“Most people don’t know this, but messaging apps are growing faster than social networks.”
— Matt Schlicht, Founder & Editor, Chatbots Magazine
A year ago, I couldn’t picture myself working remotely. It was a completely foreign concept. My parents are both Baby Boomers, and I inherited their traditional workplace wisdom: showing up is half the the battle. Dress for the job you want, not the job you have. If you’re on time, you’re already late. Pack your good shoes in your purse and wear sneakers on the subway.
So coming to work at Workato in the New York Office (our HQ is in Cupertino, CA) was a bit of a culture shock. I had to adapt to a totally new way of working: often from home, largely independently, with colleagues spanning all 24 time zones.
The past year has been a crash course in collaboration technology. I’ve learned how to work effectively with others without putting in much physical face time. As a remote employee, most of my daily workflows revolve around Slack. Along with a working knowledge of all available emojis, I’ve also accumulated first-hand experience with the questions that seem to be on everyone’s minds these days: Why are chat apps so popular? Do they really make us better workers?
Why do so many people use chat apps?
As a remote worker, I soon learned to not think of chat apps as an entirely new development, but as the next generation of collaboration tools. Businesses have always sought ways to get employees to work together more fluidly and efficiently. Enterprise chat apps are just the most recent development on that journey.
This isn’t a revolutionary or new perspective. As Dom Price, the head of R&D at Atlassian, says, “Diversity, distribution, timezones, cultural differences, and hierarchical reporting lines all make teamwork hard. We all need to unlearn some old ways of working, and embrace diversity, inclusion and better collaboration to drive team productivity in this new era of work.”
The unavoidable truth is that fragmented collaboration tools—where your lines of communication are separate from one another, and also from your work itself—are outdated. People want the simplicity of a collaboration hub, where they can work together and view documents or photos without switching contexts.
A project management writer for Gartner, Rachel Burger, echoes this sentiment. “[Particularly to] millennial workers, formal project management software, like Microsoft Project or VersionOne, seems cumbersome and clunky,” she says. “The millennial workforce simply doesn’t want to work with these tools.”
And, of course, chat apps allow you to communicate in real time—a must when offering feedback or working with others on a project. Sending our designer formal emails with feedback on a graphic seems silly; it’s so much more intuitive to simply type, “Hey there, let’s change this color,” and know I’ll get an almost instantaneous response.
The rejection of email as a communication mainstay is growing. “People don’t want to type formal e-mails anymore,” explains Alan Lepofsky, vice president at Constellation Research. “These new apps allow you to convey a thought or update a status quickly, with a few words and/or emoji, so there’s speed to value.”
Chat apps also let me convey my status without even typing a message. I frequently use Slack’s status bar to indicate when I’m at lunch, hunkering down to meet a deadline, or in a meeting.
And when it comes to meetings, chat apps mean I go to fewer of them, and they tend to be shorter. The truth is that most great ideas don’t happen in meetings; they happen on the treadmill, in the shower, while sitting in traffic. Instead of wasting time sitting around a table or or a conference call, my team can meet about the broad strokes of a project—deadlines, messaging, leadership—and hash out the details later via Slack.
A former CTO of Facebook, Bret Taylor, agrees. “Everything [happens] in one place, vastly reducing the need for teams to send long email threads with clunky attachments or waste time in endless meetings,” he says.
But chat apps are also fun, a strength that at first sounds like a typical startup world bait-and-switch. We’re a fun company with an adult ball pit and unlimited vacation days, they tell you, leaving out the part where the culture of presenteeism means employees rarely take actual days off.
When it comes to professional communication, though, we as humans need some sort of gratification. It inspires us to communicate often and well. In real life, this gratification comes in the form of smiles or well-delivered jokes. In the world of virtual work, it’s emojis and GIFs. As Steve Goldsmith of HipChat says, “An animated dancing parrot can easily convey your excitement. A well-placed emoticon can lighten up even the driest of budget conversations.”
How do chat apps help us work better?
As a broader trend, it’s only fair to ask: do chat apps truly increase collaboration, and if so, how?
Humans have a lot of lingering fears about the faceless nature of chat—even though at this point, it’s not faceless; I video chat my colleagues at least once every week. Before there were enterprise chat apps, there were commercial ones, and naysayers everywhere expressed disdain at how they made communication anonymous and less human.
In my experience, though, one of the best aspects of chat apps is that they democratize communication. Anyone can talk to anyone, the same way you might approach them if you saw them in an elevator or the office kitchen. Instead of asking my boss to ask her boss to review a piece of content, I can just ask him directly.
Aaron Levie, the CEO of Box, describes this democratization as a web-like structure, rather than a vertical chain of command. “Now, thanks to technology, we have almost a second layer of the business that doesn’t have a hierarchy — it’s much more of a web,” he explains.
Democratization allows an organization to crowdsource knowledge from within itself, too. If an employee needs help from a different team—let’s say they have a quick question for engineering—it’s frankly a waste of time to fill out a JIRA ticket or physically wander over to the engineering department and wait around for an answer. It’s much, much more efficient to just post the question to the #general or #engineering or #techsupport channel. Of course, there are ways to make this process even more efficient by doing things like enabling your team to view details of the JIRA ticket inside of Slack.With #chat apps, you have to be more collaborative—instead of hoarding information. Click To Tweet
Chat apps also enable greater visibility into other parts of the business that you normally wouldn’t get to see, but that can still enrich your role and your work. We have a dedicated #customer-stories channel in Slack, for example, and we use a Workato integration to automatically push notifications whenever a new article tagged as a customer story is published on our blog. It’s a great way for our sales and marketing teams to know when additional resources become available in real time. In Levie’s words, “[…] you have to be more collaborative instead of hoarding information, which is no longer the way that you add value.”
“Now, thanks to technology, we have almost a second layer of the business that doesn’t have a hierarchy — it’s much more of a web.” — Aaron Levie, CEO of Box.
I’d be remiss not to mention the social aspects of chat apps, well-trod though the topic may be. I belong to our dedicated Cupertino office channel, even though I only visit HQ once every quarter. As a remote worker, it’s always nice to see what my office-based colleagues are up to—whether it’s a video of them playing Ultimate Frisbee or a photo of their awesome lunch spread.
Are chat apps really the future?
Like all business trends, however, the proof is in the pudding. The outcomes determine whether a trend or tool goes mainstream—and whether it stays mainstream.
James O’Toole, a well-regarded professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business, explains that chat apps add value by enabling better decision-making. “What we know about organizations in general is that the more knowledge workers have, the more likely it is they make better decisions, and the more likely it is you’ll feel invested in the work,” he says.
When it comes to chat apps, the evidence is, on the whole, encouraging. Companies around the world are functioning just fine after adopting chat-based collaboration tools. Some even credit the apps with their ability to work smarter and faster; for many organizations, they’re a key component of digital transformation. “Messaging apps combine the three keys to powerful relationships in any digital environment: frequency of use, emotional connection, and convenience,” says Thomas Husson, VP and Principal Analyst at Forrester Research.
Chat apps are also proving invaluable as a customer-facing tool, especially in areas like marketing, sales, and customer support. They’re easier for customers to use, can be always-on with the help of chatbots, and are much cheaper than maintaining vast phone banks. Though not all companies are automating their chat, it is a growing trend, says Matt Johnson of GoKart Labs. “Whether brands will choose to let bots do the talking or rely on actual humans will be a matter of preference, but it’s clear we are in the middle of a major transition.”
“Messaging apps combine the three keys to powerful relationships in any digital environment: frequency of use, emotional connection, and convenience.” —Thomas Husson, VP and Principal Analyst at Forrester Research.
As chat apps progress, they’re becoming more integrated—and more intelligent. One only need to look to AI-enhanced chatbots to witness the transformative effect technology has had (and is having) on chat. These developments have added value and can make your chat app an indispensable tool for your business, albeit in a different form than last year and the year before.
Innovation also means increased competition, which changes the chat app landscape. While Slack and Facebook Messenger currently dominate, that may not always be the case. We can’t think of chat apps as always being the way they are now. Like browsers, chat apps benefit from disruptive, aggressive competition. “Messaging wars are important […] There is not going to be a messaging monopoly,” explains Michael Wolf, the CEO of Activate Inc.
It’s not all roses, though. In my experience, using a chat app presents some real drawbacks. Sometimes, it’s easy to get distracted by notifications and discussions that really have nothing to do with me. And it’s easy to lose the thread of a particular conversation when multiple people are commenting in real time, though apps are starting to develop workarounds like Slack’s Threads.
Chat apps are also not intuitively a place that you can access data from or take actions in other cloud apps, but as the hours per day employees spend in chat apps increases, it’s clear this is a growing need. “Bots like Workbot will take chat apps to the next stage of enabling great work, allowing users to do things like beautifully unfurling URLs from apps like GitHub without leaving the console, logging in, and navigating back to Slack to discuss,” explains Bhaskar Roy, VP of Growth at Workato. “They can also control notifications from apps, complete actions inside of apps like Update a Lead Status in Salesforce or Create a new Trello Card, and approve requests from Expensify or Workday without leaving Slack or Microsoft Teams. Context switching is no longer an option if you want to be productive in a chat app.”
Want to do your work directly from Slack? Get started with Workbot.
And it’s no secret that chat apps also struggle with security, a problem that could impact enterprise adoption if platforms don’t actively work to solve it. In a post-Equifax hack era, everyone is thinking twice about putting their data at risk. Thankfully, chat apps and middleware are stepping up to fix this with features like Verified User Access.
Broadly speaking, chat apps aren’t a stagnant trend. The true test of their staying power will be their continued evolution. Will they keep pace with changing business needs? Or will they go the way of MS Word comments and listservs?