Talking about Trends in Workplace Communication Technology

By | May 3, 2016


The Hartford Business Journal publisher Joe Zwiebel invited me to participate in a “power breakfast” panel discussion on April 27 about Technology in the Work Place: What’s New and What’s Coming. Below is a summary of my remarks:

Q. How is technology changing your industry?

When it comes to the business of journalism, there are two forces affecting the future of news: communication technology and audience habits.

The smartphones we carry around and use to continually check email/social networks/weather/sports scores means how we access news and information on a daily basis has shifted away from traditional media, especially newspapers.

The increase in mobile and social media use has journalists adjusting how they gather, produce and distribute news stories — so that the audience will find them and pay attention to them.

Because digital is how most of us want to get our information, news organizations have had to pivot their newsroom operations toward digital as a matter of survival, and develop partnerships with tech and social media companies.

The Pew Research Center, in a study from last July, found that the growth in news consumption on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter is consistent —across all demographics— regardless of gender, age, race, education level, or household income. Almost everybody is getting news on social.

The constant connection we have on our smartphones and on social has big implications for how we Americans learn about the world — what’s going on our communities— as well as how we take part in our democracy.

As a journalism professor, evolving communication technology and audience habits also dictate what I should be teaching my students, and learning about digital culture myself — whether that’s data collection and visualization, algorithms, live streaming video, virtual reality storytelling and more social media.

Q. How are people talking to each other at work?

I conducted a quick survey of my friends and family members working in journalism and in industries such as marketing, manufacturing, finance, and insurance. Among them I found there is still a lot of email usage, which can be tedious in collaborative situations.

Long email threads are often cited by employees as the top obstacle to communicating effectively.

Outside of email, collaborative software is reinventing how people talk/work together in person and online.

Any collaborative software tool should meet some standards. It should maximize employee productivity and efficiency and build camaraderie among teams, but not be overly distracting. Notifications are useful for their immediacy, but constant interruption is problematic. Also, we want any collaborative tool to be secure/private/not pose a threat to proprietary company information.

Microsoft Lync appears to be the common enterprise instant messaging client used by my friends and family members working in large companies, such as Travelers, Lincoln Financial, Stanley Black and Decker and Boehringer Ingelheim.

Lync isn’t loved. One of my friends who works in finance said her remote team doesn’t like Lync because it feels like an online babysitter.  

Among media folks, Slack is the current collaborative software darling. Slack is a hybrid instant message/email system that lets you sort, tag, search and choose to broadcast messages to your entire team or just a few members. Slack integrates with many other software/services that people are already using, and it has a mobile app.

The web producers at the Hartford Courant use Slack. Boston’s public radio station WBUR uses Slack. At ESPN, individual departments are being encouraged to try Slack because it has seen success in limited release inside the company, according to ESPN VP of Communications Mike Soltys.

Soltys said the internal communication team at ESPN used Slack when President Barack Obama attended a baseball game during his March visit to Cuba. With Slack, Soltys said, he was able to send photos and updates back to his team in Bristol, Connecticut faster than email on a spotty internet connection. 

Some other collaborative software programs used by business folks:

Symphony – a secure messaging tool for teams and enterprise, is strong in finance, and is attractive to regulated industries like law firms and health care.

Hipchat is popular with software developers, offering group and private chat, file sharing, and other integrations.

Cisco Systems has Jabber.

Yammer is part of Office 365. It recently added external groups and a mobile app. It comes across like a “second Facebook just for my work friends.”

Facebook recently announced the launch of Facebook at Work. I’ve yet to hear yet about anyone using it for work.

Asana, Flow, Basecamp, Campfire, Cryptocat, Trello and Taskfreak are all project management tools with messaging built in.

In Apple/Mac offices, such as at iDevices in Avon, they also use built-in messaging synced with iCloud accounts to chat internally, as well as via email.

One of my cousins, who works in marketing, told me that her team was using GoogleDocs to collaborate on projects, but the company recently banned it due to privacy concerns.” She added, “other than that, we use Facebook Messenger on the side for all non-related work stuff, like sharing memes.”

That’s right. Your employees use Facebook as a back channel.

I know from experience that employees don’t want too many communication channels. They appreciate clear guidance from their bosses as to which one— phone, chat, email, other — to turn to for which tasks.

I worked remotely for a year at AOL’s and one of the communication methods we used was Gchat (Google chat). I had a reporter who would gchat me, then email me, then text me, then call me if I didn’t respond immediately. Drove me nuts.

Another interesting issue: Studies show a shift in communication preferences based on age. Older folks like traditional communication channels, like the phone or in-person meetings. Meanwhile, younger team members (millennials) prefer digital communications.

Amid diverse communication preferences can result in misunderstandings: people not answering the phone, not listening to voicemail, or not replying to emails. None of which is good for team dynamic or productivity

For successful communication among teams, it can be worthwhile to offer an online on-demand repository of information and updates. Supplement that information with in-person events to ensure that all team members stay in the loop.

Q. Where is social media in the workplace headed? What new platforms are people using to communicate and which ones could be useful for employers?

Some companies have internal social networks. ESPN, for example has the ITK – In The Know – a network run on JIVE social software that’s been around for about 10 years.

At ESPN, the top complaint they heard from employees on a survey was frustration that they’d learn about changes at ESPN from mainstream media outlets and not the company itself. Now company’s press releases/statements are released to the media and to employees at the same time.

The ESPN ITK is more than official communications from the top down. It is a participatory platform. Employees can ask questions of management and of each other. From parking to cafeteria food complaints to bigger questions about benefits, looking for roommate or selling concert tickets or a gently used front-loading washer dryer. The internal platform has morphed into a real social network for employees. It can be funny. It can cross lines sometimes, too. It is monitored to be productive and valuable.

United HealthCare has similar internal social network for employees also run on JIVE.

When it comes to technology and communication, it is easier to leverage behavior people have already adopted rather than force new behavior. Many people are using social media in their personal lives, so a form of social media at work isn’t a stretch.

Companies can use nternal forms of “social networking” to surface worthwhile ideas and build a sense of community among employees.

The key thing to remember is that behind any communication technology is people. People are emotional. When we use screens/machines as intermediaries, it can be dangerous. There are those among us who will overshare, or post emotionally without thinking through the impact of such speech on the workplace environment.

Any internal social media system with open commenting needs enough structure/oversight to guide people’s ideas and energy toward positive outcomes.

Q. You’ve done some research and reporting on the use of drones for commercial purposes. Can you provide an overview of what’s happening in CT and which companies and industries are using or looking to use drone technology?

In May 2015, there were four companies in Connecticut that had obtained permission from the FAA to use drones for business. Now in Connecticut, 26 companies or individuals have been granted FAA exemptions and permission to fly drones for commercial purposes.

Half of those companies indicated they are in some way involved in the real estate business, using drones to take aerial photos of properties.

Other uses include:

  • Aerial mapping
  • Emergency Services – searching for missing people, fire fighting, weather tracking, natural disasters
  • News photography
  • Event/wedding photography
  • For deliveries  (Amazon, DHL)
  • To inspect towers, roofs.
  • To issue parking tickets
  • Microdrones autonomously navigate through tiny spaces/aquatic spaces
  • The Connecticut Department of Transportation announced in December it would test drones for bridge inspection work.

There has been some discussion at the federal level of establishing “drone lanes” in the sky. Lots of talk at the local level about privacy as drone photography/videography becomes more common.

If your business wants to use unmanned aerial system (UAS) for a commercial purpose, you apply for an exemption from the FAA to operate commercially. Exemption requires an FAA airman certificate – a pilot’s license.

Or you can use drone with an FAA airworthiness certificate and operate pursuant to FAA rules. In both cases, you need to obtain an FAA Certificate of Authorization (COA). It takes about 4-6 months for approval.

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