solo person walking through empty hallways of a building
PHOTO: Connor Houtman

In my previous article, I suggested the enforced working from home (WFH) environment is a once in a lifetime opportunity to discover the extent to which virtual work can really work, and therefore how organizations are placed when they eventually transition back to a "new normal." 

Much has already been written about the new normal, when the world transitions back from COVID-19. Predictions include how workplaces will include higher proportions of virtual work, which will be no doubt be welcomed in the context of a plunging economy which forces companies to do more with less. Others suggest an even stronger "people-first" focus, with HR guru Josh Bersin calling COVID-19 the biggest thing ever to happen to employee engagement and the start of a big reset in the way we work.

Bersin also suggests there's never been a greater need for people- and relationship-focussed analytics.

The current unprecedented scale of workplace disruption is forcing everyone to learn fast and adapt faster than ever before. You can’t learn without data and analytics. We don't have the luxury of monitoring long-term trends either, because there aren’t any. We need to monitor, in close to real time, multiple themes. We need to make rapid sense of what the data is telling us. We then need to act decisively to ensure we recover and thrive.

When my firm Swoop published its Microsoft Teams benchmarking report of more than 5,300 Teams in early March, there was no way to predict that in a little over a month our modest adoption metrics from only two months before would be totally rewritten by the end of March.

The Current Work From Home Situation 

We can break the enforced transition into virtual working into the following stages:

We anticipate the work from home (WFH) period could extend anywhere upward from two months, followed by an extended transition to the new normal, whatever that may be. What we can be sure of is the measurement and monitoring of organizational performance will be significantly disrupted. No longer can we rely on team leaders monitoring team participation through physical presence alone. Settling into a new effective mean performance monitoring is now an imperative. 

We have recently completed a mini-benchmarking exercise across several Yammer,  Microsoft Teams and Workplace from Facebook sites, comparing collaboration performances during February 2020 (pre-WFH) against a period from March 11 to April 9, 2020, where organizations were transitioning to WFH in varying degrees. As anticipated, the activity levels on all platforms grew substantially.

Looking at the Microsoft platforms alone, Teams increased on average 210% and Yammer 84%. It is insightful, however, to look at some of the other SWOOP measures in more detail. 

We have purposefully used the same scales for both platforms so relative differences can be clearly seen. Our interpretations from the above are: 

  • The Teams data is most reflective of WFH transitioning, with the % change in participation varying from as little as 11% up to more than 250%, suggesting a large variance in the speed of transition. The comparable Yammer ranges are: no change to up to 75%. 
  • The average Engagement and Innovation scores for Teams has on average reduced as staff have rushed to be “on Teams” but are yet to discover how to use it productively. The equivalent Yammer scores showed gains, with the exception of tagging (@ mentions). 
  • The average reduction in tagging (mentions) suggests the large number of new users coming onto both platforms have not found tagging others into conversations a natural new habit. 
  • Curiosity levels are much more apparent on Yammer, reinforcing the view that Yammer is an enterprise-wide platform for airing concerns and uncertainties. 
  • While the growth in participation levels for Yammer are more modest, the engagement and innovation levels are relatively stable. In contrast, Teams must quickly build the levels of engagement and innovation, if former productivity levels are to be approached. 
  • We see a strong complementary use of Yammer and Teams during this disruptive period, as intimated in our recent Teams benchmarking report. Yammer can play the vehicle to ensure that senior executives remains engaged with front line staff, providing the sorts of regular communication updates we are seeing governments now making with their citizens. Teams, however, must now be leveraged to deliver on the day to day business needs. Within the guidelines established through Yammer discussions, Teams can focus on building engagement and innovation levels that may have existed in the ‘office’ but is now largely missing from the virtual environment. 

Related Article: The Recent Spike in Collaboration Tool Adoption Doesn't Mean Productivity Spikes Too

What Will Your 'New Normal' Look Like?

As we move from the initial stage of learning how to use the technology, we need to quickly focus on people-to-people engagement and place renewed energy into the innovative activities required to quickly adapt to a new normal way of working.

As we have indicated above, it is within your (virtual) working teams that most of this action is going to have to take place.

  • Start measuring what your virtual teams are doing: not just their activity levels, but how they are engaging with each other inside their teams.
  • Try to identify those teams that are doing particularly well, the ones that are thriving in this virtual work environment.
  • Reach out to these teams and create an online forum and/or community where different effective  working practices can be freely shared. Aim to share those practices that are most aligned to your particular organizational context.
  • Through this online community, look to rapidly move into a creative and innovative stage, where this shared knowledge can be leveraged into a productive new normal that is right for you and your organization. Keep measuring all the way.

No doubt we will look back on 2020 as a watershed moment for organizations and their employees. Some will be changed forever. We have a choice though: through measurement we gain some control. Without it we have nothing.

Related Article: Working Remotely: A Manager's Perspective