Collaboration Software Vendors Amplify Their Platforms with New Features

By Dave Zielinski April 8, 2020
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​As demand grows for technologies that allow workers to collaborate and communicate from home, technology providers have responded by adding new features and functions to their platforms to better accommodate both casual and power users.

Slack, the popular collaboration software platform, rolled out a series of changes to its interface that make the platform simpler to use for newcomers as well as easier to customize for seasoned users. Among its many features, Slack offers "channels" that allow employees and teams to message one another, organize work, share files and hold video meetings.

Slack announced it's taking steps to integrate services with its key competitor, Microsoft Teams, as a response to the COVID-19 crisis. Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield told analysts in a recent call the company would work with Teams to integrate certain calling features, enabling users of each platform to call each other. A beta test of the new calling app was rolled out on April 1.

Slack's renovated user interface delivers a number of improvements for HR users. The platform's all-important sidebar feature, for example, now allows those on paid plans to more easily group and view reactions to messages, mentions, apps and files, actions that were previously difficult to organize. 

The Slack redesign also introduces a new "compose" button that allows users to start a message to co-workers from anywhere within the platform while also generating a relevant message history. Additional shortcuts added to Slack will help those new to the platform more easily launch an application, start a call or create a workflow, according to a statement from the company.

"Slack's changes have largely been around interface improvements with a big shift towards simplification," said Art Schoeller, vice president and principal analyst with research and advisory firm Forrester in Cambridge, Mass. Schoeller said Slack also has upgraded its search capabilities. "The search feature now not only makes it easier to locate a conversation or content on the platform, it eases the 'channel sprawl' problem that some of these applications experience," he said.

Slack also recently announced additional phone integrations to platforms like RingCentral, Dialpad, Cisco Jabber and Zoom Phone, allowing users to start calls directly from the platform, Schoeller said. "That will help users shift modes of collaboration from asynchronous to voice or video calls more seamlessly," he said.

Chris Dyer, a remote work expert and CEO of PeopleG2, a background screening company in Brea, Calif., said Slack is a versatile platform that can be used for many HR processes by adding apps or connecting it to other software tools.

PeopleG2, for example, uses an attendant bot on the platform to allow hourly employees to clock in and out or log breaks, deploys the wiki chatbot Niles to identify common questions from Slack chats and create an internal FAQ tool, and uses the platform GIPHY to add fun GIFs to Slack to keep things light for employees in a stressful time.

"We also connected Google Calendar to Slack to send alerts about all company and team events and placed our file sharing there as well with Google Drive," Dyer said.

Last year Slack also unveiled a new "shared channels" feature that allows one company's Slack to connect to Slack platforms in other organizations. "If you have a key client, vendor or partner and would like to communicate with them via Slack, you can now do it," Dyer said. "Eliminating e-mail and needless meetings is a key feature of the platform, and the new feature amplifies that outcome."

New Features Added to Microsoft Teams

HR users and their line clients also may benefit from recent changes made to Microsoft Teams, the all-purpose collaboration platform that includes chat, video meetings, shared spaces and content-sharing capabilities and is included as part of a Microsoft Office 365 subscription.

One recently added feature to Teams uses artificial intelligence to block out work-at-home background noise like kids playing or keyboard typing that can be distracting during virtual meetings. Teams also added a useful "raised hand" feature that allows online meeting participants to signal when they have a question or concern.

Experts said other upgrades also lend new value to the platform. A new "bookings" function enables users to schedule appointments directly on Teams, and a "pop-out chat" tool helps organize conversations within compartments rather than grouping them in one general window. Teams also has added new support for low-bandwidth users, allowing workers to read or write messages offline without an Internet connection.

Collaboration software platforms have different strengths and weaknesses and users should deploy them based on their biggest needs, experts said.

"For example, Zoom handles video calls much better than what's available as part of Slack, but you can easily connect Slack to Zoom," Dyer said. "Microsoft Teams, on the other hand, does a great job with its built-in video calling feature. The key is to test, research and use what people like."

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.

Provide input as the DOL develops further guidance on the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Participate online at https://ffcra.ideascale.com through April 10—an extended deadline.

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