How to win friends - can using social tools really stimulate productivity at work?

Social media is supposed to undermine productivity not enable it, so can social tools really make a positive difference to the workplace?

Whether or not technology actually improves productivity has always been open to debate. In April this year US business research company Conference Board released a set of figures suggesting that despite our digital revolution of tools and services, economic productivity was not improving. It's not the first time that a research study has reached this conclusion and yet counter studies, such as the Centre for Economics and Business Research report in 2013, claim the opposite. Technology, it says, has accounted for an 84 percent productivity per hour increase in office workers since the 1970s.

Fast forward six years and we are still getting mixed messages but perhaps the most significant impact is yet to come. As more businesses digitally transformation and change how they and their employees work, we could yet witness a significant productivity shift. Messaging and collaboration tools, such as Slack, Facebook Workplace and Microsoft's Teams (there are others) are widely touted as essential ingredients in making this happen, and while they are still relatively new, they appear to be growing quickly in popularity.

Slack, which direct listed on the New York Stock Exchange in the summer, now claims to have around 12 million daily users. This, says the company, represents a 37 percent growth on 2018 user numbers. Microsoft claims that Teams, launched just two years ago, now has 13 million daily users, no doubt benefiting from its free inclusion within Office 365 (and boosted by the company's plans to discontinue Skype for Business in 2021). Facebook Workplace, which was launched in 2016, now claims to have over three million users, up from two million at the beginning of the year.

One of those users is global enterprise software company IFS. According to Sal Laher, the company's Chief Digital and Information Officer, Facebook's Workplace platform has transformed IFS's internal communications. Interestingly it has done so at a time when IFS is going through its own digital transformation, shifting to the cloud with its own enterprise software and incorporating a range of digital tools including Office 365 and Teams, Skype and its own intranet developed through SharePoint.

"We use Workplace as an internal social and direct communications platform," says Laher. "While our intranet is for the whole company, for policy documents, service tickets and so on, Workplace enables us to co-ordinate smaller groups and provide direct communications and information sharing within special projects or specific areas within the business, such as marketing or IT departments."

IFS has around 39 groups set-up at the moment, something which Laher says would be complicated and costly using other methods such as SharePoint or the company's original process of email distribution lists.

"It's a platform for collaboration and employees are engaging with it, asking questions and sharing ideas," says Laher. "It's doing what we wanted it to do and its saving time and resources."

Laher also points out that the majority of employees are used to the platform, having used Facebook in a personal capacity, which means, of course, limited to no training. But is this making the business more productive? It's a difficult one to measure. Laher points to time saving in tasks, such as conducting internal surveys and improved communication between specialist groups. Perhaps the real test is if you take it away. Would it be missed?

"Yes absolutely," says Laher.

As if to pre-empt the question, Facebook recently conducted its own research through Forrester, evaluating the business value and ROI of Workplace, which Forrester set at 414 percent based on total costs of Workplace against its value over three years. The research also found that both decision making and task efficiency improved by 20 percent and that product innovation increased by 32 percent.

While we have to be careful at taking this at too much face value (after all, Workplace may have been utilised as part of a broader digital transformation and was only part of the puzzle in improving productivity and staff retention, for example), it is nevertheless intriguing.

The state of work

Facebook is not alone in applying statistical research to the question of productivity and collaboration. Slack, which essentially carved out this market following its launch in 2013, has its own thoughts on the subject. Its The State of Work 2019 report claims a correlation between worker alignment and productivity improvements, as well of course, staff retention. By using tools, such as Slack, it surmises that workers are better aligned and therefore more in touch with the overall goals of a business.

Sophie Harrison, Chief of Staff at UK cyber security company Panaseer agrees, at least to the point that using Slack has enabled the business to grow relatively quickly.

"We started to use Slack four years ago as an early stage start-up, with the objective of reducing email overload and making staff comms easier and more engaging," she says. "Since then our business has scaled to 50+ people, with an overseas office in New York and remote workers across the globe. Slack has really helped us with this expansion as it's become our key collaboration tool - we have channels where bespoke teams can share strategic updates, and others where we can socialise, post funny stories and celebrate each other's successes."

For companies like Panaseer it's almost a no-brainer but for more established businesses that have been built on old processes, it perhaps represents a greater challenge. For Peter Jensen, chief digital officer at creative stationer and retailer Moleskine, using tools, such as Slack, Dropbox and Zoom can reduce unnecessary noise and enable more meaningful communication with a view to being more innovative. If a business is more innovative, it's more likely to be successful and a better place to work.

"In our view the usage of these tools replaces bad processes but also optimises some of the ones you want to keep," he says. "As an example, we almost completely have stopped using email as a collaboration vehicle in the team. Not that email is bad per se, but it's not particularly useful in aligning people on an ongoing basis. The same can be said for massive documents. In other words, rather than stopping collaboration and feedback, we have stopped spending too much time in writing emails and long documents that don't get the job done. So, you could say actually the point here is to apply these tools to have less work - and more time to create the next great thing."

So how does this work? Can you actually measure the impact of these tools in terms of productivity or are they just a vehicle for organisations to create more work?

"We have very tangible results in terms of time spent on creating documents, which has decreased for sure," says Jensen. "We can also see that the time to solve a problem and make a decision has been reduced drastically, as there is a single loop decision process."

Jensen talks about using Dropbox as a key collaboration platform with Slack and Zoom providing broader communication capability. The upshot is that "everybody can be heard and contribute and even if ‘your solution' ends up not being the way we go, everybody is on board."

This is Slack's notion of alignment. It's not a free-for-all but a way of using the tools to control access on a broader scale but users still have to be aware of not overloading employees with messages and tasks. As Daniel Foster, Managing Director at consultancy firm Steamhaus says, you have to put policies in place to ensure manageable levels of communication and alerts.

"There are occasions where you'll have a lot of notifications and messages to respond to," he says. "This isn't great if you're also juggling other work, but it can be tackled by having an escalation policy—if something is urgent, pick up the phone." 

It's a good point and a clear reminder that these are communication and collaboration tools with real people on the end. As IFS has also shown, sometimes one tool is not enough but also breaking work down into small groups makes the whole process more manageable. It's all about using the tools to make people better at their jobs and feel more engaged within the business.

This is partly the reasoning behind retail IT consultancy REPL Group's deal with Microsoft to build workforce management functionality into Microsoft Teams. The collaboration has seen REPL integrate JDA Workforce Management with the Microsoft Teams interface. The aim, according to REPL, is to drive engagement across large, multinational retailers by combining all communication channels but also provide instant employee information. This apparently means that a retailer's employees can have 24-hour, easy access to their working information, such as shift patterns and holiday bookings, meaning they have greater control over their working lives. There are also communication channels through which staff can share photos, videos and communicate for social purposes, to "drive employee engagement, improve retention and increase productivity."

So, will it work? There is no reason why it shouldn't but as ever nothing is ever that simple is it? The tools are really only as good as the people that use them. For many organisations these tools may still be a bit of a leap given their old processes and ideas about organisational hierarchy. It will take more hard numbers on productivity to convince some of the ‘die hards' but for the early adopters won't care, if they can use the tools to steal a march on the competition.