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The massive shift to remote and hybrid work was seen as a revolution, but two years later, not much has really changed in how most people collaborate day-to-day. Despite having access to powerful tools like Microsoft 365, large swaths of the workforce are stuck in outdated habits, leading to inefficiencies and frustration.
According to SWOOP Analytics’ 2023 M365 & Microsoft Teams Benchmarking Report, analyzing over 266,000 employees across 19 large organizations, the commonly held belief that the move to remote work has caused widespread “meeting overload” and burnout is a myth. Only 1% of employees have five or more meetings a day on Teams, Microsoft’s video conferencing platform. Less than 17% of people have more than two meetings daily. For the average user, less than an hour is spent in Teams meetings each day.
I see that kind of problem frequently when helping clients transition to a return to office and hybrid work. Some of them have good excuses: One told me that, due to compliance issues around stock trading, their risk management staff forbade them from using Teams chat and they have to rely on email. But what’s your excuse?
The real problem
The real problem is not too many meetings but that outdated tools and habits still predominate. Email remains the primary mode of collaboration for most, with the average person spending nearly two hours a day reading and writing emails. Despite having access to innovative collaboration platforms like Teams, 76% of people using Teams don’t utilize its chat channels, and 71% don’t post in their company’s internal social network. Almost 25% of Teams users have never sent or received a chat message.
These findings point to a “silent majority” of employees who collaborate little digitally and are difficult for managers to engage. While a small number of overly active users may feel burned out, this research suggests the focus should shift to helping the broader workforce improve collaboration habits.
To maximize the benefits of tools like Microsoft 365, teams must establish common practices for using them. It’s not practical to educate every employee on the full functionality, but agreeing on a subset of features and learning together is achievable. Each M365 tool, like Outlook, Teams chat, meetings, and channels, plays a distinct role that contributes value. Integrating different modes of communication in the appropriate contexts can help reduce inefficiencies.
For example, Teams chat is ideal for quick conversations and bonding teams together, while email may be better suited for communicating with external contacts or when formality is important. Teams channels facilitate asynchronous collaboration for projects or workstreams. Regular meetings, whether on Teams or in person, provide opportunities to engage with colleagues and align on priorities. Determining as a group when and how to use each tool most effectively can optimize productivity.
The good news is, improving digital collaboration habits can have a big impact. SWOOP Analytics estimates that optimizing M365 use could increase workforce productivity by 4.5%. But making the most of available technology requires breaking out of old email habits and embracing new ways of working together online. With the right focus and practices in place, the promise of hybrid work can finally be fulfilled.
Pitfalls to avoid
A few common pitfalls to avoid:
- Relying only on email: While email is useful in some contexts, using it as the primary means of collaboration creates information silos and slows work. Channels, chat and real-time video are better suited for active teamwork.
- Lacking clear rules of engagement: Without guidance on how and when to use each tool, employees default to what they know, usually email. Teams must determine the role of each technology in their workflow and document their approach to provide clarity for all members.
- Ignoring the “silent majority”: Focusing only on “squeaky wheel” employees who overuse certain tools can mask deeper issues around collaboration and morale in the broader workforce. Analytics provide insight into how all employees interact so managers can address gaps and bring more people into active digital collaboration.
- Failing to learn together: Don’t assume everyone has expertise in new platforms. Choose a subset of functionalities for your team to start with and learn through regular use, troubleshooting together and sharing tips with colleagues. Provide ongoing opportunities for teams to explore new features together.
- Neglecting in-person interaction: While remote work is here to stay, in-person connection remains important for relationship building and complex work. Look for opportunities to get together when possible, even if just occasionally. Make time for water cooler conversations and social interaction.
With hybrid work here for the foreseeable future, organizations have an opportunity to reimagine how employees collaborate for greater productivity and work-life balance. But technology alone is not enough. By establishing new norms, learning through experimentation, focusing on the whole workforce, and valuing both virtual and in-person interaction, teams can thrive in this new paradigm. The future of work is promising, as long as we break from the past and commit to collaborating more effectively.
Next steps to optimize your digital engagement
Leaders must make collaboration a strategic priority and commit resources to help teams optimize how they work together day-to-day. Some key steps:
- Analyze current collaboration patterns using tools like Microsoft Workplace Analytics or SWOOP Analytics. Look for gaps and opportunities across the organization and in specific teams. Share insights with managers and discuss what they reveal.
- Provide education and training on new collaboration platforms, but focus on practical use cases and examples. Don’t try to cover all functionality at once. Start with the minimum needed for a team to work together effectively in a hybrid setting. Build from there.
- Coach managers on bringing the “silent majority” into active collaboration. Help them figure out why certain team members aren’t engaging digitally and take steps to connect them to the group. Make collaboration a key part of performance reviews and accountability.
- Encourage experimentation and sharing of best practices. Tell teams to try new ways of collaborating and discuss what works well. Facilitate opportunities for networking and learning across teams. Celebrate wins and stories of progress to build momentum.
- Consider restructuring workflows and workspaces to facilitate more seamless collaboration. Shared digital spaces on platforms like Teams where people come together around projects or workstreams can help. Provide areas for hybrid teams to meet in person and work side-by-side when in the office. Rethink the open office.
- Model the change you want to see. Leaders and executives should actively use the collaboration tools and methods they are promoting to set an example. Share your experiences learning to work in new ways. People follow what leaders do much more than what they say.
The path forward is challenging, but the potential benefits to both employee experience and productivity are enormous. By breaking old habits, embracing new technology thoughtfully, and facilitating a culture where collaboration is valued and nurtured, organizations can thrive in this new era. The future of work depends on the future of how we work together. With focus and effort, that future can be bright. Teams can overcome the obstacles of distance to build real cohesion and make progress, as long as they leave behind outdated tools like email in favor of all the platforms at their disposal. The power of hybrid work lives in a shared connection. It’s time to unlock that potential.