31 August 2023

Online collaboration tools: which is right for you?

7 minute read


Jo Faragher

Jo Faragher

Jo Faragher is a writer and editor, specialising in HR and employment issues. She is a regular contributor to Personnel Today, People Management, First Voice (Federation of Small Businesses magazine) and Times Higher Education. She was awarded the Towers Watson HR Journalist of the Year prize in 2015 and was Highly Commended for the same award in 2019.


Hybrid and remote work Technology


Online collaboration tools have evolved from intranets to EX platforms and IM apps. Don’t overwhelm your employees; make sure each app has a clear purpose

The death of office email has been declared time and time again – predictions have often been made that, with the rise of chat and communications tools such as Microsoft Teams and Slack, inboxes would be bare and employees would suddenly have much more time on their hands. Slack even sold itself as the ‘email killer’ when it was first launched. But while this is not a reality yet (the total number of business emails sent and received each day was expected to be more than 333 billion by 2022, according to the Radicati Group), the more immediate nature and easy user interfaces of workplace chat channels or collaboration platforms has made them an increasingly popular way to communicate. This was heightened during the coronavirus pandemic, with colleagues resorting to chat channels on company messaging platforms to replace the conversations that used to happen around the water cooler. In fact, Slack estimates that between February and March 2020, the average number of messages per user increased from 197 to 252.

This growth has been fuelled by a shift in employees’ expectations of how they will communicate at work. Gartner’s 2019 Digital Worker Survey found that 58% of respondents used a real-time mobile messaging tool daily, and 45% a social media network – so when they come to work, they feel frustrated if this consumer-grade experience is not available. Shimrit Janes, director of knowledge at the Digital Workplace Group, explains why this is important. “The amount of time it takes to move between user interfaces impacts our cognitive ability to get things done because we’re constantly shifting context. Users crave an experience that is less fragmented and interrupted.” When employees are empowered to get on with their tasks for the day, rather than faced with spending time checking email trails or moving between tools, this in turn creates a ‘sense of satisfaction’ that impacts positively on their engagement.

For years, employee intranets have been one of the main routes for organisations to communicate with workers and enable access to HR and benefits systems so they can book holidays or report absence. However, Josh Bersin, global HR analyst and dean of the Josh Bersin Academy, argues that the push for simplicity from employees had led to the emergence of ‘employee experience platforms’ that offer an entry point to other workplace systems such as payroll with a more consumer- like experience at the front end. “Consider the consumer market. Google, Facebook, and Amazon have dozens of back-end systems, yet we see a single easy-to-use interface as consumers,” he explains. “Just as they have abstracted away complexity with a front-end layer, so must we build a similar architecture for employees in our companies.” During the course of a day an employee might need to access a learning tool, provide some performance feedback for a colleague, and book some time off – an employee experience platform aims to bring these disparate actions together behind a seamless gateway. In February 2021, Microsoft launched Viva, an employee experience platform that brings together access to company resources such as policies and benefits, provides data insights into how employees use the platform, and enables access to learning materials and a way to connect with information and experts relevant to their job.

The need to access information or communicate ‘in the flow of work’ is precisely why employees turn to the more consumer-like interfaces of Teams, Slack, Google Workspace or Workplace from Facebook, says Amy Cook, a partner at workplace collaboration consultancy Cook & Co. “Users feel more autonomy if they can engage with someone or authorise something in the flow of work,” she explains. “You might be working offsite and want to file an expense form on your phone rather than waiting to have access to a certain system in the office, for instance.” Slack, for example, offers open APIs that make it relatively easy for organisations to connect other systems into its workflow, meaning they don’t need to switch programmes to complete simple tasks, she adds.

“If you look at the tools, each of them does something really well,” adds Kenzo Fong, CEO and co-founder of Rock, a platform that aims to bring workplace tools together in one place. “So you might have Slack for messaging, and Asana or Trello for project management. The problem is that all these apps are disconnected so you might have to share a link to a Google Doc or a task from your project board.” With distributed workforces increasingly becoming the norm, being able to create a space where these tools come together is crucial, he argues – it might not be possible to ask the manager to ‘ping’ over a document as we did before, so centralised access helps to create a more frictionless experience.

The advantage of easy integration is that collaboration tools can be more easily personalised for employees: so if you need to access the team calendar several times a day, it makes sense to connect to that; if you’re a salesperson who needs to access the customer relationship management system you can do this through a click of a button. However, with many organisations shifting corporate software investments into the cloud thanks to lower costs and easier systems management, some IT departments may be reluctant to let this happen. Janes adds: “With cloud-based platforms, vendors have control over the roadmap and updates are pushed out to clients, which means organisations sometimes try to limit the amount of customisation. But there are still things they can do to build a good ‘user experience layer’, for example by building in microservices via APIs.”

These platforms need not be limited to improving employee productivity – they can also be a useful tool for boosting engagement. Communications about achievements or acknowledgements of a colleague’s work can be amplified through these channels. Ray Pendleton, founder of Thirsty Horses, which has developed social recognition and engagement platforms for several NHS Trusts, calls this “crowdsourcing the strategy.” He adds: “The strategic goals are created at the top level, but as employees interact with each other, giving each other feedback or giving someone a good rating for a job, the rest of the organisation sees their contribution to that strategy in action.” So a team might be working on a project in one channel, but in that they can also see their performance objectives, relevant learning and actions that have already been taken. This opens up engagement because there is more transparency over their role in wider organisational goals, Pendleton explains. “Rather than being told to ‘make 20 widgets’, employees are nudged through a process of support from their managers and peers. They feel empowered because they know what they need to do to meet their objectives.” Peer-to- peer feedback reinforces the message and enhances engagement.

Furthermore, the data thrown up by people’s likes, preferences and shares can help organisations personalise the experience even further. Combining this with generic HR data such as a person’s role, which part of the company they work for, and in which location, can ensure they see the tools most useful to them. But this data collection and monitoring needs to be kept at an aggregate and anonymous level. Microsoft faced a backlash in 2020 when its data analytics tool, Productivity Score, was shown to throw up insights such as how long employees spent in Teams meetings, whether they had their camera on, and how many times they mentioned someone in a chat channel or over email. After accusations that this crossed a line in terms of employee surveillance, the company said it would remove the ability to see people’s usernames in the data. Martin Fleming, a fellow of the Productivity Institute at the Alliance Manchester Business School, is hopeful that – on an industry level – this ‘big data’ can be used to achieve better insights on the balance between engagement and burnout, and how technology can support this. “The likes of Microsoft and Google know what apps are being used at what time of day, and the telecoms companies know where we are at any time,” he says. “There are enormous amounts of data being accumulated on workers’ practices and habits over this period, and I would expect that, over time, it will be used to create some solutions.”

And herein lies the challenge: how do organisations ensure a seamless collaboration experience will have a positive impact on productivity without constant notifications to employees who already feel overwhelmed? The shift to digital working during the pandemic led to many workers feeling compelled to be always available, to appear on multiple video calls or respond to messages straight away. Cook advises this is something managers need to be mindful of when rolling out collaboration tools. “If a user wants to be accessible at different times of day, we need to allow that. Just because these tools can offer instant communication, doesn’t mean it should be an expectation,” she says. “Make people aware (and show them) that they can snooze notifications or block time out of their calendars.” Fong predicts that post-pandemic ways of working will evolve so that workers choose both when and how they communicate. “In the future, I think we’ll see the most complex work – such as a recruitment interview or collaborating on a project – happening over live channels such as video, but everything else will become task-based and asynchronous,” he says.

This is where the human side of engagement must come to the fore, Fleming argues. “Over the course of day and night there is an expectation that employees will respond, even where senior leaders don’t set that expectation. The tools themselves create an expectation and desire among workers, even in the most understanding of organisations,” he says. So while increasingly sophisticated tools emerge to help employees achieve more and collaborate faster, it will become more important than ever for HR and managers to set realistic goals and prevent burnout from driving down engagement that could push their most talented and skillful people to leave.


Online collaboration tools: five key takeaways

  • Identify what different teams need to do and how they communicate – this will influence the type of collaboration tool or platform that suits
  • Think about what works with synchronous communication (live chat or video meetings) and what can be managed asynchronously
  • Prioritise and personalise: make it easy for employees to access the tools or messaging channels they use most
  • Manage expectations: messaging technologies can create an obligation to respond immediately. Encourage employees to set boundaries
  • Use data anonymously to identify which tools are most useful for different functions in the organisation


This is an extract from Good Work, Great Technology: Enabling strategic success through digital tools, published by leading UK HR software provider Ciphr. For more insight into how technology can change work for the better, download the complete book for free, now.