The whole remote working tsunami saw employees who had never really used collaboration tools use them daily.
However, the sudden stampede to collaborate also exposed many issues, glitches, and failings in the tools that initially promised to make lives easier.
The reality is that not all collaboration tools are made equal, and often their functionality and interfaces are very different from each other. For older workers or non-digital natives, this can be daunting.
There are many cases of people functioning very effectively in a collaborative office environment but struggled when working remotely. It is mainly because they were struggling to get their head around the collaboration tools.
Part of the problem is that managers have their pet tools and are often making a choice. Some prefer Google Workspace, others are keen on Slack, and then there is Atlassian Jira which integrates with 3,000 different apps and third-party services.
Sometimes, these people have worked at other organizations and have become used to a particular tool. When they arrive in a new workplace, they impose their preferences on their new colleagues. It rarely ends well.
Why there is a mismatch
Collaboration tools sound terrific, and there is no shortage of them. Just go online and see “50 Best Collaboration Tools for 2021,” and it’s clear the market is getting saturated.
However, for many people, using them means unlearning what they learned at other organizations and on different tools. They need to re-educate themselves.
There is also the prevailing assumption that everyone can use an office collaboration tool of choice. People who have problems stay silent, to their detriment and that of the collective work.
Then there is the act of collaboration itself, which often requires trust and confidence in colleagues. In dispersed workplaces with many projects on the go, people are constantly flitting from project to project and adding their input to many collaborations.
We have to ask if this is always effective. Collaborating on a digital tool with someone you don’t know very well, and may not have actually seen for months, is not always the recipe for success.
As U.S. academic Paul Leonardi wrote in a recent edition of the MIT Sloan Management Review: “Such tools are designed to help people work together and learn from one another by creating threats of conversation and places to exchange information.”
“My research shows that those platforms' primary benefit for collaboration goes beyond knowledge sharing. They provide a window into who knows and does what in the organization and into how people make decisions and do their work.”
The collaboration paradox
Leonardi pinpoints the fundamental problem about collaboration tools: “Consider this paradox about digital change. Although it increases the need for collaboration in organizations, it also makes collaborating more difficult.”
He says it becomes harder to find the right internal partners. He also observes that it is also harder for co-workers to agree to collaborate because they lack trust, which means that a common understanding or common ground for the work is often lacking.
And yet, we rely on digital tools more and more, and the momentum is only going one way.
To make it all work better, organizations need to get disciplined about their collaborative processes. They should not put too much trust in the tools to sort out these processes, as you will end up creating a collaborative mess directed by the loudest voices but not the major talents.
At its worst, there is also a danger that these tools can become venues for online bullying, undermining workplace culture.
Collaboration should be less about play
Digital collaboration is more a laboratory and a factory than it is a schoolyard. But some of this has been lost as we rushed out the office door and headed home.
Just as we are stuck with each other as colleagues and fated to work together, so we are destined to use digital tools to collaborate.
As we reshape the new working world post-pandemic, I’d suggest revisiting how we go about using these tools so that we can get better results out of ourselves and our teams.
Lachlan Colquhoun is the ANZ correspondent for CDOTrends and HR&DigitalTrends and the editor of NextGen Connectivity. His fascination is with how businesses are reinventing themselves through digital technology and collaborate with others to become completely new organizations. You can reach him at [email protected].
Image credit: iStockphoto/monkeybusinessimages