Collaboration tools

When you were a kid and you broke something, or treated  your parents’ property with disrespect, were you told, “This is why we can’t have nice things”? It’s the same idea with technology and team collaboration tools. The tools are (mostly) fine. People are the problem.

When we talk to our clients about the challenges to team productivity, there are a lot of complaints about the tools they have at their disposal. Sure, Slack and Microsoft Teams are useful, but the constant messages, meetings, and interruptions drive people crazy. Obviously, these tools are a productivity problem for remote teams. Or are they?

Be Careful What You Ask For

In the nearly 20 years I’ve been researching remote work, I clearly remember the days when email was the main tool we had, along with a phone and maybe a Go-to-Meeting account or Webex license (if you were allowed to use it.)

At the time, people said their work would be so much easier and more productive if:

  • Everything was in one platform, instead of needing separate tools with separate log-ons that slowed down the workflow
  • We had a way of knowing when people were available to us
  • We had a simple webcam tool with integrated audio
  • We could easily share screens and information in real time
  • We didn’t have to rely on email

Thus, we got tools like Microsoft Teams and Slack (and dozens of others, but these are the most widely used and everyone knows enough about them to be good examples.) Each of them, to some degree and depending on how they are set up, accomplish all of the above. We should be happy, no?

How did the solution become the problem?

So we have these tools that would have been science fiction only a decade ago, at our disposal any time, and (relatively) easy to learn and use at a high level. How did these tools become problems instead of the solution they were intended to be?

The more cynical IT and technology professionals will tell you that “80% of the problems we encounter take place between the keyboard and the chair.” In other words, the users are the problem. But what do we mean by that and what can we do about it?

Not using all the features

Somewhere around 80% of users engage only 20% of the tool’s features. This means that when we look at what we want the technology to do, there are often ways to make it work for you. The challenge is that we tend to use only the simplest features and utilize just enough of the tools to get our tasks done. Many people spend more time finding workarounds to tools than learning to use them properly.

Wrong mindset about collaboration tools

We don’t have a mindset that allows us to master the technology, we let it rule us. The incoming email message was never intended to hijack your brain and stop you from working on other tasks. Very few incoming texts or chat messages require an immediate response. But for both psychological and neurological reasons, we haven’t imposed mental guardrails on ourselves.

People are pretty consistent: don’t like it, won’t use it well, then claim it doesn’t work. If you look at things objectively, the tools we have will allow us to be productive and get more work done than we think. We don’t look at things objectively.

And maybe most important…

New tools require new habits

We are still using old habits that got us through in-person work in this new environment, and it’s making us crazy. In the old days, you didn’t have to constantly prove you were working. Your boss could see you clocked in, or see you at your desk and that was a pretty good start. If someone wanted to ask you a question and you were obviously busy, they asked someone else or waited. At the same time, you knew you couldn’t avoid Bob forever, and made yourself available when the time was right. For many of us, we are trying to maintain that same hive-activity. It won’t work. The whole point of remote work is increased flexibility.

There are simple things like do not disturb and statuses on our collaboration tools. We have the power (but maybe not the ability to resist) to check mail periodically rather than every time you get an incoming message.

We allow  what feels like convenience, personal preference and old habits to overcome the inherent advantages these tools give us. No, they aren’t perfect, and yes, they could be better, but most of the complaints about them stem from the way we use them, not whether or not they work.

Your mother was right, we’re the reason we can’t have nice things at work. What do you plan to do about it?


Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammateoffers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.

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