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When collaboration tools become barriers to collaboration

Over the past two years, I’ve spoken to more than 500 operations leaders in tech, from big tech giants to high-growth startups, in all sorts of different verticals. Despite this, they all have one thing in common; they are still trying to figure out remote work. 

More than two years after the entire industry started working from home, it’s still proving a challenge. That got me thinking. . . why is it so hard, and how do we get it right?

Too many tools 

First, some context. The tech industry has evolved unbelievably fast in the past two decades. We’ve built new technology for almost everything and incorporated it into how we work. We’ve acquired deep, specialized knowledge, created new, better ways of doing things, and new teams and functions to do them. That should have supercharged our productivity, but it came at the expense of simplicity. Now, with all this new complexity, we’ve lost the shared context among teams, there are silos everywhere, and it’s become harder and harder to actually get work done.

Let’s look at a modern software company. There are typically more than 10 teams involved in the development process. Front-end developers, back-end developers, devops, reliability engineers, data scientists, growth engineers, designers, product managers, project managers, and that’s only product. If everyone isn’t aligned, it breaks.

Yet alignment has become harder because each team has a different set of tools and a unique way of working. Engineering might document tasks in JIRA and follow agile methodology, while the Design team uses Asana, Figma, and a design thinking approach. Product Managers use another shiny new thing. Sales and support, another still. Everyone ends up working in their own little silos, speaking their own languages.

Meanwhile, work across teams still needs to be done. So, we fall back on one of the three things teams still have in common: Email, Slack, and Zoom. 

The unholy trinity

Email, Slack, and Zoom have become the de-facto coordination layer within a company. We send hundreds of emails and spend hours on calls, just telling people what we’re doing, translating it from one tool’s language into another. 

Company announcement? Email. Project update? Zoom. Looking for a doc? Slack. Who’s working on what? The dreaded “@here.” It’s pure brute force. Scale this process up to 5,000 people and it falls apart completely.

But it’s not realistic to expect Email, Slack, or Zoom to be the foundational coordination layer of your business. These tools don’t have enough structure. They weren’t built for it. We default to them because they’re the one thing everyone still has in common. A lot like a tourist grunting and gesticulating to get by in a foreign country where they don’t speak the language. But we can’t operate this way at scale.

Cornell University’s Idea Lab partnered with Qatalog to investigate this idea. According to the research:

  • 69% of people report that finding the information to do their job is time-consuming
  • 59 minutes each day are spent finding information trapped in different applications
  • 48% said they had made mistakes because they can't keep track of information stored across online tools and apps

Technology has failed

This explosion in specialized tooling started as a way to enhance productivity and improve collaboration. Now, it’s wasting our time, driving us apart, and causing mistakes. It has failed. We’ve lost our shared context and we’re forced to operate at our company’s lowest common denominator: Slack, Email, and Zoom. We spend hours in these systems each week, translating our work from one language to another. It has become unsustainable. According to Asana’s Anatomy of Work Index, it now consumes over 60% of working time. That’s not just a problem, it’s a fatal flaw in the way we’re working today.

Anarchy or tyranny?

In my experience, once companies identify the issue, they go down one of two paths:

1) Total anarchy - “Let everyone use whatever tool, system, or methodology they want. We’ll deal with it.”

As the company grows, teams will get disconnected from each other and any work happening outside their own bubble. Next thing you know you regress to brute force processes.

2) Tyranny - “Everyone has to use the same tool stack and they have to operate in the same, standardized way. I don’t care if people don’t like it, they’ll do it.” 

In this scenario, the team gets slowed down by process, stifled by the one-size-fits-all approach, and ends up stuck with outdated tools.

A common language

Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be a choice between the two. Instead, we can give back to ourselves what the great unbundling took away. We need to rebuild our shared context and introduce a common language and shared structure to organize the work of myriad diverse teams. Something designed for how work happens today, not just messages and calls, and not a poor imitation of the office. A new way of work that drives unity through visibility and connection.

John has been working remote since way before it was cool, back in 2015. Now he’s building a DeFi protocol with teammates all over the world.
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