How collaboration apps kill productivity

Recent research into workplace collaborative chat application adoption shows the number of businesses using chat apps like Slack and Microsoft Team is rising, with a little under half of businesses (44%) using the most popular application, Skype for Business. These apps provide a cost-effective way for remote workers to connect and can improve team communication by storing relevant information in an intuitive way. Their prevalence reflects broader trends in communication: the idea of voice-only calls is starting to feel as antiquated as the humble text message.

But this technology contains huge pitfalls unless integration is mature and considered.

Recently, we were working with a CEO who described his workplace as “happy, productive and inclusive” and every meeting reinforced this, with discussions feeling harmonious and resulting in clear actions. Why, then, were employees unhappy, unproductive and suffering low morale?

What had happened was that Slack and Skype had in effect become a dumping ground for every difficult conversation. The team were agreeing face-to-face then reneging from behind the comfort of their monitors. People might agree a deadline in a meeting but then rescinded on it immediately afterwards via Slack. Even worse, specific groups had been set up with the intention of avoiding productive work. For example, one thread existed to enable boorish jokes about team member attractiveness.

You might argue such behavior is nothing new. Email has created these issues in some companies for years. But the design of these apps exacerbates their potential to do harm as well as good. They enable conversations to take place in groups, in real-time, across different devices, in ways that are completely hidden from wider view. These features can be fantastic for intra-team collaboration. Unchecked, they are the perfect conditions for a culture of bullying to fester.

Why is this? Start by interrogating the fundamentals of high performance. Organisational psychology suggests conflict management can be critical for productivity. This doesn’t mean everyone needs to agree all the time: that is not a realistic aspiration. Instead, healthy firms seek to resolve conflict fast, together, and for the benefit of the whole. Firms that cannot manage conflict, and which don’t acknowledge this as an issue, tend to push it down. It then crops up in molehill-like fashion in contexts that are less prone to general scrutiny. In this case: app misuse.

On top of this there is the issue of groupthink, the phenomenon where groups of people will agree with each other, often in defiance of evidence or logic, for the sake of preserving group harmony. Almost by design, chat apps enable this tendency: lone voices can become isolated and drowned out by the crowd. Again, this is not new. But the always-on nature of the technology makes it harder for leaders to be vigilant.

So how do you make sure your business is using chat apps productively? Here are three practical suggestions.

1. Foster the conversation. When was the last time you sat with your team and talked about how technology is impacting your culture? Often such conversations don’t happen at all or become annexed into a wider discussion about IT. An open commitment to exploring the good, bad and ugly is a prerequisite of positive change.

2. Invest in playbooks. The responsibility to use technology well rests with everyone in your firm. Playbooks can help establish guidelines for acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Pro tip: engage your people in writing them. They are often closer to the issues that need correcting than leaders can hope to be.

3. Encourage vigilance. A positive feature of many apps is the ability to set up an infinite array of communication channels for almost any purpose. Consider setting up one or more channel to encourage conversations about unhealthy or unproductive behaviour. To be clear, I am not talking about Big Brother-style monitoring: that reduces accountability and trust. But a healthy dialogue about what is working and what isn’t can be a welcome complement to other conversations taking place. It can also contribute to broader cultural development.

Developing playbooks worked wonders for the business mentioned above. They shut down several groups, changed the focus of others and new ones sprung up. In the words of their CEO, “it’s what we don’t see that kills us.” What ghosts are lurking in your machine?