The year 2020 has forced the hands of organizations around the world to rely on collaboration tools as their primary means of working and connecting with coworkers and consumers. Now collaboration tool providers are looking towards integrations and new features to draw more users into a unified platform. 

The shift to remote working happened at such a massive scale and in such a short time that collaboration tools have been dubbed the “new work nucleus.” 

The business technology review site TrustRadius wrote that it saw a 400% increase in traffic to the collaboration software category from the beginning of the pandemic to now. Also, last month’s collaboration traffic was four times as much as traffic from exactly a year ago, correlating directly to buyer intent.  

Meanwhile, research firm IDC found that a whopping 96% of North American businesses will be spending more and investing more on team collaboration solutions into 2021. 

Major software companies are seeing tremendous opportunities in expanding into the collaboration tool space. 

In early December, Salesforce issued a bid for $27.7 billion to acquire Slack, which if it comes to fruition, would make it the second-largest software deal in history. 

“Being able to kind of federate out the work of best tooling and having that all integrated I think that’s a brilliant strategy by Salesforce and also really empowering the remote workers too, because just between the nature of the cloud and everything that they’re doing with enabling people to work from anywhere access, and then combining that with Slack,” said Dave Messinger, the CTO and vice president of product at Topcoder. 

The collaboration market is mature and cloud office suites have gained widespread adoption as primary tools for organizations for file sharing and work collaboration. There is currently a lack of differentiation among the core features that these platforms offer, forcing vendors to look towards specialization, according to Gartner in its Market Guide for Content Collaboration Tools released in May 2020. 

Aspects of collaboration in these platforms — such as file sharing, device synchronization and the provisioning of collaborative workspaces — have been fleshed out by collaboration platforms. 

Within various industries, the most sought-after collaboration feature was video conferencing with 65% of companies adding it to accommodate changing work requirements during COVID 19, according to Avaya in its “Work from Anywhere” study released in October 2020. Avaya is a business collaboration and communication solutions provider. 

This was backed up by TrustRadius, which showed that the most searched comparison between collaboration vendors was Microsoft Teams and Zoom for their video conferencing capabilities, and by a giant margin.

Integrations the biggest topic
But aside from features such as video conferencing and chat, collaboration platforms also offer project and task management, workflow automation, abilities to track location and changes to a file, and much more. Tool providers are primarily looking to pull these functionalities together with integrations. 

Integrations have become especially important as organizations are using many different collaboration tools within their organizations for different tasks.

For cloud-based productivity, teams rely mostly on G Suite and Office 365. Then, they implement video conferencing tools such as Zoom or WebEx and workflow automation tools such as Jira and ServiceNow. 

“Jira is also a popular tool for developers these days. I’d say there’s a 50/50 split between issue management on Jira vs GitHub among the wider developer community. Most developers prefer GitHub because it’s friendlier, but probably too slow for project management, so as companies grow they are switching to Jira,” Aaron Haynes, the CEO of Loganix, wrote in an email. Loganix offers link building services for SMBs and SEO agencies.

Finally, organizations are using instant messaging tools such as Slack and Teams as primary forms of contact. And there are usually many more circulating at once. Now, companies are looking more at unified solutions. 

“You traditionally see organizations using many tools — typically one for planning, another for creating code, another for building and deploying it, and 1-3 tools for monitoring and observability. However, what we’ve seen happening is a need for a single DevOps platform. Some enterprises have tried stitching these disparate tools together into their own “DIYOps” platform, but this undifferentiated work distracts their teams from the business goals and their customers. Thus, teams and DevOps tools companies alike are moving towards a single DevOps platform,” Brendan O’Leary, a senior developer evangelist at DevOps solution provider GitLab, wrote in an email.

The different types of tooling are implemented because there are primarily three layers to collaboration. The first is a communications layer and the second is essentially a content layer, where organizations can do their file sharing. And the third layer is that productivity layer. That’s the integrations of the IP stack and this varies by department, according to Wayne Kurtzman, a research director of Social and Collaboration at IDC. 

“This change really puts the abilities of developers who know what these tools really can do into a new level. We’re going to see additional integrations and this is where collaborative apps get their superpowers,” Kurtzman said. “Once you add workflow, the core IP stack, and the MarTech stack and integrate them, they develop new metrics that are just starting to be recognized and the developers pretty much understand this. So 2021 is going to rock for developers.”

Providing workspaces
With integrations, collaboration tool providers are now focusing on providing the right team workspaces. 

“An effective collaboration tool enables developers to sync up the different tooling,” Topcoder’s Messinger said. “Like right now Jira and GitLab integrate out of the box and there’s a lot of integrations you can set up. So developers are in GitLab tagging the issues they want, and that syncs to a SaaS with Jira.”

The necessity of proper integrations with collaboration tools is also driven by more complicated pipelines that have emerged at development companies due to CI/CD growth, Messinger added.

In the past, traditional pipelines went from QA to a production release. Now, the process includes much more shifting between different parts of the organization.

“We have several clients now in the enterprise space that are doing this now with much more complicated multi-step, multi environments and multi-company type development pipelines. So I think, you know, being able to find the right resource and the right talent has always been a problem for these guys from a deployment and development standpoint,” Messinger said. “So being able to integrate those collaboration tools or those pieces is just critical.

While the collaboration tools can handle some scenarios effectively they can still be difficult to use in others. 

“Tasking, status reports, and the standard software development life cycle is pretty nailed down and easy to follow. I think tools like Slack have made things easier and even now like being able to add a kind of bridge corporate Slack so we can add customers and have our Slacks talk to each other and still be compliant. Teams is doing a good job of that as well,” Messinger said. “I think probably where some of that stuff may fall down is I think it’s tough to make some of that stuff be like a system of record. So it’s almost too easy to collaborate in some cases as like, ‘Hey, did you change that requirement or that piece of information?’ And it’s like, ‘Oh, it was in a Slack conversation?’ It’s like good luck going back and finding that piece of information where it was agreed to in a Slack conversation.”  

Messinger added that he has seen a dramatic increase in interest for whiteboard-type tools. These include tools like Trello and Miro. He added that tools like Miro are doing a better job of creating that collaborative environment than before, though it’s still not the same as just being able to sit down and collaborate with everyone in one location on the whiteboard. 

Customer collaboration, features are focus
Another phenomenon that has been picking up steam regarding collaboration tooling is that tool providers are working to provide ways for their customers to suggest additional features and integrations. 

“I think one of the more interesting aspects in collaboration the last few years is how enterprises increasingly are adding both partners and even user customers to collaborate, not necessarily in the same private group, but they’re extending their collaboration network so they can get better, and more loyalty and trust is built by the companies who now are communicating and feel that they have more input,” IDC’s Kurtzman said. 

One such place for collaboration between consumers is Microsoft Teams’s Uservoice site, where people can suggest changes and people can vote on those changes.

“Microsoft is actually implementing those changes,” said Mark Rackley, a partner and chief strategy officer at PAIT Group, a Microsoft technology consultancy. “So if there’s something you don’t like about Teams today, there’s a good chance that it’s going to change in two, three, or six months so just keep an eye on all the changes.” 

Vendors are also working on producing customized views and reports and developing AI, advanced analytics, virtual assistants and machine learning within their platforms. 

“People are in there doing conversations every day so why not do conversations with a bot to do other tasks within their organization whether that’s general help questions, or things like filling out simple forms for vacation requests and things like that to start other workflows,” Rackley said. 

IDC’s Kurtzman agreed that interest in machine learning and AI in collaboration tools has seen great interest as a way to free up developers’ time. “We’re also seeing an increase in people learning basic coding skills to take the next step. At the same time, we’re seeing enterprises look to no-code where possible, but still there’s complexity, higher value complexities that developers will need to fulfill,” Kurtzman said. 

A large determining factor as to what tools a company chooses is how easy it is to set up and for teams to start using it. This became especially important as many organizations were forced to shift from their physical workspaces to the digital realm in a matter of days. This forced newcomers on the bandwagon quickly, and also those organizations that already had pockets of collaboration tools had to assess how they would move their work entirely online. 

“One of the most important things that happened to collaboration applications in 2020 is that the adoption, not the revenue, but the adoption of collaboration applications jumped by a five-year span in a period of only six months between January through June 2020,” said Kurtzman. 

PAIT Group’s Rackley said the pandemic has quickly pushed implementation of collaboration tools up on organizations’ priority lists.

“It’s interesting because a lot of time was spent before saying let’s spend a lot of time planning, but now it’s just like let’s forget planning and we need Teams now. We’ll worry about the planning and the cleaning up after the fact,” Rackley said. 

What do you want to do?
The difficulty of adopting these tools largely depends on what kind of functionalities companies expect to use. File sharing and chatting and calls are pretty straightforward, but when users want to start customizing and integrating into other things, while it still might be pretty simple,  people might need someone to show them first so that they can do it, Rackley explained. 

Topcoder’s Messinger added that while collaboration tooling might not be as easy as a one-click deploy to get it done, it can usually be measured in weeks or less. The more important factor in the way tooling is adopted in an enterprise largely depends on the collaboration culture surrounding it. 

“The tooling may not be as out-of-the box as being able to do a one-click deploy to get the tooling done, but it’s also not like a three-month drive. If you think of some of the tooling, it’s probably maybe measured in a week or less to set up, but the acceptance, the openness is really a cultural shift. I actually think that’s been a forcing factor from COVID that people have really moved the culture that way,” Messinger said. “If companies had already done their homework and were following a DevOps culture, then it’s tremendously easier to add collaboration, add remote workers, work at home, and use alternative staffing models.”

Many web and mobile applications have already been working in this sort of DevOps manner over the last 10 years or so and the difficulty in creating a collaborative environment might come down to the large packaged applications.

“This is where managers have to become facilitators and it changes the way they manage. And that’s one of the big challenges for them is they have to create online exactly what they would if they were to create a community in real life, they need to have a safe place where people are willing to share their best ideas, where they feel safe,” IDC’s Kurtzman said. “It really comes down to the culture and the willingness to employ the creativity in your workforce and your management team.” 

More developers are turning to open source to collaborate
Before the pandemic, developers were collaborating on open-source projects in GitHub from all places in the world, but this phenomenon has seen a massive boost during the pandemic. 

The GitHub State of the Octoverse 2020 report found that developers are sharing and reviewing code faster compared to last year. In May, over 40% more repositories were created compared to last year, and since then, roughly 25% more open-source repositories have been created compared to the same time period last year. 

GitHub measured the level of collaboration on its platform based on the speed of pull requests. Early in the year, the time to merge pull requests took a few hours longer compared to last year. In March, time to merge began to be faster, ranging from 45 minutes to almost seven and a half hours faster in comparison to last year, according to GitHub. 

Across all GitHub repositories, newcomers pushed code and created repositories much more than veterans, while also interacting a bit more than veterans with creating and commenting on issues and creating pull requests. 

Earlier this year to further collaboration on the platform, GitHub announced Discussions, in which teams can post updates and or have a conversation that spans projects or repositories in a forum. 

“This provides an opportunity for us to think about different ways for people to engage with open-source communities. Participating in and watching Discussions can be a good way for newcomers to learn community norms and patterns in a safe way that doesn’t overwhelm maintainers,” GitHub wrote in the Octoverse report. “These patterns have applications in enterprise settings too.”