Remote working tools: are they still fit for purpose?

The pandemic has obliged many firms to take a technological leap to cope with remote working. How satisfied are they with the new collaboration tools they’ve adopted?

Zoom, Teams, Skype, Slack, Yammer… Welcome to the new lexicon of the workplace. From the moment we went into lockdown and adopted new ways of working, such tools have become as familiar as the typewriter and Tipp-Ex were to previous generations. Many predate the pandemic, but people’s urgent need to stay connected with similarly isolated colleagues and suppliers required employers to open new communications channels as quickly as possible. 

New platforms have proliferated, offering myriad, and often confusing, choices. While all of them offer the same basic function – helping people to stay in touch – these systems have different strengths and weaknesses, depending on their users’ requirements. 

Most of us will have become familiar with at least one of Microsoft Teams and Zoom by now. These are the most popular videoconferencing solutions available. They share many features, including screen and app sharing, whiteboards, chat, voice calling, customised backgrounds and break-out rooms. They also both offer free plans, which are great for smaller businesses. There’s little to choose between the two. Generally, Zoom gets the thumbs-up for its user-friendliness and the quality of its videoconferencing, while Teams is preferred by the many people who are accustomed to using the Microsoft Office suite. 

Marks and Spencer is a Teams adherent, having established a corporate partnership with Microsoft before the pandemic. Stephen Bolton, Microsoft Teams programme manager at M&S, says: “Teams was the tool that’s supported our staff to continue working from home amid the pandemic. We now have 95% of store colleagues using Teams. It’s the collaborative workspace that everyone here uses daily to communicate, solve problems, ideate and get work done.”

Teams has evolved beyond a communications tool for M&S. For instance, a scheduling app that works through Teams makes it easier for employees to swap shifts, while the direct messaging function helps stores to respond to spikes in demand for particular product lines. 

The company’s head of technology, colleague experience and retail platforms is Andrew Redman. He notes that “people initially thought of Teams as a communication platform only, but it’s since become an ecosystem that colleagues use to operate the store through a single interface. We have about 80 applications that might be used from time to time. By embedding these apps in Teams, we feel as though we have only one.”

You’ll never completely replace small WhatsApp groups, while certain things still need to be done by email

Yammer is another powerful communication tool that offers features such as file-sharing and a context-based search facility. It helps employees in different teams and locations to both connect and collaborate. This application also comes under Microsoft’s umbrella, meaning that it can easily be integrated with other MS products.

Then there’s the much-fancied Slack. It offers a clean, straightforward interface with a few different channels. Channels are used to group conversations on different topics. You can also use private messages for direct, one-to-one communication or create private channels with a small number of colleagues. Slack Technologies was founded back in 2009, but the business has boomed during the Covid crisis. In July, it was acquired by US cloud software giant Salesforce for $27.7bn (£20.1bn). 

SocialChorus has been winning plaudits during the pandemic as an alternative comms platform. it is particularly well suited for organisations with a dispersed workforce mainly relying on mobile devices to access information. This year, waste management company Renewi has been rolling out SocialChorus to its 7,000 employees, many of whom previously relied on Yammer. 

The firm’s CFO, Toby Woolrych, explains that “our comms team looked at numerous options before choosing SocialChorus. It is highly intuitive and easy to use. You can create as many communities as you like and send targeted messages. I think it will be a powerful pan-Renewi tool. We’ve started with it in our municipal division and the users’ feedback has been very positive so far.” 

But he adds: “You’ll never completely replace small WhatsApp groups, while certain things still need to be done by email. Employee communication has to be multichannel.”

Peter Gilheany is an owner and director of Forster Communications, a PR consultancy that advises organisations on employee engagement. He believes that the ease of use provided by the latest generation of comms platforms have served to make organisations more flexible and less hierarchical in their internal communications. 

But there is a downside, he adds: “They have loosened the already tenuous division between work and home, opening a route into private spaces, which can be uncomfortable and embarrassing. They also offer no buffer. Relentless calls can leave people exhausted. They’re a tool, not a total solution, so we need to focus on the flexibility and empowerment they provide, while guarding against their power to eat into people’s lives outside their jobs.”

Email intuition: a new school for an old tool

With so many new communications platforms on the market, traditional email can sometimes feel obsolete. But the reality is that we are still sending emails – and in huge volumes. IT market research firm the Radicati Group estimates that 306 billion emails worldwide were sent daily in 2020 and expects the total to exceed 376 billion by 2025.

This might seem extraordinary when so many other options are available. But much of this global growth is because the internet is still gaining millions of new users each year. 

When it comes to the commercial use of email in more mature markets such as the UK and the US, the picture is more complex. We are still using it, of course, but the question is whether the messages we send are having much effect. According to research by marketing software firm Campaign Monitor, the proportion of emails received that were actually opened last year fell to 16.4%. 

Important emails from employers are often crowded out by the sheer volume of marketing material that gets through spam filters. This presents a challenge for companies, which generally still prefer to use email to convey their most important messages. Employers and employees generally agree that it’s inappropriate to deal with weighty matters on less formal platforms, such as WhatsApp. 

This is why it’s important to craft company emails that will stand out and be immediately obvious to time-pressured employees. So says Catrin Lewis, head of global engagement and internal communications at HR software provider Reward Gateway. 

“While there are other tools out there, email is still an excellent way to engage your employees,” she stresses. “It’s a solid, favourable means of communication.” 

Lewis’s tips for improving email engagement include choosing a strong subject line, a two-sentence summary and options to click through to the full story. Use the email to point readers to further content online. A good image can also help, although to avoid getting it marked as spam, a 60:40 text-to-image ratio is recommended. 

Also make your email the start of a dialogue if that’s appropriate, she suggests. People need to know how and when they can respond, so that they feel free to do so if they wish. You might not want a ‘reply all’ type of discussion to ensue, so provide clear signposting for anyone who wants to continue a conversation. 

And one last piece of advice: ensure that every intended recipient of your important email can view it in its entirety on their mobile devices.