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Although communication and collaboration platforms have been around for years in various forms, their adoption has inevitably gone through the roof since Covid-19 lockdowns were implemented around the world.
On the one hand, many employers had little choice but to turn to such technology as, in many instances, their entire workforce was forced to work from home overnight. This meant a way of replacing site-based interaction was required for businesses to continue functioning.
On the other hand, says Lee Evans, head of pre-sales at technology distributor Westcon, the fact that, unlike the systems of old, this software is now affordable, cloud-based and easy for users to adopt, meant that organisations moved to it in droves simply “because they could”.
This situation has seen the number of daily users of collaboration platform Microsoft Teams, for example, jump from 20 million in January this year to 44 million in March. The number of individuals using Zoom for video and audio meetings, meanwhile, has leapt from 10 million in December 2019 to 300 million four months later.
According to a survey by Gartner’s software advisory firm Capterra, 43% of UK companies found they had to buy or install new software to enable their employees to work remotely. It also found that such adoption had been mostly problem-free.
As Capterra content analyst Sonia Navarrete points out: “Most of these platforms appeal to employees because they feel like a social network. So, they’re more likely to actively use them as they feel similar to other tools they use in their private life.”
But there are downsides, too. Most are more personal than technology-based, and the biggest one is potential burnout. The challenge is that people who are used to having the boundaries between their work and home life more clearly defined are finding the two blurring together more and more, not least as “people think you’re always on”, says Evans.
Another related consideration involves the small, daily interactions with colleagues that fail to take place in a remote setting. Such interactions are not only important socially, but also provide people with crucial breaks to give their brains time to absorb and consolidate information, thereby preventing exhaustion.
A further challenge is so-called “Zoom fatigue”, in which people find themselves more exhausted at the end of their working day than usual because of endless video calls.
To deal with this situation, Navarrete advises “making sure that communication between teams is efficient and well-planned to avoid messaging saturation”. She also recommends using an online, centralised system, such as a Trello board project organiser or internal chat function, so that employees have a “reference point for when they need reminding of the small details, and avoid unnecessary calls”.
But the most important thing of all, says Evans, is making sure staff are provided with the right communication or collaboration tool for the task in hand, based on what they are required to do.
“Zoom, for example, is aimed at hosting video and audio meetings, while Teams is a collaboration platform that lets you access internal company files and have persistent chats, which means they’re quite different,” says Evans. “So the lesson is, don’t give people a tool just because everyone’s talking about it – use it to solve the problem that you’ve actually got.”
Here are two case studies of organisations that did just that.
Case study: Jami UK – social care charity
The use of online collaboration and meeting platforms during the Covid-19 lockdown has enabled Jami UK to both open up its social care services to a wider population and restructure the way it operates in a more efficient way.
The charity, a specialist provider of mental health services to London’s Jewish community, now uses Microsoft Teams for most of its internal communications and collaboration work as the system already contains the necessary documents and tools to do so. But large internal group meetings and external activities, such as clinical assessments and interventions, educational webinars and social get-togethers, are all conducted on Zoom.
For the time being at least, this online approach is replacing activities that took place in what were the charity’s four physical hubs in north-east and north-west London. But even when the lockdown is lifted completely, the aim is to continue providing clients with the choice of accessing services online.
Louise Kermode, Jami UK’s head of services, says: “I imagine we will go back to some face-to-face, but we also expect virtual services to continue as part of the mix. It’s about having a varied approach to meet individuals’ needs appropriately, so when we ask people how they’d like to see us, online will certainly remain an option.”
One such service that will continue to be offered virtually is the organisation’s “Headroom Café” in Golders Green, which provides people with both a “food and wellbeing menu – so mental health on the high street”, says Kermode. This is not least because, since the virtual version of the café was opened, its customer base has broadened out way beyond London.
“Uptake around the country has been significant enough for us to think about how to share our services more widely elsewhere in future,” says Kermode. “We’re not actively doing anything about it just yet, but it has made us think about how else we could deliver on our strategy of connecting people together.”
Louise Kermode, Jami UK
Another unexpected benefit of the move to online platforms has been the swift change in the way the charity organises itself. In the past, physical teams were located at its four hubs, with the social enterprise team divided across different sites, but virtual teams have now been formed based on the services they provide, such as non-client-facing activities and online programme delivery.
“It’s a much more effective use of resources as teams are now focused on meeting service user needs rather than locality,” says Kermode. “We’ve also been using people’s skills in different ways, so finding out what they can actually do, rather than just what they were employed to do.”
Rather than being a disadvantage, the pressure exerted by the Covid-19 crisis “allowed us to be brave”, she says. It meant that rather than organisational change being subject to “much discussion and red tape’, the charity was given the “opportunity to throw everything up in the air and see where it lands”.
But there have been challenges, too. For example, a good number of the organisation’s 61 staff and 1,300 or so service users were not comfortable with technology and had no access to it.
While employees were given laptops and training, for some it meant a couple of weeks of low productivity and isolation until they built up enough confidence to use the system effectively. As for clients, a fundraising campaign was undertaken to supply about 45 people with a tablet, SIM cards and Teamviewer software to make remote support possible.
“Accessibility has always been a real issue in social care and there was a real parallel in terms of offering flexible working to staff,” says Kermode. “But we’ve now seen how powerful and impactful this kind of technology is during the pandemic and a need probably existed before, so it has to be part of the solution going forward.”
Case study: Harvey Nash – recruitment consultancy
Harvey Nash has broadened out the use of its Microsoft Teams internal communication and collaboration platform to ensure furloughed staff continue to feel part of the wider organisation during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Out of a total workforce of about 3,000, the global recruitment consultancy and services provider has placed around 90 UK employees on furlough and about the same number on an equivalent scheme in Belgium. It had already introduced Teams worldwide and therefore asked its IT outsourcing team in Vietnam to tailor the system and create a dedicated platform to meet the requirements of people being furloughed.
Bev White, the company’s chief executive, says: “We had just launched Yammer to enable collaboration across every business in every country where we operate, but it struck me that as we were opening up there, we were depriving furloughed staff of the same innovation. Everyone else was sharing ideas on things like how to maintain mental health and keep in good shape, and it really bothered me that they didn’t have access to any of that.”
White also felt that a dedicated platform might be of use in giving furloughed staff voluntary access to training opportunities and a community of people in a similar situation who could lean on each other, if desired.
“I feel it’s a really important message we’re giving people – that is, you’re not abandoned or on your own,” she says. “We care about you and this is what we’re offering to try and support you through this difficult time.”
About 20% of the target audience are using the platform to date, which includes weekly updates from White as to what is happening with the business, health and wellbeing content, and personal development training from providers such as Uhubs. A product called Wagestream has also been made available to enable users to draw down their accrued earnings if required.
Bev White, Harvey Nash
As well as ensuring the system provides global content that is relevant to everyone, local offices can also add their own content, such as a calendar of local events or public holidays.
“It’s not a vanilla platform,” says White. “It’s quite easy to fall into that trap and it should be obvious, but it isn’t always.”
As well as providing the system, the firm’s HR department is also checking in with furloughed workers individually to support them and let them know that help is available if they need it. A key goal here is to boost staff engagement and prevent churn.
“Our approach will tell the tale when we come back to work,” says White. “I’m hopeful that it will help to ensure people still feel engaged with the business and each other and that they won’t feel excluded.”
But she also believes the system itself could have additional future uses in helping people on maternity, paternity, adoption and long-term sick leave to transition back to work more easily.
“It’s about helping people to readjust after they’ve not been working for a while, and the issues are similar whether we’re talking about furloughed staff or returners,” says White. “It’s potentially quite exciting, because this approach could prove to be of real value to our people in the future.”