As one of the leading vendors in the digital teamwork space, the workforce at content collaboration vendor Box adapted quickly to the sudden shift to working from home when COVID-19 lockdown orders came into effect earlier this year. But even Box was able to learn some new tricks, particularly around information sharing, as staff settled into their new work routines.
One of the biggest learnings for all companies as they've been plunged into distributed teamwork is how informally knowledge is shared in an office environment. Lose that shared physical proximity, and suddenly it's much harder for workers to stay abreast of crucial information. And yet COVID-19 was generating even more information that they needed to know — what funding was available for home office equipment, what processes to follow if they needed to visit the office, what was the latest advice on a full-time return to the office, and so on. All of this information was in one digital tool or another — some of it was in Box, some was on Slack, some was in Confluence — but there was no central resource to help people find it.
Realizing there was a gap here that needed to be filled, Jason Bergado, Senior Director in IT Operations, decided to quickly create something that might help. He manages teams that support cross-functional operations projects as well as providing internal end user support. The latter role involves supporting JIRA Service Desk, which is used for support issues across the company — not just for software engineering, but also for most of the general administration functions, from HR, finance and IT to security and workplace services.
A centralized resource page
Bergado's idea was to use a third-party plug-in for Jira Service Desk called Refined. This is a tool for building a themed website that pulls in content from the Atlassian stack — Jira, Service Desk and Confluence. He was able to show a working mock-up to colleagues at the next meeting of the internal council charged with co-ordinating Box's COVID-19 and shelter-in-place actions, and the response was enthusiastic. A production version was live before the council met again. Bergado explains:
I was able to just set up a quick web portal with a bunch of different modules — go here for the Slack channel that everyone's getting communication on, go here for benefits, go here for legal, go here for the security bulletins ...
Just bringing all that communication into a single place, I think, for the most part allowed us to get over that initial hump, from an end user and employee perspective, of not knowing what to do.
The breakthrough was having a single destination that had up-to-date links to all the information, irrespective where it was stored. Even emails could be saved in PDF format as a Box file and then embedded in a Confluence article, which could then be included in one of the resource links from the Refined portal. Bergado explains:
As long as we got everyone in a centralized location, where they stored it didn't really matter. I think that's what people loved about this Jira Service Desk integration with Confluence, the fact that we could use our own product, we can use other files, and people can store them in all different places. We can still use Slack and navigate everyone from that centralized repository.
I think that's what really helped, versus trying to figure out how to centralize it through Slack or through email digest. I think it was the most efficient, integrated way that we could leverage.
Jira Service Desk at Box
It also helped that Jira was already in use across the organization. Box had switched from email-based support to the Service Desk ticketing system two to three years prior, which meant around 60% of support issues were filed using tickets, with 10% still coming in via email, and the rest as walk-up issues, where staff would simply walk up to a support desk with their issue. Obviously that service stopped once offices closed, although some issues are still handled by Zoom call as a 'virtual' walk-up.
Overall, Bergado notes, the number of issues being reported has gone down — perhaps because people either make do or resolve it themselves, the team hasn't yet dug into the exact reason. On the other hand, the average time to resolve has gone up, because some issues are inevitably harder to resolve when the engineer can't physically examine the device.
Box has since set up a second portal along the same lines, this time focused on "Communities at Box". This is a central resource that staff can use to find information from around a dozen communities within the company, including allyship and other employee resource groups, as well as Box.org, learning and development links, mental health support and so on. Bergado again:
[There's a] need for more communication across the teams and organizations and just generally, to make sure we're all connected as an organization ...
They were using Confluence and different resources and Box folders. It just wasn't presenting that centralized feel that people wanted to pull information from. This is really helping people have a landing page for a lot of the resources that are truly needed at this time.
The importance of building engagement
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 resource portal is now gathering significant traffic, and has already more than doubled traffic to people resources within the company. Bergado puts this down to the fact that it has frequent updates:
Once people start to see that you're curating the content, you're keeping things up to date and there's meaning and importance there, you start to get a lot more traction. I think because it's very focused on this specific portal, it does generate a lot of traffic.
He contrasts this with his past experience of large-scale intranet projects, which were intended as a useful source of information for people across an organization, but often failed to maintain engagement.
I've built intranets for a lot of organizations, from VMware to Toyota. You always take that big-bang approach — let's create the entire intranet and all 50 organizational portals. You get traction for the first week or a month, maybe, and then it just dies after that.
I think what we've discovered is, you focus on creating resources for things that people look for, and you organically build that over time. It's the same way we built Jira Service Desk. We started with just IT, just walk-by services and just security. And then traffic started being generated ...
That's probably the best approach, rather than trying to say, 'Let's create something for everyone' and no one updates it. Then no one looks at the COVID portal, because they think everything's out-of-date every time they visit your intranet.
At Box, it's been the absolute opposite — it was a small-scale project, but the engagement has been huge, leaving Bergado modestly bemused:
They think we did [a lot of work], but we really didn't. So we're definitely getting a lot of kudos for a minimal effort here.
There's an important lesson here about the need for extra support to help people discover and share knowledge once they're working across distributed teams. The casual ability to just turn to someone and ask a question that we take for granted in the office needs to be deliberately replaced. You can't just assume that the existing network of digital teamwork tools has this covered. And this is just level 2 of the digital teamwork maturity model — even though, as Box CEO Aaron Levie has said, we're all shifting toward a digital-first way of working, adapting to this new normal of distributed teamwork is an uphill learning curve for everyone.