Serendipitous meetings at the coffee machine were left in 2019. Quick "yes" or "no" responses from someone peeping over a computer monitor are also gone.
COVID-19 transformed how communication is enabled because everyone is sitting at home. The result? Complaints of too many virtual meetings.
"We've started to hold things like office hours, which are just kind of casual meetings, people can drop in and drop out wherever they want, and that actually takes care of a whole bunch of randomness," said Matt Quinn, COO at software firm TIBCO.
If random conversations or meetings in an office made up the fabric of a company's culture, maintaining it is vital in a remote scenario. CIOs are not only choosing tools that make employees productive, they are choosing tools that uphold company culture in a dispersed workforce.
Just as employees can give themselves "heads down" time in an office, companies have to normalize the same behavior. If companies are remote indefinitely — or forever — they have to set boundaries. No place is this more pertinent than in virtual meetings.
Finding the balance between meetings that contribute to efficiency alongside the ones that maintain corporate ethos is a challenge in 2020. Collaboration and communication platform vendors can either aid or damage the harmony between the two.
Organized meetings are leading to fatigue, not just at TIBCO, but across industries. A Blind anonymous survey found only 20% of employees are actively listening to and providing feedback in real time to meetings, while 27% try to pay attention but often zone out. The survey included responses from more than 4,600 Blind users and dialogue among more than 6,100 professionals.
Major tech companies are also fighting employee meeting fatigue.
To make loosen up meeting formalities and exhaustion, TIBCO began hosting "ask me anything" (AMA) town halls over Slack with larger organizations at the company. "I was a bit concerned when we started this," said Quinn, not because of the platform, but because etiquette for the forum was needed.
"You can't ask what somebody else's salary is," he said. The company was looking for ways to recreate casual conversations that "have kind of eradicated over COVID[-19]."
What is a vendor's role
While adoption for communication tools increased due to stay-at-home orders, the functions of the solutions have largely remained unchanged.
"Our product works pretty much the same for most people regardless of what they're doing. But what we are seeing is that people are using the product more," said Ali Rayl, VP of customer experience at Slack.
Employees have more incentive to use platforms to full capacity, which was unnecessary when working in an office.
"The way that I kind of think about this now is that the office is just a tool. And the office was a tool that we all relied on to do a few things. It provided this really easy frictionless surface for us to communicate with one another," said Rayl.
The office was a physical container of meeting rooms or lunchrooms that helped cultivate a sense of community. "We're missing that tool," Rayl said. "And then the trick is to think about, what jobs was the office performing for us?"
Last month Microsoft Teams announced "Together Mode," an AI-enabled feature that virtually placed meeting participants in a common area; a classroom, conference room or coffee shop. The single-background simulation was designed to offset brain fatigue caused by video calls.
The feature amplifies existing video background tools users can enable. While there isn't data to show how often Teams users are engaging with Together Mode yet, the inundation of feature updates sheds a light on an unforeseen issue; whether or not the features could inadvertently contribute to meeting fatigue.
But user behavior is more likely the biggest contributor to fatigue, according to Rayl. It is up to companies to promote a sense of self-care and regulation for employees on their respective communication platform.
If an employee needs to silence their chat notifications for a while, that practice should be normalized, if not promoted. A constant inundation of notifications will hinder employee performance, not aid it.
"It's akin to someone walking into an office and yelling at the top of their voice," said Quinn. "You've always got people who are going to push those limits."
The purpose of these holistic communication platforms, such as Slack and Teams, is to provide a central hub of productivity. The platforms provide a place for document-sharing, real-time chat and banter in channels, as opposed to email, which fragments everything.
"If a user can't choose between, which is going to be my foundational work platform, then you're going to be distracted by everything else," Carrie Basham Marshall, principal and CEO of Talk Social to Me.
If a company's central communication platform is email, it's going to require a behavioral overhaul in terms of how users trust and communicate with a service, otherwise "everything else becomes noise," said Basham Marshall.
In addition to relaying proper etiquette on these platforms, CIOs have to be clear about their proper use. Slack and platforms like it require more in-depth training.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with using chat for the appropriate purpose," Basham Marshall said. Companies will run into issues when the user behavior is normalizing a small group chat where ideas, files and links are shared.
"It's creating a silo, the equivalent of email," she said. "A chat can be where great information goes to die."
Finding productivity at home or in-office
Working from home presents distractions the office lacks — homeschooling children, walking the dog, spouses on their own video calls.
While the workday has extended by 30 to 60 minutes on average for U.S. and Canadian workers, productivity decreased by 14% between March 26 and July 9, according to Aternity's latest Global Remote Work Productivity Tracker. The initial trend of pandemic-induced productivity boosted it 23% between mid- to late-March.
The tracker is based on data from millions of employee devices across more than 500 Aternity clients globally by measuring the "objective user experience," Mike Marks, head of product marketing at Aternity, told CIO Dive in an email. "If employees aren't using their applications or devices, we're not monitoring it."
There is a reality of "remote work productivity tax," said Marks, while on a virtual webinar. "As remote work continues at high levels, what we're seeing is a decrease in overall productivity." Productivity is measured by minutes of use in business applications, either in-office or at home. The research, based on findings from European countries, suggests there's a direct correlation between increased productivity in offices and decreased productivity at home.
TIBCO's office in Vietnam was one of the first to reopen. The company is relying on data scientists to make the call on where it's appropriate to reopen offices. As TIBCO explores ways to reopen or re-introduce employees to an office, it's changed the way the people thought about hybrid workforce models.
It does not mean 50% in-office and 50% at-home, according to Quinn. It "feels like it's 80% want to stay at home and occasionally come into the office, and 20% actually see the offices as a prerequisite for employment."
But for a global enterprise, such as TIBCO, this can be a positive change in terms of actually promoting company culture. Those "watercooler moments" were rare for a company with global presence. The AMA channels has "been a great level set" for international employees because "everything happened in Palo Alto, you had to go to Palo Alto," said Quinn. "That's where stuff happens."
Originally from Melbourne, Australia, for Quinn to have a watercooler moment, "I would have to go all the way to Palo Alto for that moment."
"Finding those new vehicles and new ways, you have to work on it. But you have to work on everything," he said.