Workplace collaboration is vital for the flow of knowledge across an organisation, and, ultimately, to enable employees to get work done.
Get it right and collaboration between workers can result in better coordination of shared projects, a boost to creativity, faster problem-solving, and an increase in individual productivity.
The rise of remote work in recent years has highlighted the importance of connecting individuals, no matter where their desk is or what time zone they’re in.
At the same time, the tools used by teams to work together continue to evolve quickly: there are a huge range of collaboration software products available to businesses, from email to real-time chat apps and video meeting platforms, while collaboration functions are also built directly into productivity, project management, and other business apps these days. Looking further ahead, there’s even the prospect of conversing in virtual environments.
If anything, the range of options can be overwhelming, both for those deploying and managing a multitude of apps and for the workers tasked with staying on top of messages across all the tools they log into each day.
And there’s more to collaboration than just selecting the right tool: employees often need support to make the most of the apps available to them.
Good, bad, or otherwise, there’s certainly a lot to keep up with. Here are the key workplace collaboration trends IT and business leaders should know about.
Hot: Generative AI in collaboration tools
In the few months since ChatGPT was launched, it’s fair to say that generative AI has grabbed people’s attention — and then some. Citing statistics from Similarweb, analysts at financial services firm UBS declared ChatGPT to be the fastest growing consumer internet app of all time, averaging 13 million unique users per day in January.
Businesses have taken notice as well, experimenting with the technology for everything from composing reports to writing software code.
Collaborative software makers have noted the advantages of applying the tech to their products too: Microsoft, Google, and Slack are just a few of the vendors starting to integrate large language models (LLMs) into their products, promising huge enhancements to collaboration and productivity for users.
“Despite the overhype, generative AI is bound to have a major impact for business communications and collaboration,” said Raúl Castañón-Martínez, senior analyst at 451 Research, a part of SP Global Market Intelligence.
It’s possible for a new breed of generative AI assistants to summarise a meeting an employee might have missed, for instance, or automatically draft a formally styled email in seconds.
“Generative AI, over time, may be that virtual colleague you didn’t know you needed,” said Wayne Kurtzman, research vice president for Social, Communities and Collaboration at analyst firm IDC. “Every collaborative application will increase their use of AI over time.”
Businesses should be wary, though, as generative AI is prone to inaccuracies, biases, and plagiarism, with many kinks to be worked out. And plenty of questions remain over data security, sovereignty, and governance when applying LLMs to employee conversation data, said Kurtzman.
Hot: Collaboration analytics
Businesses rely on digital tools more than ever to connect employees, particularly as remote and hybrid work becomes entrenched in workplace culture.
An advantage of these applications is the ability to access data relating to collaboration patterns, such as the number of messages sent or meetings attended. This has the potential to reveal communication bottlenecks that exist across an organisation, for instance.
“We’re seeing more and more discussion around the idea of meaningful measurements for collaboration,” said Shimrit Janes, knowledge director at consultancy Digital Workplace Group.
One of DWG’s members uses data generated from Microsoft’s collaboration apps, such as Outlook and Teams, to understand where staff are collaborating, said Janes. “They look at email volume versus what’s happening in Teams,” she said. “They would prefer to see more collaboration taking place in Teams than email, [so they are] using that anonymised data to understand where an intervention might need to take place, with more learning and more coaching [to encourage real-time collaboration in Teams].”
The use of data derived from these collaboration apps enables businesses to understand employee communication patterns — not just looking at usage and seeing that collaboration is happening, “but using it as an input for decision making,” said Janes.
Janes also warned that organisations should exercise restraint and be respectful of individual privacy when accessing employee collaboration data. Furthermore, data on the number of emails or instant messages sent shouldn’t be used as a proxy for tracking staff productivity.
“The increase in surveillance technologies and software [can] impact collaboration and productivity in a negative way,” said Janes. “People want to understand how to use data and measurements to know where collaboration is happening, but we would always advise to do that in an ethical way that’s inclusive of the people you’re trying to help collaborate.”
Hot: Focus on employee skills for collaboration
While there are many useful collaboration apps that businesses can deploy to connect staff, IT shouldn’t assume employees will know how to use a new tool effectively, or intuitively adapt to new ways of working such as asynchronous communications.
“It’s all well and good having the shiny new technology that you think will help with collaboration, but do people have the skills to understand how to make the best use of it?” said Janes from Digital Workplace Group.
Fortunately, managers are waking up to the fact that their employees may need coaching in how to use tools that enable digital collaboration, Janes said.
“Digital skills and literacy have been on the agenda for a long time, but the distributed way of working and how you collaborate when you’re not physically together is leading to a greater look at the skills needed to enable it,” she said.
Another factor for effective collaboration is the development of “soft skills” that may have less to do with the technology itself. These can often be overlooked by businesses when developing a collaboration strategy, said Jonathan Phillips, co-founder of consultancy ClarityDW. “It’s simple things like a line manager understanding who has contributed to a meeting, who has participated, who spoke up and who didn’t speak up, and thinking through the barriers for why that might be,” he said.
Not everyone feels comfortable speaking on a video call, for instance. “Some people switch their cameras off deliberately. [Video meetings are] not a pleasant experience [for them]: It’s a barrier to collaboration, in fact,” said Phillips.
He cited one client that sought to increase participation in video meetings. In this case, team members who were uncomfortable talking on camera during a meeting hosted on Microsoft Teams were encouraged to write in the chat function instead, which could then be addressed in the main meeting. “So, if you’re not comfortable about voicing directly, you still have a way of contributing to the conversation,” he said.
“Ultimately, everyone wins if we can get everyone’s voice to be heard and to be active in a collaboration process. But that’s a much easier sentence to say than to do,” he said.
The good news is that there’s greater awareness of some of these challenges these days. “A lot of organisations are recognising that investing in people and skills is often more important than investing in the software for the collaboration; that’s the means to the end,” Phillips said. “If you can get the foundation right, then it almost doesn’t matter which tool you provide, or much less so.”
Hot: Communication-enabled workflows
A common headache for collaboration app users is the need to frequently switch apps, diverting them from productive work. Information overload is a real issue, with notifications and alerts pinging across the various tools, as workers battle to stay connected on different projects. Knowledge workers use an average of nine apps each day, according to a survey by work management software vendor Asana, while Gartner puts the average at around 11, creating significant potential for distraction.
Software vendors have recognised this, resulting in efforts to place collaboration features more directly into the flow of work and accessible from the apps they spend most of their time in.
“While not a new concept, bringing together productivity and collaboration applications tightly integrated with business workflows has emerged as a key trend, enabling organisations to reduce friction in employees’ day-to-day work and improve productivity,” said Castañón-Martínez.
Google Workspace is one example, with the ability to kick off a video meeting for enhanced collaboration around a document, spreadsheet, or slide presentation. And Microsoft has embedded real-time communications into productivity apps such as Excel, and has even made Teams conversations accessible directly from inside Dynamics 365 CRM and ERP tools.
Hot: Blending synchronous and asynchronous collaboration
Real-time, synchronous communications are vital to modern team collaboration processes. It’s not the only way of doing things, however, and interest in asynchronous communication has been increasing in recent years.
Asynchronous collaboration isn’t anything new — email is one example — although new tools such as short video messages have emerged more recently too, while team chat tools such as Slack can be either synchronous or asynchronous, depending on how they are used. But the rise of remote work has placed greater emphasis on the need for tools — and processes — that allow collaboration to occur at different times and at different speeds.
“If you have folks working across a range of geographies and a range of time zones, how can real-time collaboration work? If you’re working between London and Australia, good luck finding the work hour where you are all online at the same time,” said Phillips at ClarityDW. “So it has to be asynchronous.”
Asynchronous collaboration isn’t only suited to teams working remotely or in multiple time zones. It can mean catering to the different communication styles that may fit a particular task or project.
While businesses often perceive collaboration applications as a kind of Swiss army knife, a one-size-fits-all tool that caters to any teamwork scenario, this is starting to change, said Phillips. “We’re getting to a point [where businesses] recognise those tools — synchronous and asynchronous — work in harmony together, but also they are for different things,” he said.
For instance, synchronous collaboration is best for “real-time” work that involves problem-solving and decision-making, he said, “but if you want people to read, or to think, to create, or to research, then a synchronous collaboration meeting is not what you need.
“That is a point of realisation for a lot of companies: ‘We’ve got these tools, but we need to make sure that we’re educating [employees] and providing the right tool for the right moment and for the right collaboration challenge.’”
Going cold: The metaverse for business collaboration
It wasn’t so long ago that the metaverse concept was being hyped as the next-generation computing interface for consumers and businesses alike. For workplace use, vendors have touted the idea of meetings held via virtual or mixed reality headsets, such as with Meta’s Horizon Workrooms, while startups such as Virbela and Mytaverse offer shared 3D environments where users can create avatars to move around and interact in a virtual space.
But in recent months, most talk of the metaverse has been completely overshadowed by the hype around generative AI.
That shift is reflected in the Digital Workplace Group’s recent interactions with its members, said Janes, although she doesn’t write off the prospect of VR and immersive collaboration entirely. “It might shift again, but in terms of where we are right now, there’s been a cooling off of interest in the metaverse,” she said.
The initial excitement around collaboration in virtual environments has been replaced by the potential of generative AI and how it might start to feed into the ways people collaborate, said Janes.
“It doesn’t mean [interest in] the metaverse has gone away,” she noted. “The shift of how to work in that way might be too big for the here and now, but I think that could potentially be a really interesting way [to collaborate] as we move forward and newer generations [of workers] come in.”
One factor that may reignite interest in the metaverse in general is Apple’s recent announcement of Vision Pro, its new mixed reality headset for use in virtual environments. It remains to be seen if and when any renewed interest in AR/VR sparked by the new device will extend to business collaboration.
Going cold: ‘Best of breed’ collaboration apps
The debate over “best of breed” apps vs. app suites has existed for decades. One approach promises a single product optimised for a specific use case, the other a broader range of functionality at a typically lower overall cost.
When it comes to collaboration software, best of breed apps have appeared to have the upper hand in recent years, with Slack taking an early lead in team chat and Zoom dominating the videoconferencing market. But as similar tools in office suites like Microsoft 365 and Google Workspace have improved and become more integrated with other apps in these suites, the pendulum has begun to shift back in the other direction. Now the idea of a single-purpose tool is becoming less common as many best of breed collaboration software vendors incorporate a greater range of functionality into their products.
Unified communications vendors were ahead of the curve here, said Castañón-Martínez, combining tools such as telephony, video, presence, and messaging. More recently, though, a wider range of collaboration software vendors have taken a similar approach, signaling a transition from best of breed to converged, all-in-one applications.
“The shift from niche, best of breed point solutions to more converged business application systems has been years in the making,” said Castañón-Martínez.
It’s a change that’s driven by the “limitations of point solutions,” which contribute to the “perpetuation of technology silos — one of the top obstacles for productivity nowadays,” he said. Third-party app integrations and open APIs that connect point solutions go some way toward addressing these limitations, said Castañón-Martínez, but natively integrated features can ultimately be more convenient for users.
One example is Zoom, which has expanded its videoconferencing product focus to become a full-fledged UCaaS (unified communications as a service) provider, with a voice call feature and even a whiteboard tool built into its app.
“Similarly, Slack initially emerged as an enterprise messaging application and subsequently incorporated video and telephony features,” he said. As well as a native voice call function, Slack has added “huddles,” a simple voice and video conference tool, and “clips“ for sending short video messages.
And Microsoft Teams, which started out as an alternative to Slack’s real-time messaging app, is now available as a standalone app and positioned as a UCaaS platform with comprehensive collaboration features, added Castañón-Martínez.
For software vendors, the growing functionality is an opportunity to upsell and expand their footprint with existing customers, he said. “However, the main driver has been the synergies that result from a tight integration between business applications,” said Castañón-Martínez.
Another factor driving this trend is business budget constraints. “Looking at IT budgets for the second half of 2023, the outlook remains negative in comparison to the first half, which has already seen negative IT spending trend,” he said. “This is leading IT decision-makers to be more careful with budget allocation, increasingly favoring product suites over point solutions.”