Collaboration tools hit their stride in the post-COVID age
A CHAOTIC START
The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic were disruptive in ways we’re only just beginning to understand.
After the initial wave of lockdowns sent millions of knowledge workers home in March 2020, IT leaders were challenged to keep everyone working no matter where they were, or how they were connected. Collaboration platforms were quickly forced into service as organizations of all sizes and in all sectors struggled to maintain productivity for their suddenly remote workforces.
They may have succeeded in keeping the lights on, but the processes used to do so weren’t always best practices, and the results weren’t always optimal.
Zoom bombing became a thing as a largely consumer-focused platform was pressed into enterprise service on a global scale its designers had never envisioned. Platform outages routinely threw remote workers offline as vendors worked flat-out to increase capacity. Just as millions of workers were adjusting to the realities of working remotely, vendors, too, were figuring out how to meet their needs despite the global-scale challenges associated with doing so.
Those same remote workers wrestled with maintaining productivity through virtual windows and workspaces – often while working side-by-side with homebound children grappling with their own remote education challenges. They reported to supervisors and managers similarly confused about how to maintain team cohesiveness in this new virtual landscape. While the vast majority had good intentions, many hard lessons were learned along the way.
The fact that remote work succeeded at all given the circumstances of its sudden global ramp-up will be viewed by history as one of the bright spots of an otherwise dark period.
REPAVING A HASTILY REPAIRED ROAD
To their credit, collaboration platform vendors did an admirable job updating their products to meet the fast-evolving needs of remote workers. And as employers accelerate their return to office (RTO) plans and once exclusively remote workers shift into hybrid work styles, the tools continue to evolve to meet the evolving needs of the post-pandemic workforce.
For example, Microsoft has steadily updated Teams with breakout rooms, together mode, support for native and third-party apps, transcription, and greater control over who participates in a meeting, and what they can and cannot do within that meeting. Zoom has tightened security with two-factor authentication and stronger encryption to better meet the needs of an increasingly corporate-focused audience. It has also upgraded its infrastructure to better handle heavy workloads and reduce the frequency and duration of once-ubiquitous outages. Zoom has also introduced integration with a growing range of services, including Salesforce, Dropbox, and Slack.
All told, today’s collaboration platforms are far more capable of meeting the needs of hybrid workers than when the first lockdowns were announced.
GETTING MORE OUT OF THE EXPERIENCE
While the tools themselves may be much improved, it’s fair to say organizations can always do more to derive more productivity value out of them. As we all put the finishing touches on our RTO and hybrid work plans, we’d do well to keep the following best practices in mind:
1. Upgrade end-points
Fuzzy video and muddy audio aren’t just annoying: they’ll quickly derail any meeting and destroy productivity. Consider the following:
- Ensure all remote and hybrid employees have proper cameras and mics.
- Publish how-to documentation to help employees set up optimal home or remote office spaces.
- Test remote/home office network performance and work with remote employees and telecoms on improvements.
2. Review physical meeting spaces
In-office meeting rooms that may have been adequate for remote sessions prior to the pandemic are ill-equipped to handle the challenges posed by today’s hybrid work styles.
Follow collaboration vendor guidelines – including upgraded hardware, better soundproofing, and optimized seating and lighting – to ensure both in-person and remote participants are equally seen and heard.
3. Establish clear best practices for attendees
While proper frameworks will benefit any meeting, they are particularly crucial in remote and hybrid environments.
Define guidelines for things like screen sharing, muting microphones, virtual backgrounds, and chat sessions, among others. Schedule training at regular intervals for employees and make training and guidance materials available to third party participants. Don’t forget the basics like including agendas in all invitations and summarizing and distributing next steps and to-dos following every meeting.
4. Follow proper security protocols
Zoom bombing became a serious early-pandemic scourge because the platform initially lacked protections and users often failed to follow proper invitation protocol. These days, we know better, and our tools have been updated.
Avoid posting invitations and links publicly. Ensure all participants use two-factor authentication, and use waiting rooms to better control access. Ensure all participants’ apps, browsers, and operating systems are regularly updated to minimize exposure to opportunistic cyberattacks.
5. Break down and break out
Breakout rooms allow smaller teams to maximize productivity, up their brainstorming game, and avoid the pitfalls of massive numbers of people crammed onto a tiny screen. Use them wisely – and often.
6. Regularly review settings
Today’s collaboration tools allow a high degree of customization, so take the time to tweak settings to streamline the experience for participants. For example, set meetings – particularly large ones – to automatically mute participants on entry, limit presentation tools to specific participants, and activate captioning for greater accessibility.
Don’t forget to test them again periodically as end-user needs – and the apps themselves – continue to evolve.
THE BOTTOM LINE
As millions of workers – including our developers here at STEP Software – settle into post-pandemic routines involving various combinations of in-office, remote, and hybrid work, collaboration tools are now their primary communication and productivity tool. Vendors have done an admirable job recognizing their shortcomings and streamlining how they work. Now it’s up to the rest of us to get the most out of them. We’re always here if you’d like to set up a Teams or a Zoom call of your own with us.