big sculpture of a question mark
PHOTO: Martin Pettitt

We've all heard how the pandemic forced a digital transformation in the way we work. After analyzing almost 100,000 teams on Microsoft Teams as part of SWOOP Analytics’ forthcoming 2021 Teams Benchmarking Report, we discovered this digital transformation is in fact a mixed picture. Our benchmarking approach uniquely measures the online interactions of all employees from the 34 organizations analyzed. We also reached out to the top performing teams we identified to better understand the nature of how their work has changed during the pandemic.

On the one hand, we have seen the classic digital transformation, where teams were forced to work remotely. These teams rose to the challenge and identified new work practices that allowed them to work even more effectively than when they were in the office. On the other hand, we saw and heard stories about staff feeling overwhelmed by a plethora of digital communications, be it online meetings, chat, email, forums, etc.

What is going on?

Digital Transformation Is Here, It's Just Unevenly Distributed

In a 2015 research study we analyzed five communication channels for a globally distributed architectural firm.

popular communication channels in 2015

In this pre-COVID-19 and pre-Microsoft Teams world, email was the dominant channel. Sixty-three percent of emails were with external parties and 37% were internal. Lync, the predecessor of Teams chat, was modestly used, and only internally. Email hosted the second-most cross-location/departmental connections and second-most cross-discipline connections, behind Yammer.

Wind the clock forward to 2020 and COVID-19 spurred on a prolific increase in use of chat, calls, meetings and channel discussions in an effort to replace face-to-face (F2F) meetings. But what about the previously dominant email channel? We would anticipate a drop in email use for internal communications, with chat, Teams channel discussions and Yammer discussions replacing it. Several of the organizations we interviewed experienced precisely this.

But what if this didn’t happen, and the additional chat, Teams channel and Yammer discussions were simply layered on top of email? With no clear guidance on what to use when, confusion reigns. What is meant to be a digital transformation for the better, we get digital chaos. Who wouldn’t feel stressed and over-worked in an environment like this? We certainly heard this story as well.

Related Article: Don't Know Which Microsoft Collaboration Tool to Use? You're Not Alone

3 Different Transformation Journeys

Ideally, as richer communication channels become available, we anticipate a degree of mode-switching to occur, as staff learn the most appropriate mix of communication modes. Using input from the results of our prior email, Yammer, Teams benchmarking studies, and interviews with leading Microsoft consulting organizations, we developed an illustrative model of three different workplace digital transformation journeys:

three different digital transformation journeys

The baseline journey was modeled from studies we had conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Basically, we were still meeting face to face, email was the preferred communication channel, both internally and externally, while newer tools like Teams, Slack, Zoom were making some modest headway.

With the onset of the pandemic, we saw leading digital Teams users switch totally from using email for internal communication to Teams. Teams chat exploded. Teams channels and Yammer discussions showed more moderate increases. Teams meetings replaced prior F2F meetings.

The journey modeled in red illustrates what happens when staff don’t let go of email for internal communications. We only have a finite capacity for managing interactions, so something has to give, and this likely means lower levels of chat, channel and Yammer conversations (42% according to our modeling). Along with this comes the stress of feeling being unable to keep up.

Related Article: Yammer or Teams? A Tool to Think it Through

What Might a Hybrid Workplace 'Best Practice' Journey Look Like?

This journey (dotted green line) was modeled from tracking data and interviews with our benchmarked Teams leaders. Post-COVID-19, we will likely be back to the office and in person meetings, but not to pre-pandemic levels. Meetings will adopt a “Virtual First” default practice, meaning that even F2F meetings will be scheduled, conducted and managed as if they were being run virtually.

Meetings, whether F2F, mixed or virtual, will be contained within channel threads to ensure the flow of pre- and post-meeting context is sustained for all team members. In fact, this practice leads to fewer meetings overall. Companies will strike an equitable balance between chat and channel messages. Teams will be aware of when a chat is evolving into a need to move from one-on-one, to involve the whole team, and therefore channels. Likewise, Teams will sense when a channel conversation has organization-wide potential and ensures the conversations are extended into the Yammer community spaces. We are talking here about how work “flows” between the different communication modes, and not simple activity levels:

how knowledge flows in a digitally transformed company

The above schematic illustrates how knowledge might “flow” between the different communication sites.

Getting Into the (Work) Flow

By “workflow,” we're not talking about the mechanistic business process flows that direct and constrain staff. We are talking about psychological flow, or what sports teams sometimes call being “in the zone.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, considered one of the co-founders of positive psychology, was the first to identify and research flow. He describes it as: “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

In interviewing some of our leading teams, we sensed many were working "in the zone." We found many of the members of high performing teams were interacting at what appeared to be ridiculously high levels, while sustaining high levels of reciprocity at the same time. Neuro-economist Paul Zac identifies this as “Challenge Stress” and mimics Csikszentmihalyi’s “being in the flow.”

Being “in the flow” is about interacting and reciprocating intensely with your team colleagues. Interaction intensity leads to 1) knowing what to do, 2) knowing how to do it, 3) how well you are doing it, 4) knowing where you are going, 5) high perceived challenge, 6) high perceived skills and 7) freedom from distractions.

Guidance is required, but inherently knowing which communication mode to use when signals that you are into the flow, and have indeed digitally transformed.