2020 - the year digital teamwork went mainstream

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright December 22, 2020
Phil surveys a landmark year for digital teamwork, as remote working became the norm for so many of us

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While few of us will be sorry to see the back of 2020, one sector can look back on it as a landmark year. Digital teamwork vendors have experienced booming sales as organizations sought to keep employees connected and ensure projects stay on track.

As the pandemic lockdown took hold, working remotely went from a fringe activity to what everyone was doing, and several years of the adoption curve was compressed into a few weeks.

At diginomica, we've been tracking the emergence of digital teamwork for several years already, but this year left us breathless with the pace of change.

Here are a few of the key moments, reflected in our coverage through the year.

Suddenly, work goes remote

We're evaluating whether this is office 3.0, or whether this is actually the end of the office and we're looking at a post-office scenario, where an office is really just one tool amongst many tools, rather than being a staple in our arsenal.

Why? In just a few days in March, businesses across the Western world shut down their offices and turned to digital teamwork tools to keep operating. Despite the inevitable wrinkles, it worked out better than many had expected. The tools were ready to go and it was just a matter of adapting work routines to the new reality. That soon led to questions, as highlighted in the quote above from Tibco's COO Matt Quinn, whether we will ever go back to using physical offices to the same extent as we did before the pandemic struck. Whatever happens, it seems inevitable that we'll continue using these digital tools now that they've proven their value.

The Zoom rocketship

It will be Zoom's success in building a solid enterprise customer base that will assure a safe landing from this year's astonishing trajectory.

Why? Video meetings platform Zoom has been the most obvious beneficiary of the switch to remote work. Its ascent this year has been startling to watch. The video meetings platform started out hoping to close in on $1 billion in annual revenue. It ended the year punching past a $3 billion-a-year run rate. And yet it's missed out on sales because it can't expand its sales team fast enough to keep pace, while early missteps on security and privacy dented its image. The risk is that its rocketship rise will be followed by a precipitous decline. Wisely, its leadership has focused on building its enterprise presence while bolstering business appeal with new capabilities. The coming year will show whether that's been enough.

The loneliness of the long-distance worker

What has been missing is an understanding that the platforms that are likely to win big are the ones that not only make work practical and functional online, but also make that online experience enjoyable, social and addictive.

Why? In all this talk of digital tools, we mustn't forget the human dimension. The circumstances of the sudden shift to remote working were stressful for all of us, and adjusting to work without the social interaction and support of the office environment was a difficult adjustment for many. Mental wellness became an issue and people started experiencing Zoom fatigue — although that's "not Zoom's fault," a company executive now tells us. As my colleague Derek Du Preez points out in the article quoted above, the vendors actually have a responsibility to make their tools a pleasure to use.

A cascade of new features

When the pandemic hit, there were some unexpected behavior trends that forced a few last-minute changes of plan.

Why? This has been a year of accelerated evolution in the digital teamwork space. Much of this may have been functionality that the vendors had already been working on, but the pandemic brought new urgency, and in some cases plans were reshuffled to respond to fast-changing habits. Apart from Google's overhaul of G Suite — now called Workplace — there was Slack's mid-lockdown user experience makeover and its subsequent roll-out of shared channels, Microsoft's debut of Together mode and Cisco acquiring technology to cut out extraneous noise from Webex calls. Cisco's goal of eventually making the experience using Webex "10x better" than an in-person meeting sums up the ambition in the sector.

Virtual events and the quest for authenticity

For some reason companies think that if they're providing a free online event they can get away with just putting across what *they* think is really valuable (nine times out of ten it isn't).

Why? In the space of just a few weeks, the virtual event industry went from being a sidenote in the margin of tech to become the must-have marketing tool in every tech vendor's arsenal as they scrambled to replace canceled in-person events with virtual equivalents. Unfortunately their unfamiliarity with this new medium led to some dire results. diginomica's Jon Reed has penned an invaluable series of articles over the year on the art and pitfalls of virtual events. For a quote to sum it all up, I couldn't resist Derek's pithy verdict above. But Jon is still the go-to resource, as you can see in this DisrupTV interview on how to improve your virtual event.

Getting the most out of digital teamwork

I've written previously about the importance of engineering a collaborative canvas for digital teamwork across the enterprise, but that's only half the story. Putting the technology in place has to go hand-in-hand with changes in business culture, organization and working practices to take advantage of what the technology enables.

Why? Replacing in-person meetings with video calls is fine as a workaround, but the full suite of digital teamwork tools enables far more, if organizations and their teams take the necessary steps to realize their full potential. That means taking advantage of their ability to automate workflow across multiple applications, the use of machine learning and AI to surface knowledge and suggestions, and ultimately the analysis of data to evaluate how effectively goals are being met. Interestingly, only a few vendors build in the ability to track goals, such as Atlassian and Asana. The purpose is not just to enable remote collaboration, but to do work — and ultimately achieve outcomes — more effectively. As Kevin Brucato of Workfront customer Prudential Financial puts it, executing a project flawlessly counts for nothing unless it manages to "move the needle" on the company's goals.

Collaboration platforms swallow apps

They can have those critical conversations, drive those critical workflows, all within Slack and interact with those applications as needed to resolve the issue, or to close the deal, or to onboard the employee or whatever it might be ...

Why? Seen in the context of the above maturity model, rolling out digital teamwork tools for messaging and conversation is just the first step in building a collaborative canvas across the enterprise. The next step is to plug all your enterprise applications into that canvas, and then use the conversational layer of the teamwork tools as the primary way that most employees interact with them. In other words, the teamwork layer becomes the user experience platform. This is not only Slack's gameplan, as outlined above by Steve Wood, VP of Product for its Developer Platform. It's also Microsoft's gameplan for Teams, and Zoom's strategy. But the app giants aren't taking that lying down ...

App giants swallow collaboration platforms

[Adobe acquisition] Workfront is a shoo-in for managing teamwork in a marketing environment, just as Slack offers effective channels for teamwork across enterprise boundaries in a sales or customer service relationship.

Why? 2020 ended with two huge acquisitions in the digital teamwork space, as existing enterprise application giants decided they wanted a role in the collaboration market. Adobe snapped up Workfront for a modest $1.5 billion, while Salesforce surprised industry watchers with a massive $27.7 billion bid for Slack. The big question still hanging in the air is whether these vendors will be content to use their acquisition targets to expand their functional footprint in their existing disciplines of marketing and sales, or whether they have broader ambitions to become the default digital teamwork platform right across the enterprise.

Video killed the messaging star

Messaging is no longer sufficient as a primary channel for enterprise workflow. The world has pivoted to video.

Why? One of the big surprises as people switched to remote working this year has been the rise of video. The old habits of dialing into web meetings rapidly faded away, while messaging platforms — Slack being the prime example — suffered if they didn't have video readily available. This in turn has led to big steps forward in digitizing the video experience so that it can access the same digital tooling that already supports text-based communication channels. The more people stay remote at work, the more entrenched this new trend is going to become.

We benchmark, they surveil

The whole point of teamwork is to allow each person to contribute what they do best, and the most effective teams prize diverse approaches. A system that is able to analyze all of these inputs and help each team member work out their own route to achieving more with less stress would be a good outcome. Using digital surveillance to impose Tayloristic performance targets is its ugly flipside.

Why? The year ended with a reminder of the downside of all this digitalization of the teamwork experience. Although Microsoft rapidly retracted the most intrusive aspects of its Productivity Score, it was an important reminder that when it comes to teamwork, organizations are dealing with people, not machines. (And BTW as vendor Zoho also points out, employees not consumers). As digital teamwork tools become more and more a staple feature of our working lives, it's going to be important to strike the right balance between monitoring and privacy.

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