Facebook continued the evolution of Workplace as an enterprise teamwork platform yesterday with the launch of two new features. The announcements are billed as setting the tone for Workplace’s strategy for 2021, so I took the opportunity to get the lowdown from Head of Product Ujjwal Singh on what else we can expect this year. This is how he sums up the overall strategy:
Workplace is ... moving from just being a place where you communicate and engage with fellow employees or with your org, [to become] a place where you get work done.
That transition is taking place at a carefully managed rate, with the latest functionality reflecting that evolutionary pace. Both new features are a response to needs that have been highlighted by the pandemic and associated lockdowns, forcing many to abandon workplaces and find new ways to stay in touch:
- A new Safety Center admin panel builds on the existing Safety Check function to allow companies to communicate with employees during a safety incident and track key metrics.
- An update to Live Video adds the ability to have multiple hosts in a single Live session, so that presenters don't all need to be in the same location. As well as allowing multiple presenters on the same video stream, they can also share the same Q&A. Once a broadcast is over, key metrics will be available including video time, viewers, and engagement such as comments and reactions.
Supporting 'a mixed mode world' of work
In common with many other tech industry players, Facebook expects the new working patterns that have emerged during the pandemic to continue. Singh foresees "a mixed mode world" where people will opt to work remotely far more frequently than before last year. The company believes Workplace can play an important role in enabling those new ways of working. He explains:
In that world, this notion of productivity, collaborative productivity takes on a really, we think, a key importance.
Whereas before you could do the work together on a whiteboard, now you have to assume that some part of the team may be remote. So how do you get work done?
Part of the answer is to integrate third-party capabilities into Workplace — although it will be a selective list of partners. Singh says:
We're not trying to capture all work being done everywhere. We're trying to capture work that relies on and utilizes our underlying collaborative platform.
He points to integrations announced during 2020 with ServiceNow, DocuSign and Cisco Webex. Others will follow in the first half of 2021, but it will be a carefully chosen list. Singh explains;
Our focus, at least in 2021, is going to be, what are the ones that ... allow people to collaborate and be productive together on our platform. Not just a checkbox of tools that we integrate with — you're going to see us be fairly selective and have a fairly strong narrative around why they were selected.
At least in the early half of 2021, there's a handful of integrations that we're focused on with large partners, that you'll see us announce.
Striking a balance between sync and async
Closely related to this is a focus on using Workplace as a mechanism for helping people connect and collaborate better when they're working apart. The experience of the past year has shown that people can't rely on solely video meetings and chat channels to co-ordinate work in distributed teams. As well as these synchronous channels, where all participants need to be online at the same time, there's a lot of scope for asynchronous communication, where participants post information and leave messages that others can pick up or respond to later on.
Getting the right balance between sync and async communications will not only help productivity but also improve wellbeing, by reducing the incidence of video meeting fatigue and other stresses people have experienced while working remotely. Singh concludes:
It's something that we think we can address in interesting ways with the mixture of sync and async, on our platform.
The final area of focus is on Workplace from Facebook's role in bringing frontline workers into closer contact with desk-based colleagues and company leaders. This is a trend that's already been evident, especially in customers such as Walmart in the retail sector, or BT in telecoms. Singh explains:
Frontline is a large proportion of the work population. One of the things that we're going to be focused on in 2021 pretty heavily is, how do we give them a voice in a company? How do we give them the ability to engage with the executives, how do we give the executives the ability to engage with them?
All of this builds on features introduced to Workplace during 2020, says Singh, emphasizing the direction of travel. These include the Knowledge Library, a wiki-like store for sharing more long-lived information share, the uptake in the use of Live for updates and Q&A posts, and the use of the Facebook Portal video calling hub.
Workplace from Facebook has seen impressive growth over the past couple of years, to reach more than five million users, and the company now wants to take it to the next level. But it still insists on doing so at its own pace and on its own terms. Look for example at Live Video, which only now gains the ability to have multiple presenters in a managed session, in contrast to the rush among video meetings vendors to cram more and more participants into one view.
Facebook is also keen to ensure that Workplace remains a familiar environment that is easy for Facebook users to start using without feeling overwhelmed. Therefore much of the new functionality comes from the existing Facebook universe, and where it doesn't — as in the third-party integrations — those add-ons are integrated in a way that's as seamless as possible.
This helps Facebook maintain the rapid pace of Workplace adoption, which is still its best selling point especially among large organizations. But it necessarily limits the pace at which the platform can add extra functionality to compete with other more elaborate digital teamwork platforms. The strategy of providing more support for a mix of async and sync collaboration makes a lot of sense, but will the measured pace of new feature introduction limit its utility? Facebook clearly believes it's getting that balance right. Its success in the market this year will provide a verdict on whether it has chosen well.