Your boss was sick of wading through an overflowing email inbox every day and had an epiphany. The answer is a project management tool! Move all your messages over to a new product and you reduce emails. Simple, right?
Or while scrambling to shift to remote work, your company decided the answer was a software product designed to improve collaboration. Voila! You’ll all be connected constantly throughout the day, just as though you were sitting next to each other in an office.
Businesses around the world are turning to software products meant to increase efficiency, improve collaboration, and keep projects better organized. It was a popular shift occurring even before the novel coronavirus massively reshaped our lives, and the massive worldwide shift to working from home has accelerated the trend.
But, There’s a Catch
A big selling point these products claim is reducing the time you spend on email. And that’s a legitimate need. Email is a powerful tool for communication, but our inboxes have gained too much control over our lives, leading to regular distraction and a difficulty turning the work mindset off.
And workplace communication apps aren’t helping. RescueTime found that workers check email and other communication tools once every six minutes on average, and spend over 40% of the workday multitasking with communication tools. None of that’s helping you do better work.
Your team does need a way to stay connected, organized, and share needed information with each other. Those are the challenges all these workplace communications tools are meant to solve. But simply choosing a product and making an investment won’t deliver on that.
How to Use Software to Actually Serve Its Purpose
The answer isn’t to scrap all collaborative products and assume they only make things worse. What does help is thinking more critically about which product you choose and how you use it.
1. Pick the right tool for the problem.
Start by articulating the problems you want to solve. To make sure you’re not guessing, include your team in this process. You need them to actually use the tool you choose for the organization to enjoy any of its potential benefits. Learn what their work day looks like now, and what their current needs and challenges are. Match those problems to the specific features you need to solve them, and let that rule your product selection.
Don’t get distracted by shiny-object syndrome and pick something with features that sound cool, but don’t align with your team’s needs. That’s how you end up with an expensive product with loads of impressive bells and whistles that goes unused.
2. Establish a process for using the product.
What do you expect people to do with it? Don’t assume you can introduce your new product, send over basic instructions, and everyone will figure out how to fit it into their lives on their own. Either no one will bother to use it at all, or they’ll use it in ways that don’t match its intended purpose.
This has been a common issue with Slack. The product meant to reduce emails and increase collaboration is frequently used at companies as an instant messaging platform that increases distraction, inspiring think pieces that decry how “Slack is ruining work.” The product isn’t the problem though; the way people use it is.
Advance thought and planning into how a product is deployed, coupled with clear communication to users of what the product is for and how to use it, will solve many of the problems teams run into now.
3. Provide training.
Technology companies do their best to make products as intuitive to learn as possible. But that doesn’t mean all of your employees will immediately understand how to use a new product. And it definitely doesn’t mean they’ll know how to use it in the way you intend.
Find time in the work schedule to provide your team with training on how to get started, the features available to them, and the specific process you developed. Don’t expect them to do this on top of an already full work schedule, unless you have the budget to pay them extra for that time. Training also gives them an opportunity to provide initial feedback and questions. Hearing about any issues with the product or process upfront is preferable to months down the line.
4. Check in.
Are people using it? Is it serving its purpose? Do they have feedback on your process? Don’t assume, actually ask.
If you have a large team that’s using it, this can be in the form of a survey to start to get a quick pulse on how people are feeling. But also talk to specific people about their experience so you can fill in more details than survey data provides.
You may need to change up your process to get better results from it. You may end up with feedback to deliver to the company about the product’s shortcomings (something most tech companies encourage and value). Or you may find everything’s working as intended, and the product is doing its job. Consider yourself pretty darn lucky if that happens, and find a way to celebrate.
5. If it’s not helping, dump it.
Don’t get too attached to the idea of a piece of software. If it isn’t working for your team, don’t cling to it. Figure out how long you have left on your contract and if you can get out of it.
Treat it as a learning experience. What didn’t work about using this product tells you something about what will work better. Then start the process over again in your search for a better option.
Good Intentions and a Good Product Aren’t Good Enough
Getting work done with minimal distractions while maintaining enough communication with colleagues is one of the great challenges of our day. Too often the supposed solution forces employees to deal with one more product they have to constantly check. But figuring out the right process that combines collaboration with efficiency is possible and worth it.