I’ve been working from home since I moved to London so the new phase of everybody working from home isn’t that much of a change for me. The thing that has changed for me is that my colleagues are suddenly very pre-occupied with organising group meetings online and configuring a whole load of different software to allow them to do that. Microsoft Teams seems to be the preferred choice for many people in my department, presumably because it is included with the University’s Microsoft Office 365 subscription. Microsoft Teams works the same as Slack, there are groups, each group has its own message feed and can have different channels. Files can be shared, you can chat with other users, and there is a facility for group video chat.
My first issue is that some people are using Slack and others are using Teams. I don’t want to have both open on my laptop all the time, and I guess other people feel the same way, because often messages I send go unnoticed, kind of defeating the purpose of trying to replicate the office environment, where you can quickly turn around to ask your colleague a quick question. If there was only one platform, I think this issue could be partially solved.
Teams is filled with features, but there is a lot of streamlining needed. An issue I keep having is that there are multiple places to upload a file. While in a group video chat someone might want to share a plot they made to show some results. They can upload the file to any of the following places:
- The group home tab
- The group files tab
- The group posts feed
- The video chat sidebar chat
This means that every time a file is uploaded, there is at least 20 seconds lost to people crying “where did you put the file? Did you upload it yet?”.
Other issues I have are that there are multiple interfaces for calling, one on the calls tab, and then another in the video meeting feature for each group.
There are other platforms which focus on the group video chat feature, further muddying the waters. Notably Zoom, Skype and Google Hangouts (shutting down soon). I have an issue with Google Hangouts and Zoom, because of all the personal data they harvest during use. I feel these services aren’t meant for business and it’s irresponsible to require people to use them in a workplace setting. One thing that Teams has going for it above all these other platforms is that as far as I know, it can do all of the things the other apps I mentioned can do, all in a single app. Even if Teams is the best program for the job however, getting everybody to use it remains a problem. I’ve been through similar struggles with IM apps on smartphones, with friends using WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Telegram, Signal, Matrix/XMPP and others. I’ve found that it’s basically impossible to get people to change their mind, even if presented with hard evidence why they should use one app over another. It’s just too much effort convincing people over and over to use a different platform, so I gave up having those arguments a long time ago, life is too short.
Slightly related to this are all the issues I have with Calendar apps. Some of my colleagues like to schedule meetings on Outlook Calendar through Office 365. Trying to sync Outlook’s Calendar with the default Calendar.app on macOS is a massive pain and fails a lot. Again, Teams could be an answer to this, but for some daft reason the Calendar on Teams doesn’t sync with the Calendar on Office 365, which is unfathomable to me.
One solution to all of this software mess is to let people use the software they want, but allow those software to interface with each other through a common protocol. In my opinion, the services people need are:
- Text chat
- Video conferencing
- File sharing
For text chat there is Matrix/XMPP. Matrix recently added support for video conferencing with Jitsi, so that could be an option. For file sharing I’m tempted to recommend a simple sharing of URLs linking to personal file servers, but I think this might be too complicated for most people to set up, so I’m at a loss on that issue. For Calendar / meeting scheduling there is the CalDAV protocol, which people could use on their own Calendar apps. I actually have no idea why CalDAV isn’t presented to users of Google Calendar or Outlook’s Calendar, there might be a good reason I’m missing because I don’t know enough about how it works, but on the surface it seems like an obvious fix.
As the UK government has been exercising some sense of control over the population to try and limit the spread of COVID-19, I’ve been thinking about the potential bliss of having these fundamental internet communication services provided in a single universal platform deployed by the government and made free to access for all. It sounds like totalitarianism and maybe that’s how it would turn out, but it would remove all this unnecessary choice and conflict between different platforms.