A new age of collaboration tools

Businesses have always used collaboration tools, but have these been altered at all by COVID-19 lockdowns?

One of the starkest consequences of the pandemic is the fragmentation of workforces. Mass working from home (WFH) was at first expected to be short-term, but now looks set to become permanent as companies look to radically alter how they organise and manage their employees.

Businesses have used collaboration tools for decades, allowing individuals and teams to work efficiently together. COVID-19 made these tools vital and a hub around which workers could congregate. However, the speed at which some businesses rolled out these tools to remote workers was often hurried anot strategically planned. Now that enterprises have had time to assess what WFH means to them and what tools they really need to make it work, we may see the emergence of a new age of collaboration tools.

It's no surprise that the fastest-growing apps during the pandemic have been workspace management and collaboration tools. According to Okta's Business at Work report, Miro, an app offering whiteboard functionality for teams, experienced 301% growth; measured by unique users, it grew 449% in just a year. 

Deployment of project management app Smartsheet has grown 170% over the past three years. Slack has cemented itself as the leading messaging tool with 190% growth. And deployments of Zoom grew over 45% between March and October 2020, while Webex grew 15% and RingCentral grew 18% during this same period.

Martin Langan, chairman and innovation director at legalmatters, tells IT Pro that his company has been using the cloud-based NetDocuments service to help its 20-strong workforce manage their document loads. “The implementation of NetDocuments has played a big part in enabling the firm to continue ‘business as usual’ operations despite employees being unable to work from its office,” he says. “At present, legalmatters is only scratching the surface of what its employees can do with NetDocuments, and the firm expects further benefits to be realised once COVID-19 ‘lockdown’ measures are eased.”

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Tools, then, need to be chosen and deployed carefully to ensure they are fit for purpose, but also, that their end users are comfortable with their features. Legacy systems also need to be taken into consideration – often, several tools will be used together, which can provide integration and security challenges.

 With this in mind, unifying collaboration tools will become the Holy Grail of many businesses post-COVID-19 to avoid efficiency declines and ongoing security issues. Zoom’s new ability to integrate with Google Calendar and Microsoft’s Together Mode are examples of how this might look, as providers take the opportunity to make their products more attractive in an increasingly remote-focused business world.

New Tools

Carl Harris, group director at BCS (The Chartered Institute for IT) says there has been a shift over the past 12 months in how collaboration tools are used: “Certainly, at the start of the pandemic, the single biggest change in our use of collaboration tools was not which tools we are using, but how we would use the ones at our disposal differently.”

He adds: “Take Microsoft Teams as an example. Prior to lockdown Teams was a value-add collaboration tool, enabling us to reach employees via a simple video call more easily on those irregular occasions when somebody may be working from home. Now it is an integral part of our everyday working. All daily employee interaction is conducted through the tool, and the use of the tool’s features have expanded from just simple video calling to an extensive use of all it has to offer.”

Jörn Rabach, director at architecture practice Hutchinson & Partners, tells IT Pro his organisation has found significant benefits in melding a specialist remote working and collaboration tool into its existing systems.

“We have recently adopted Inevidesk, a virtual desktop solution which has been developed specifically for the AEC (Architecture, Engineering and Construction) sector,” he says. “Most importantly, this solution integrated seamlessly into our existing set-up, allowing the teams to directly work off our London based servers while avoiding the cost and complexity of a hybrid infrastructure solution.”

Fran Nolan, MD of content agency Tribera, explains that her company, too, found itself needing more than the basic level of collaboration platform that everyone flocked to in March 2020.

“We immediately had to get Microsoft Teams as we needed an intuitive way to meet on video as much as possible. We regularly use the chat function too to stay connected and try to keep those collaborative conversations going,” she says. “We then got GetBusy as we were finding we had too many work channels open with email, Slack andWhatsApp so we now use GetBusy which still integrates with email, but the task assignment and completion are a lot slicker.”

Transforming connections

What does all this mean for the future, both of business and of collaboration technology? One type of technology that holds some promise for meetings in particular is alternate reality, virtual reality, and extended reality – with IT Pro having already trialled an example of this in the form of Vive Sync.

Jocelyn Lomer, chief executive at nuVa Enterprises, which develops a virtual meeting room application, explains to IT Pro that while the tools we’ve been using so far have plugged a hole, we need to build on them.

“The desktop video apps are insufficiently rich and do not deliver innovative solutions or allow the mind to range freely,” he says. “Traditional desktop collaboration tools like MS Teams and Zoom have proven to be partly sufficient, but frequently employees are left frustrated, stressed and exhausted from the limitations of the asynchronous tools.”

Shaun Lynn, CEO of channel services provider Agilitas, says that as COVID restrictions subside, businesses will begin to reconsider how they create a more collaborative and flexible workplace outside a time of crisis.

“Collaboration tools need to support this migration, with connectivity and compatibility being key focus areas,” Lynn says. “Like all software-based tools, this will be an evolution rather than a revolution. Market demand will define functionality, and the vendors of collaborative tools who respond the quickest will be the ones to succeed. Like all great tech, some will become the VHS of collaboration tools and others will be Betamax.”

All businesses, no matter their size, have been transforming at speed as the pandemic has re-shaped their workforces. Choosing the right collaboration tools that deliver efficient services to remote teams and individuals are now the cornerstone all companies can build upon. But business leaders should also appreciate that these tools are not just for process management. Collaboration tools can connect remote workers on a personal level. Collaboration is about work, but also reinforcing social relationships that are critical for every employee's wellbeing.

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