In late 2016, the authors of a joint report from Harvard Business Review (HBR) and Ernst & Young (EY) asked if collaboration had become the new innovation. In other words, both a buzzword that neatly encapsulates the business zeitgeist, and a concept for explaining why organizations succeed. Compared to innovation, collaboration is a much less abstract notion. This could explain why companies have refocused on it in recent years as something they can reliably improve, while en route to better overall performance.
It is usually easier to optimize an organization’s collaborative processes and supporting technologies, than to innovate game-changing products and services. Whereas innovation is often the laborious result of a complex process that includes many false starts, recycled old ideas, and unacknowledged work behind the scenes, collaboration is relatively straightforward. It consists of everyday exchanges over email, video conferencing solutions, business chat software, and phone calls, all of which can be easily optimized.
That’s not to say that business collaboration is solved. The search for newer and better collaboration tools is ongoing, as is demonstrated by the meteoric rise of platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Slack. More broadly, enterprise collaboration can always be advanced by regularly reevaluating the solutions and processes in place, and seeing if they still meet the organization’s needs. But the basic value of collaboration is clear; what’s in question is which set of collaboration tools and techniques provide the best vehicle for it.
The state of collaboration in 2019: Hyper-connected and highly distributed workplaces
Maybe the best way to understand the newfound urgency around collaboration is through the lens of telework, which has become much more popular since the mid-2000s. According to Global Workplace Analytics, the percentage of those who routinely work at home among the non-self-employed rose 140 percent between 2005 and 2018.
Plus, the number of employers offering flexible work arrangements rose 40 percent from 2013 to 2018.
More so than even much-hyped trends such as artificial intelligence, remote work that is supported by collaboration tools represents the real future of work. Implemented well, it’s a win for both employers and employees, and one that delivers increased productivity, additional flexibility, and better morale.
Working off-site, whether at home, on the go, or in a branch office, is not merely a replacement for on-site work, but an improvement upon it. The Gallup State of the American Workplace report from 2017 found that the most engaged employees worked remotely 60 to 80 percent of the time. This equates to three or four days per week. A separate HBR report attributed higher productivity among remote workers to multiple causes, including:
- Better use of collaboration tools, especially ones for video conferencing, instant messaging, email and voice communication.
- Excellent utilization of time spent together on special occasions (such as all-hands meetings), because they’re less frequent.
- Less complacency about workplace communications because each interaction requires concerted effort, as well as the right communication tool.
Support for remote and distributed work allows organizations to hire from a broader talent pool than would be available if they limited themselves to in-office employees. In turn, they can better operate in a globalized environment while addressing talent shortages, too. A survey by Upwork found that 53 percent of hiring managers cited a talent crunch as a reason to permit remote work. Almost one-quarter also pointed to globalization as a factor.
Many workers would at least like the option to work remotely. More than half of the respondents to a 2018 Indeed survey reported this preference, with 37 percent of them going further to say that they had looked for a position that allowed for flexible work arrangements. But remote work environments only succeed if everyone is motivated and in possession of powerful collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams.
How Microsoft Teams can make a difference in today’s workplaces
Launched in early 2017, Microsoft Teams is a unified communications platform that brings together many of the features previously housed in separate applications such as Skype for Business, Microsoft Classroom, and the legacy Windows Meeting Space. It includes instant messaging, VoIP, and video conferencing functionality, along with deep integrations with other parts of the Microsoft ecosystem.
Although it launched relatively late in a space already dominated by platforms such as Slack and HipChat, Microsoft Teams has quickly gained traction, and for good reason.
Microsoft notes that 500,000 organizations, including 91 percent of the Fortune 500, were using it in early 2019.
Let’s look at some of its biggest benefits.
One place for all types of online collaboration tools
As organizations seek to streamline their collaboration processes and support far-flung teams, it’s beneficial to have one central platform everyone can go to and find what they need. Microsoft Teams provides a single interface through which teams can chat, share files, joins calls, and more. That’s a big boost for productivity, as end users don’t have to juggle multiple collaboration tools. Relatively new features such as custom video conferencing backgrounds and collaborative whiteboards have further enriched the experience of using Microsoft Teams.
Deep Office 365 integration
Any organization with an active Office 365 Business Essentials or Business Premiums subscription can get a premium version of Microsoft Teams that includes:
- Built-in services for OneDrive, SharePoint, Planner, and Yammer
- Exchange email hosting with custom domains
- Meeting recordings compatible with Microsoft Stream
In addition to these premium features, there are the online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, support for 300 users, and unlimited messaging with search, all of which are available with the free version of Teams as well.
Third-party application support
While its Office 365 synergy is a big part of its appeal, Microsoft Teams also integrates with many other applications and services. From Google Drive and Dropbox, to Adobe Creative Cloud and Twitter, Microsoft Teams can connect with the tools that organizations already use to stay in touch. This is accessible both in the office and across great distances for remote teams.
Chatbots have become an important part of the online experience. For enterprises, one of these bots can provide an accurate reply to a variety of basic queries, often in much less time than it would take to ask a human. And since a bot can answer these questions, humans can perform more complex tasks instead.
The Azure Bot Service that supports bots within Microsoft Teams is free to try, and can leverage the Azure Cognitive Services for advanced conversational AI with natural language processing. The bot framework supports different input methods (e.g., voice, touch, typing, etc.), can be connected to data sources like Microsoft Dynamics, and may form the basis of a virtual assistant.
Straightforward file search and backup
Whether a team is chatting within the same office or from different locations, a common problem is keeping track of all the files and assets exchanged during a conversation. It’s easy for something to get buried in an email inbox or become seemingly impossible to find within a long chat thread. Microsoft Teams make things easier with automatic saving and backup. Even if a channel is deleted, its files can be recovered in a SharePoint site, and a consolidated Files tab.
Microsoft Teams is already a vital part of Office 365 and its importance will only grow. Particularly, as more organizations reconsider their approaches to leveraging collaboration tools, and support more distributed workforces.
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