By Matthew Jenkin.
From chat apps to the cloud, Matthew Jenkin unpicks how SMEs are using collaboration tools to meet the needs of flexible working.
Cloud-based technology and changes to the rights of employees to request flexible working have liberated staff members from exhausting commutes, and made the 9-5 office job a relic of the past. Now almost anyone with access to a reliable Wi-Fi connection can close a deal in their pyjamas and tailor their hours to better fit around family life. But how can small business owners ensure these 21st century freedoms don’t impact on their team’s ability to work collaboratively?
For digital agency, Manifesto, collaboration between colleagues is not only vital to making internal operations a success, it’s also a key part of how they work with clients. While all of the business’s 35-strong team generally work out of the company’s Shoreditch offices, they have customers based in locations around the UK and as far afield as France. That can make arranging physical meetings to develop ideas together a logistical challenge.
Manifesto began experimenting with online tools such as messaging, voice and video calls app, Google Hangouts; cloud-based storage system Google Drive; and browser-based document management platform, Microsoft’s SharePoint. But none of them really fitted the bill in terms of allowing staff to brainstorm as a group online. Chief executive and co-founder, Jim Bowes, then found success with a chat app called Slack.
Slack is aimed at businesses, rather than individuals, and it works best for small to medium-sized teams. Teams can create a joint account and then talk to each other (via live, text-based chat). People can also create private groups and send direct messages.
Mr Bowes claims that the app’s biggest attraction is its themed “rooms” – where employees and clients can all feed into discussions about specific topics, whether that’s a current project, company news or just catching up about personal things (small talk).
If you want quality collaboration, you need quality communication as wellAlex Hunte, Lytespark
“Slack created this nice combination of being able to be conversational, but also thematic,” Mr Bowes says. “We’ve found that, unlike emails or instant messaging, it gives people the ability to have discussions about topics without constantly interrupting each other. It creates an opportunity for people to choose the moment that they interact with information and it helps everyone collaborate more effectively.”
The tool does, however, have limitations. Users are restricted to the chosen topic of the room and, crucially, there isn’t the face-to-face contact that makes a physical meeting of minds so effective at generating new ideas and solving problems.
Video conferencing platform, LyteSpark, is another tool available to SMEs. Its aim is to bring all the facets of the meeting together at the same time. It allows users to not only talk to each other via video link, but also share documents stored on the cloud, edit them in real-time with participants, and even draw ideas on a live digital whiteboard.
Co-founder, Alex Hunte, developed the software with business partner, Igor Pavlov, after growing frustrated with the restrictive nature of existing digital communication products. The entrepreneur bemoans that there has been little innovation in video conferencing.
“There are lots of companies – big and small – who could improve communication, and that’s becoming more important as more people work not just from a single location, on a single project, or with a single employer,” he says. “If you want quality collaboration, however, then you need quality communication as well.”
You can’t pick up on someone’s body language from a piece of collaborative softwareGiles Palmer, Brandwatch
LyteSpark integrates apps and tools into the platform that workers may already be using, such as file hosting services Dropbox or Google Drive – all without losing face-to-face contact. Mr Hunte claims that it better facilitates traditional analogue communication that is already effective, removing as many barriers to collaborative working as possible.
He warns, however, that without processes in place to manage how these tools are used, collaboration could be hindered, instead of improved. “Technology shouldn’t dictate how you work; business practices should. You need to find suitable tech and tools that work for you, not the other way round.”
Giles Palmer, chief executive of social media monitoring company, Brandwatch, agrees. Launched in 2007, the business has seen its workforce swell from five people to almost 400 across the UK, US, Germany, Singapore and France.
The business stores all its information on the cloud and employees use a variety of platforms including Google Hangouts, Skype, Zoom and Slack to communicate and collaborate. But as the company grew, teams began using different platforms for the same function.
That became an obstacle for staff who would have to download multiple apps just to join a conversation with another department. Eventually the company opted to standardise the tools they used across the company, choosing Slack as its main platform. It’s something small businesses should think about as they scale, he says.
Another challenge for the business has been to ensure digital communication systems don’t distract employees from important projects. Palmer observes that engagement in chat channels on Slack can start to compete with key tasks, which require full concentration and focus. Essentially, using Slack becomes a task in itself.
He says that while it’s not necessarily an obstacle to collaborative working, it can impact on personal productivity. When aggregated across a number of staff, there is a reduction in the overall productivity of the team.
Mr Palmer says it’s important to build a company culture that trusts employees to take responsibility for their own professional output and develop an understanding of what is, and isn’t, an appropriate use of one’s time at work. That includes the online collaborative tools at their disposal.
Mr Palmer insists that despite the many challenges in using digital communications tools for collaborative working, it has played an integral role in the company’s rapid growth. But he doesn’t believe technology should, or will, replace physical face-to-face encounters.
“You can’t get away from one-on-one or one-to-many communications,” he says. “That’s because there is an enormous amount of information you can pick up from someone’s body language when they are sitting next to you, and which you can’t get from a piece of collaborative software.”