Although the pandemic has radically changed the way we work, many of us are still relying on the same old digital tools to connect with each other.

As we move into the next stage of the pandemic, it's time to take a hard look at how your organization can enhance communication and collaboration now that remote work is the norm.

The onset of stay-at-home orders in March 2020 forced companies to use whatever tools they had to enable employees to work remotely, often resulting in a chaotic patchwork with inherent security risks. More than half of HR leaders said poor technology was the biggest barrier to working effectively at the time, according to Gartner.

Email was a reasonable band-aid, short-term solution, along with group chat apps. But since remote work shows no signs of going away—Global Workplace Analytics predicts that up to 30% of the workforce will be at least partly remote by the end of 2021—email and chat alone aren't going to cut it. Organizations need more sustainable collaboration tools that solve the pressing challenges of productivity, engagement, and innovation in a dispersed workforce.

Email is useful, but not great for collaboration

It's hard to imagine working without email. Knowledge workers spend, on average, an estimated 28% of the workweek managing emails, according to McKinsey. Email has a deeply entrenched role in enterprise, and for good reason:

  • It's familiar, easy, and convenient.
  • It's effective for notifications.
  • It's easily searchable by date, sender, and keyword.
  • It's sortable into folders.

The problem is that email has become a crutch. We turn to it automatically instead of intentionally using it when it's best suited to the task at hand.

Email should be used sparingly, even in remote work, because of these shortcomings:

  • It creates data silos.
  • It doesn't support complex collaboration (more on this below).
  • It's a slow form of asynchronous communication.
  • It's distracting and time-consuming, and it can crowd out your main tasks.

Most of all, email inhibits effective knowledge-sharing, which is the foundation for strong collaboration.

More than half of remote employees have avoided sharing documents because they can't find them or because it would take too long to do so, our (Igloo's) recent

survey found.

So is chat better than email? If you've been at home trying to keep up with endless Teams or Slack conversations these past months, you already know the answer.

Chat has only shifted—or worsened—the problem

Chat apps raised expectations when they first came into the workplace. In practice, they can be useful for purposes such as these:

  • Reducing the volume of email
  • Accelerating simple, two-way Q&A to keep work moving
  • Delivering quick employee feedback
  • Enabling social interaction for remote workers
  • Launching voice or video calls

The ease of IM can be a slippery slope, though. The digital workplace survey mentioned above, which polled 2,000 employees at medium-sized and large organizations, found that 39% of respondents had mistakenly shared sensitive content—from love notes to private company data—while messaging with colleagues.

Among the other downsides of IM for collaboration—which mirror some of the pitfalls of email—are the following:

  • Trapping valuable content and conversations in multiple different channels
  • Generating noise and distraction from overuse
  • Wasting time in personal conversations
  • Creating a stressful, always-on culture

Over half of employees admit to being overwhelmed by the number of nonwork-related messages sent in apps like Slack and Teams, as we found in our survey.

In the COVID-19 world of remote work, it's more important than ever to rein in the chaos of unregulated, decentralized IM.

There's a vital distinction between simple and complex collaboration

Few things are simple in the current climate, and that includes workplace collaboration. Think of collaboration this way:

  • Simple collaboration involves a few employees' working together to create one output, such as a document or presentation.
  • Complex collaboration involves multiple stakeholders' working together on a multifaceted project with several deliverables.

How would you characterize your most recent few collaboration experiences? Tending toward the complex, no doubt, with the added wrinkle of little to no in-person interaction.

In complex collaboration scenarios with cross-functional teams, visibility is vital. Every team member should be able to see every file and conversation, in context, on demand. That's just not possible when you're only connecting via email and chat.

Data silos are the enemy of successful collaboration. The survey referenced above revealed that 1 in 4 employees use at least two nonapproved apps to get work done, which only contributes to the all-too-common problem.

When people can't share information, resources, and knowledge because they're using different or inadequate tools, there are wide-ranging negative effects:

  • Wasting time and/or duplicating effort
  • Stifling innovation
  • Breeding mistrust
  • Hindering companywide culture

Remote work is on the rise, so organizations must look for new ways to use their old tools to support complex collaboration.

A strategic hybrid model: it's not only which tools you use but also how you use them

Despite their limitations, email and IM are indispensable in the remote collaboration toolbox—but only if they're integrated into a central destination that provides your employees with quick, easy access to relevant information and conversations.

The hybrid model for office collaboration brings together email, IM, and your intranet:

  • IM or chat enables fast, direct, one-on-one or group conversations and fosters a rapid flow of actions and ideas between employees.
  • Email facilitates more detailed, slower communications and serves as a searchable, organizable repository.
  • Your intranet is the go-to collaboration hub, tightly integrating with employee chat apps and email to maintain knowledge and put conversations in the context of tasks/projects.

You're not alone if your intranet isn't exactly on the leading edge. Your remote employees don't have to fall back on email and IM. There's another way.

Create collaboration zones inside your intranet

Building an entirely new intranet can be costly and complex, and it can require IT support and buy-in. Instead, consider creating customizable department or team zones within your current intranet. They're simple, cost-effective, and don't require ongoing IT involvement, but they tick all the boxes for productive collaboration:

  • Providing a central destination with easy-to-use tools
  • Integrating preferred tools such as chat apps
  • Putting conversations and essential information in context
  • Improving knowledge management
  • Making content easy to find
  • Eliminating wasted time
  • Increasing transparency
  • Enhancing productivity with shared calendars and task lists

Fully 78% of respondents to our digital workplace survey said that if they could, they would overhaul their department's intranet space with solutions designed to solve collaboration and communication challenges specific to their needs. That's a strong indication of the demand for purpose-built departmental zones within company intranets.

Prebuilt software solutions enable your organization to harness next-generation intranet technology and create a powerful destination for collaboration, all without taking away employees' go-to tools and apps, and without the expense and large change management exercise of a brand new intranet.

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A New Way of Working Remotely: Email and IM Aren't Enough

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image of Mike Hicks

Mike Hicks is CMO of Igloo Software, provider of intranet software and digital workplace solutions.

LinkedIn: Mike Hicks