only with G-suite subscription||Y – only through Microsoft subscription||Y – paid subscription only||–||Y – paid subscription only||–|
|Audio calls||Y||Y||Y||Y – phone features on paid subscription only||Y||Y – paid subscription only||–|
|Screen sharing||Y||Y||Y||Y||Y – limited to five users on a call||Y – paid subscription only||–|
|Document sharing||Y||Y – part of G-suite||Y – part of Microsoft 365||–||Y – from Dropbox, Google Drive or Box.com||Y||Y|
|Create different channels/groups||Y||Y||Y||Y||Y||Y – only on paid for version. Free version offers 10 public channels||Y|
|Integrate with other platforms/apps||Y – up to 10 third-party apps on free version||Y||Y||Y||Y||Y – paid subscription only||Y|
|5GB on free version. 10GB per member on standard and 20GB per member on plus subscription||30GB per user on G-Suite starter package. 2TB, 5TB and unlimited on premium subscriptions||10GB per user on free version. 1TB per organisation, plus 10GB per licence, on paid subscription||1GB cloud recording per licence||500GB|
|Security||Y – paid subscription only||Y||Y – basic on free version||–||Y||Y||Y|
|Additional features||–||–||–||Social media streaming on paid packages||Task management. News streaming/RSS feed||–||Message board. To-do lists scheduling|
Standard subscription: £5.25 per month
Plus subscription: £9.75 per month
G-Suite starter: £4.14 per user, per month
Standard: £8.28 per user, per month
Microsoft 365 package from £3.80 per user, per month
Paid subscription from £119.90 per year, per licence
|From $49 per month|
Paid subscription from $4.50 per user, per month
|$99 per month|