Back in April, Facebook announced a free version of Workplace by Facebook, its enterprise messaging platform in hopes of luring smaller businesses and customers in emerging markets to give it a try and eventually transition to the paid version. A number of large companies—including Starbucks, Viacom and Campbell's—have already adopted the premium version.
It is the latest signal that Facebook intends to wade aggressively into the crowded and competitive marketplace for enterprise chat and collaboration platforms.
Slack, which in June claimed 5 million daily active users and already has big name customers like IBM and Capitol One. In January 2017 it launched the Slack Enterprise Grid to offer more flexibility and control for companies and governments using the platform.
Going back in time, Microsoft introduced a version of its workplace collaboration software in November 2016, called Microsoft Teams, which has now become part of its potent Office 365 offering. Teams has a reported 50,000 customers, including Accenture and ConocoPhillips.
But it is a very crowded and fragmented marketplace with Jira, Hangouts and the Microsoft acquired Yammer coming to mind. Each has their own bells and whistles.
How it works
Workplace is basically a white-label version of the Facebook social network beloved by millions, minus the games, plus evolving additional business-friendly features, like analytics, administrative controls, single sign-on (SSO), secure identity management, and enterprise support.
Facebook has been using a version internally since 2011 but the enterprise version was developed by a team in London and released in October 2016. (The first time a new Facebook product was developed somewhere other than Silicon Valley.) It has been updated several times to increase functionality and user experience. The premium platform costs $3 per person for the first 1,000 users, $2 a person for the following 9,000, and $1 a person for any additional users. The service is free to nonprofits and educational institutions.
Like its parent, Workplace functions as part social network, part messenger and part event manager. Although it has a similar look and features to the consumer version (all users can “post” and “Like” and “Share”), the platform is not tied to users' personal Facebook accounts. Instead, it is meant for workplace collaboration, with a news feed, messaging, and live video. Users choose who they wish to connect with and are connected--no friending require.
Workplace also has a chat function—called Workchat—that allows users to interact with co-workers and discuss ideas, work on projects in a group and ask questions.
Users can message one-to-one and have multiple contacts within a conversation. They can share files and even make video calls with teams. And, like the consumer version, Workplace will send you notifications if there is relevant content for you to see.
An important added feature to the enterprise edition allows you to integrate with your file systems, including Box, Microsoft, Dropbox and Quip/Salesforce. That means when you want to share a file in a Workplace group, instead of just a link, you’ll have a thumbnail to click and it will take you directly to the file for editing or commenting.
Julien Codorniou, Director and global head of Workplace, says that one of the differentiating features of the Facebook approach is that it involves everyone. Instead of being used by a portion of a company or a team within an organization Workplace aims for company-wide deployments so that good ideas can come from anywhere.. This doesn't prevent users from creating separate groups which makes it easy, for example, to create a mini-network for each project they’re working on
The former Microsoft executive adds:
They [company executives] really want to know how it feels to be in the store in front of the clients, and they need to know to get the signals as fast as possible, and I think Workplace does that very well, from between the execs and the front-line employees but also between the employees in different offices who sometimes are not in the same timezone and don’t even speak the same language.”
Big hit in Singapore
One of the earliest Workplace adopters was Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), the largest hospital in Singapore, which has about 8,900 employees—10% of whom are based outside the hospital in patients’ homes or elsewhere. Getting a single message out to all 3,600 nurses, for example, often required multiple e-mails and roll calls.
For internal communications becomes more complex when taking into account that 10% of the workforce is based outside of the hospital, in patients’ homes or elsewhere. It may take multiple roll calls to get a single message out to all 3,600 nurses, inside and outside of the hospital and on different shifts.
In 2015, TTSH became the first hospital in the world to leave email behind for Workplace. The Institute of Mental Health has since followed suit. The service officially launched in October 2016 and has since had several updates to increase functionality and user experience. Said Jennifer Yap, Director of Corporate Communications at Tan Tock Seng Hospital:
For a big organization, it is important to always update our suite of communication tools as the workforce changes and grows so that a large workforce can connect and collaborate better. So the hospital has launched a new strategy, and is now using a social network for its internal messaging.
The hospital has since launched its own mobile application and Facebook domain, ‘Kampung Workplace’ (kampung is the Malay word for village), and more than 75% of the hospital’s staff are now using the system.
Yap says the platform has strengthened the way nurses, doctors, and staff interact with each other. It has cut down on the number of meetings and opened up a platform where ideas can be shared and nurtured into effective action. As an example, she points to a dramatic improvement in facilities repair.
Staff do not have to rely solely on calling time-consuming hotlines or emailing helpdesks anymore. Now, they can snap photos of leaky air conditioners or stained hallways, upload it to the relevant group, and someone would head over right away.
An even bigger deal followed. In October 2016, the Singapore Government became the first civil service in the world to adopt Workplace. The entire public service numbers about 143,000 officers. Early results are promising; a high rate of adoption and use, a reduction in internal emails, and better engagement between senior management and staff.
Facebook Workplace has the potential to be a disruptive force in the enterprise collaboration space.
For most people, the enterprise version will require no training. Most employees will already be familiar with its interface and basic functions from the consumer version.
Adoption by large companies has been better than I imagined given that Slack has the perceived market mindshare.
Workplace is already being used by 14,000 companies and has over 400,000 groups, which dwarfs the growth of Slack at a similar time in its history.
At a time when digital transformation is all the rage, the fact that Workplace can replace not just one solution but multiple solutions—saving a lot of money and reducing support costs—is a powerful incentive and could be decisive. Facebook has announced a number of new integrations that add support for cloud storage, chatbot programming, security, and real time video conferencing. Its language translation capability is a killer app for companies with an international workforce.
Workplace’s biggest drawback may be the same as its greatest strength—familiarity. There are still many senior executives who consider Facebook a potential distraction for workers and a waste of time. Dogfooding the most popular social network in the world is both risky and bold. Facebook just might have found itself a better mousetrap.
Then there is the ever present risk of data privacy. Facebook has been at pains to stress that there is a clear separation between the consumer product and the enterprise edition. But given the poor relationships between Silicon Valley and the current U.S. government, overshadowed by a sense that Facebook, among a very few others, is becoming too powerful, may yet serve to act as a brake on adoption. But that fact Workplace has gained acceptance in places like TTSH provides a handy reference point for the wary.