Is there a place for Facebook in the workplace?

After 18 months of beta testing as ‘Facebook at Work’, a rebranded ‘Workplace’ by Facebook launched into the enterprise collaboration software market this October.

Though arguably late to the game compared to others already dipping a toe in the ‘collaboration tools’ field, Facebook has caused a stir. They haven’t evoked a full-page open letter from Slack, but conversations about the social media giants’ newest offering are certainly triggering speculation – mainly due to its long-standing reputation as a social media platform. Can that functionality really translate into the business environment?

After years of being labelled a productivity stealer, is there a place for Facebook workplace?

What is Facebook Workplace?

Positioning itself as the newest alternative to Slack, Workplace claims to “Connect everyone in your company and turn ideas into action.”

In its development of Workplace, Facebook has capitalized on one strong selling point: its familiarity. With over 1.79 billion monthly users, the social media giant has a ready-made user market who will recognize the experience from their personal Facebook accounts. While the two platforms (and users accounts) operate entirely independent of one another, helping to separate the personal / professional divide, features double up across both.

Groups make for dedicated ‘team’ areas, with user News Feeds delivering instant updates. The Facebook Messenger function doubles up as Work Chat for IM functionality, while in-app call and video conferencing functionality take a stab at Skype’s offering. Users can post updates, uploading pictures, videos or files, while others comment, like or tag colleagues for a true social network feel.

Events, a popular feature of Facebook, are carried across for work-based activities. Co-worker profiles also adopt the same look and feel of Facebook – merely swapping out the recognized blue branding for white.

The notable differences for Workplace compared to its mother product are minimal. It will be the first paid service of Facebook, and in order to cater for the enterprise market, the platform boasts enterprise level security certification and a commitment that all data is owned by its customers, not Workplace. There’s a dashboard with base level analytics and single sign-on integration functionality. Oh, and there’s no hint of Marketplace. Yet.

The devil you know?

The familiarity of the Workplace interface has the benefit of removing training needs. Businesses can reduce the risk of low adoption by giving users something they know and use on a daily basis: addressing the common ‘fear of change’ that can deter many from embracing new technology.

This familiarity, however, may also be a blueprint for its failure.

Though Workplace is eager to point out its separation from its consumer platform, the indistinguishable nature of the two presents a challenge. Responding to an article by The Guardian on Facebook’s announcement, one commenter suggested that within a single week “activity has almost completely faded into nothing” and that most of the posts were “fluff”.

Despite separating personal and professional Facebook accounts, companies risk users reverting to their everyday habits of use, failing to realize collaboration goals by introducing a productivity stealer into the workplace. Worse still, it may offer a validation for use of the social media giant in the office. “Social media in the workplace, even for a workplace function,” writes consumer tech and social media cynic Curtis Silver, “kind of green lights employees to use social media at work.”

Tony Byrne of the Real Story Group also points to distrust of Facebook as a vendor, linking to the failures of Google in trying to enter the enterprise space while juggling a huge consumer income stream.

“You might love Facebook the interface; make sure you’re just as comfortable with Facebook the company. The stakes are high here, because we’re talking about acclimating most or all your colleagues to a new enterprise hub.”

Facebook has undeniably mastered the social media space, continuing to exercise near-unmatched influence and continued growth. However, this doesn’t necessarily translate into expertise in the business and enterprise communications market. In fact, if Google is anything to go by, it’s safe to say that level of hubris can prove dangerous – and costly.

Workplace has its limitations

Perhaps I’m being hasty. Given Facebook’s undeniable route to global domination, there is extreme potential for Workplace to establish itself as the go-to Enterprise Social Network of choice. It’s pricing structure, starting at $3 each for up to 1,000 users, $2 for up to 10,000 and $1 each for more than 10,000, offers a competitive rate compared to rivals Slack, whose premium offering starts at $15 per user.

What’s more, Facebook’s recognized brand has stood it in good stead in securing some leading names to push in its marketing efforts. “Large multinational companies like Danone, Starbucks and, international nonprofits such as Oxfam, and regional leaders such as YES Bank in India and the Government Technology Agency of Singapore have all embraced Workplace,” its Workplace announcement on the Facebook blog states.

However, make no mistake: Workplace has its limitations. When considering the platform for your business, it’s important to address these.

Control of communications

My main argument lies in Workplace failing to recognize that not all communications are created equal. Yes, connecting “everyone from the CEO to the intern” has undeniable value – particularly in a growing world of globalization, dispersed workforces, flexible working and telecommuting.

However, Workplace’s flat timeline structure – which pushes notifications using algorithms that rank and display news according to previous activity on the account – remove control over communication from those charged with managing it internally.

Let’s take an example. An organization going through significant change (a likely scenario for many, in light of the recent Brexit and Trump game-changers) may need to position key messages to employees and ensure these are seen and read by all. Perhaps it’s news about restructuring, new policies or simply reassurances for those facing uncertainty – communicating change is a key responsibility of all organizations.

Using Workplace, that update goes on the Timeline – but in the noise of point-in-time communications from across the company, it soon gets pushed further and further down, inevitably missed by some and rarely revisited by any (how many times do you go back to a Facebook update snippet after consuming it?).

As yet, Workplace shows no functionality to ‘pin’ certain updates and give control to administrators or internal management to ‘promote’ particular communications. The ‘insta-comms’ nature of the platform will see messages simply fall away, particularly if they’re not receiving likes or comments. Although the left nav shows some degree of organization of content through groups, each individual group adopts the timeline style display.

There’s also no Workplace alternative for the age-old ‘read receipt’ – making the ability to implement compliance or determine whether information has been understood a true challenge. Interact’s Mandatory Reads functionality is one of our platform’s leading features continually ranked as an essential ‘must have’ by customers – so when it comes to Workplace, we won’t rush to switch off the internal email servers just yet.

Usage vs. integrations

Speaking at an interview in London covered by Tech Crunch, director of Workplace Julien Codorniou pointed to a deliberate choice by the platform to side-skirt integration functionality with other business applications during development.

“We wanted to talk about an easy to use product and democratic pricing with customers.

“When I talked to the CEO of Danone, whose 100,000 employees include many people without computers and desks, usage and engagement were more important than whether Workplace integrated with Workday or Quip.”

You can understand his argument, but when considering the ultimate goal of Workplace – a collaboration space for workers – I’d say it’s a flawed philosophy.

For those remote workers without access to computers, completing everyday tasks via mobile devices requires a streamlined approach. Juggling multiple platforms, multiple user accounts and multiple passwords does not make for good productivity – or a positive user experience. In its SMB Cloud Landscape Report, Intermedia calls it “death by 1,000 cloud apps”.

What’s more, Workplace currently doesn’t hold hands with any cloud storage providers such as SharePoint, Dropbox or OneDrive. There’s functionality to upload pictures, videos and documents directly to the timeline – or add a link, which then takes you out of the platform. Without empowering employees to collaborate on a single version of truth within Workspace, there’s definitely a recipe for disaster in terms of duplicated effort and multiple version of documents awaiting your staff.

Given its single sign-on functionality and integration with identity providers, it’s a potential consideration Workplace will address further down the line. The problem is, they may be too late.

It’s Workplace… not your workplace

As a Comms enthusiast, I know the value of branding – both in and outside the office. An internal brand not only improves employee engagement with your business and product, it can help with employer branding to attract new talent, reduce staff turnover and have positive implications for your bottom line. What’s not to love?

By sticking to the Facebook interface, Workplace has shot itself in the foot by hindering company’s abilities to stamp their own brand on the experience. Aside from the company logo in the top left and slight power over the URL, there’s no room for customization: as users, we are guests in a rented space.

This could undermine Workplace’s “familiarity” USP by damaging usage and adoption. It fails to recognize the differing needs, cultures and values of the organizations it sets out to serve. We can’t all be shoehorned into a ‘one-size fits all’ template.

By way of example, Children’s hospice charity Acorns designed their intranet ‘Intranut’ to align with their culture, brand and tone. The result shows the powerful potential of a customizable platform, and the contrast to Workplace’s set framework and white branding is vast.

facebook workplace acorns

Finding what you need

Workplace does have a search function that will pull out information from historic timeline posts and profiles. There’s capacity to filter this by specific group, but beyond that, it’s functionality appears basic. Without integration with other business applications, there’s no enterprise search functionality or ability to search centrally, meaning employees will need to hop across different apps to find policies and documents.

Profile search can identify colleagues to follow and provide contact information, including department and location. There’s a lack of meat around the bones in terms of additional information, however; when looking for help from someone with a certain skill set, language or experience, you’ll need to put out a public appeal on the timeline (which will inevitably sink below the noise of updates).

In this instance, Workplace may find itself as an inhibitor to productivity, rather than a facilitator. Simply put, it’s adding yet another location to a growing list of business applications on the search list.

So… will Facebook Workplace work?

Since the announcement of its public availability in October, there’s no doubt Workplace has enjoyed a wave of uptake in the market. The measure of success, its arguable, will depend both on its longevity or customer retention rate – and the objectives of those customers. Ultimately, it will depend what you want Workplace to do.

As a cross-company communication tool, it has value. The recognizable structure and functionality will make for easy implementation and adoption, while the brand offers a degree of gravitas – particularly for those organizations looking to take a first tentative step into enterprise social networking.

However, Workplace is not set up to deliver true collaboration or answer many strategic communication objectives. Its limitations may hinder, rather than help, employee engagement and productivity. There are whispers of greater potential in the pipeline, thanks to its Partnership Program, but Workplace is a latecomer into an already crowded market where this model has already been tried-and-tested under many guises. Facebook may have the manpower, but as a consumer platform, it lacks vital enterprise experience.

Will Workplace work ? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.