orange sheets of paper lie on a green school board and form a chat bubble with three crumpled papers.
PHOTO: Volodymyr Hryshchenko

Stop working in chat. That was the enduring and common message seven digital workplace consultancies shared in our recent 2021 Microsoft Teams Benchmarking Report. The report analyzed the working habits of some 33 organizations, nearly 100,000 digital teams and 320,000 participants.

One of the most surprising results from our benchmarking is that on average, more than 70% of staff only use the telephony functions of chat/calls/meetings in Microsoft Teams. For the larger organizations in our sample, that figure is closer to 90%.

It makes sense that organizations forced onto Microsoft Teams during the transition to working from home (WFH) in 2020 would rely heavily on the former Skype for Business telephony functions to maintain operations. However we were somewhat surprised organizations had not moved on to explore the full richness of the product 12 months after the initial move to WFH, specifically “digital teaming.” Jeff Teper, Corporate VP of Microsoft 365 Collaboration, said as much: "My goal is not to get everybody on the planet in Teams meetings all day long."

Our analyses showed strong correlations between the telephony functions of one-on-one chat, calls and meetings use. The only link between digital team channel discussions and telephony functions was with multi-person chat. Multi-person chat however, comprised only 2% of all chat.

Why Shouldn’t We Work in Chat?

Chat has seamlessly expanded from our personal lives into our work lives. We regularly use our phones to text, WhatsApp, FB Messenger or FaceTime our friends and family. We share life’s moments in established friends and family chat groups. We share what we're doing, eating and looking at from one moment to the next. Today’s moments are tomorrow’s ancient history.

We have moments at work as well. The difference is, our work moments should largely not be tomorrow’s ancient history. Work needs to be persistent, not nostalgic. Our work colleagues need to be able to pick up any threads of work conversation we may have left to continue the flow of work. Our colleagues in different time zones, or working flexible hours, cannot rely fully on disconnected chat messages for work statuses.

Chat is designed for short, sharp communications. It is ephemeral, with no guarantee that it can be easily rediscovered in the context in which it was posted. Chat expects an immediate response, else prepare to be offended! Neglect to post into a chat group for a few days, it may not be there when you next go looking for it. In our social contexts, it tends not to matter. At work it does.

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The State of Enterprise Chat Tools

Microsoft Teams, Slack, Zoom, Workplace from Facebook, Webex and the like provide these chat apps in our workplaces, with enterprise-level security assurances. These enterprise tool sets have quickly identified the shortcomings of chat and have either added threaded discussions as an alternative communication mode, or like Microsoft Teams, have designed the into the product. Unfortunately, the Chat and Threaded Discussion modes are regularly offered as separate options.

Because Chat is easier and more familiar, it has become the default mode of use. Our benchmarking showed that on average 28 chat messages were sent for every Teams channel message.

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What Are We Missing Out on if We Only Work in Chat?

In a word, heaps:

  • Firstly if you want to use Teams as a Hub for your work, you need to have formed a digital team first, before you can start adding third party applications.
  • Once you have a digital team, you can start to coordinate your work by creating channels for each work stream.
  • Your history of conversation threads, if well managed, can facilitate team members in different time zones, working flexible hours, etc.
  • You can start to share content with the whole team, more easily co-create documents and share other relevant content.
  • You can share with the whole team with a single post, rather than trying to do this through one-on-one chats. Multi-person chats are rarely used.
  • You can reduce the number of meetings you need. Team members, for example, can keep their colleagues updated on their status in threads, removing the need for time-consuming updates in meetings.
  • You can reserve meetings for the truly worthwhile people to people interactions, such as debating priorities, brainstorming ideas and new plans and more. Overall meeting time can be reduced by up to 50%, according to one of our consulting partners.

In essence, you are losing the opportunity to maximize your impact and leaving a deserved legacy in your workplace.

Related Article: Making Collaboration Work in the Hybrid Workplace

How Do We Move Work From Chat Into Digital Team Channels?

We need to be up front here. Creating effective digital teams and channels takes effort. Our benchmarking showed that only about 3% of digital teams were meaningfully active. In other words, there is a distinct lack of governance when it comes to managing digital teams.

The good news is the digital teams that made the effort were generating outsized value to their organizations. The case studies we captured from the very best identified teams were inspiring. Highly cohesive, highly interactive, highly agile and highly virtual teams performed tasks at a speed and quality unachievable in an office-based environment. This is true digital transformation at work. We heard about an operational services leadership team of four all working remotely, effectively cross-managing each other’s teams, covering each other’s absences in a high-trust environment. They had never met face to face. Just one of many similar stories we uncovered.

Here are some tips gleaned from our digital workplace consulting partners:

  • Hold each other accountable. If you find yourself in a one-on-one chat or call that has relevance to a third party, move or copy the discussion to a Team channel.
  • Treat your digital team like a physical team. Don’t invite more than your immediate team. Smaller teams make psychological safety easier. Create a digital team in the same way as a strong physical team — defined membership, a clear charter and agreed ways of working.
  • Reserve chat for personal one-one-one interactions — social, logistical, ephemeral and those that would have zero impact if it’s not there tomorrow. Even one-on-one chats may still be better in a team channel. For example, chatting to a colleague that you are off to lunch might be useful to other team members who may be looking for your attention.
  • When in the team channels, work out loud. Transparency breeds trust. High-trust teams are inclusive and promote positive cultures.
  • Be clear and consistent about what tools to use when. Confusion is debilitating and counter-productive.

Use this tag line to make the distinction clear: "Work in the Threads, Play in the Chat."