Give Us All Your Email: Why Team Chat Will Rule
Chalk me down as a believer. After nearly six months of using a team chat app, I'm hooked, and I never want to go back to email.
Call it "team chat," "team messaging," "workstream communications and collaboration," or whatever else you want, apps like Atlassian HipChat, Cisco Spark, RingCentral Glip, Slack, Unify Circuit, and so many more are rapidly changing the way people communicate and collaborate. What started as a response to a growing affinity for texting, and hatred of email, is now bringing many positives (and a few negatives) to business collaboration.
At Nemertes we first looked into team chat apps in late 2014, but quickly decided they didn’t improve workgroup collaboration. At the time, the apps weren't all that user friendly and didn't have strong mobile clients. Our internal processes were tied to email, and ultimately we couldn't get any buy-in or find a problem that team chat could solve.
Fast-forward to this past January, when we launched an Agile approach to research development. Email, we discovered, was a poor medium for the continuous team collaboration that Agile demands and so we gave team chat another look. We quickly found that we finally had a substitute for email.
Team chat isn't all that new. Internet Relay Chat (IRC), for example, allowed early Internet users to carry on conversations on topics ranging from politics to chess. And back around 2007 Microsoft acquired Parlano, a vendor of a persistent chat room server that tightly integrated with Microsoft Live Communications Server and became a part of Microsoft’s on-premises instant messaging offering. However, outside of a few verticals like financial services, persistent chat spaces never really caught on, even as IM flourished.
Today, thanks to the ease of use, the fun factor,and growing availability of apps (I'm currently tracking 37 different team chat apps), team chat appears to be a collaboration tool whose time has finally arrived. Witness the entrance of large collaboration vendors like Cisco and Unify, Slack's rapid growth, Microsoft's acquisition of Talko (and reported interest in Slack), RingCentral's acquisition of Glip, ThinkingPhones purchasing Fuze, and most recently, BroadSoft's acquisition of Intellinote.
Ultimately, the goal of most team chat apps is to bring the conversational ease of texting in the consumer world into business, tying conversations to context such as projects, roles, and teams. We've found the following benefits to using team chat for our internal communications:
- Context - Our conversations now happen in spaces that tie into our defined roles, projects, and workflows rather than within arbitrary email subject lines. We can attach file repositories, wiki pages, individual files, and hyperlinks to our conversations and have them easily available to all members of the team when in a call or working on team tasks throughout the day
- Persistence - Like our teams and projects, conversations are continuous. And, if somebody new joins the conversation, he or she can easily review the previous discussion -- something that's difficult to do when using email to collaborate
- Alerts - On both desktops and mobile devices, alerts let us know about important new messages, and allow us to easily review message streams without having to unlock a phone and start an app, in the exact same way we view texts on our home screens
- Casualness - Messages are short and to the point; the formality of email is a thing of the past (as are large signatures)
- Ease of Use - We did virtually no internal training; we just instructed our people to download the app, or use a browser, and poke around before asking for help. Few ever needed assistance
- Fun - Being able to use emojis, easily embed photos and videos, and even pull in animated gifs from Giphy has added an enjoyment to communications that email simply doesn't provide
Using team chat hasn't been all roses, though. After nearly six months of use, we have found some challenges:
- Channel/Room Sprawl - You've probably heard the saying "there's an app for that," In our case, that's become, "there's a channel for that." And, sometimes multiple overlapping channels. It's not unusual for conversations to end up in the wrong channel, or have people feel overwhelmed at all the different channels in which live conversations are occurring. Managing channel sprawl using "favorites" and archiving obsolete channels is still a work in progress
- Notification overload - This is especially daunting for those among us who haven't figured out how best to configure notifications on their mobile devices and desktop computers. We're generating more than 5,000 messages a month, so learning how to use filters, the snooze button, and other tricks to manage notifications is a key requirement for success
- Vacation management - Going through your inbox, deleting the unimportant messages, and then focusing on the important ones is pretty easy to do when returning from a vacation. But coming back from a disconnected vacation to find 1,200 alerts is overwhelming, and it's a problem we haven't solved yet (and no, the answer shouldn't be, "Stay connected.")
- Real time is missing - We tested both Slack and HipChat before ultimately settling on Slack. While Slack now has built-in one-to-one and group calling, it's not real useful yet for group conference calls when people are dialing in from multiple locations, especially when those calls include external individuals. The lack of screen sharing is a big constraint on our ability to give up dedicated Web conferencing apps
- External connectivity - We haven't yet tried it out, and we're fearful that clients might find themselves having to use multiple apps to communicate with others. For external communications, email is still the go-to means of collaborating. We also expect that clients will be unable to use team chat due to governance/compliance requirements that entail the archiving of external communications
For me, the thought of giving up team chat apps and going back to email is about as enticing as trading in my iPhone for a feature phone. Team chat has made my communications and collaboration far more effective and fun, warts and all. If you aren't already looking into the team chat app space, what are you waiting for?