Remote work is here to stay

The digitization of customer and supply-chain interactions, as well as internal operations, has been accelerated by three to four years in response to COVID-19. This means that online workflows are also transitioning, together with the web technologies that power them. In fact, 54 percent of executives expect remote work and collaboration to continue after the current global situation.

Digitizing a workflow is the easier part of the puzzle. The real challenge is in recreating, or compensating for, the immediacy of real-time, face-to-face collaboration within these digital workflows. 

This begs the question, how can companies empower their global teams, vendors, and partners to communicate, share resources, and collaborate seamlessly across borders in one digital place?

The answer - real-time collaborative features built directly into business-critical web applications.

What is real-time collaboration?

Real-time collaboration empowers employees, teams or entire companies to come together and collaborate on a single digital platform independent of their individual locations. It allows multiple users to work simultaneously on projects in private and secure workspaces, without having to rely on face-to-face communication.

The current state of digital collaboration in the enterprise

At present, many distributed companies rely on a mix of homegrown business applications and generic third-party collaboration tools (think Google Docs). While this approach may make it easier to get started, it can result in significant compromises to security, employee experience, and productivity, due to:

  • Users having to master and switch between multiple third-party tools: Many of these tools have wildly different UIs and UX. In addition, using generic tools often introduces inefficiencies into workflows, as users need to transfer data between them.
  • Difficulties supporting custom use cases and workflows: More complex workflows often require custom implementations of collaboration features that generic tools simply cannot provide.
  • Shadow IT concerns: Dissatisfied and increasingly technology-savvy users often seek solutions for enterprise IT shortcomings by using unauthorized third-party tools they are already familiar with. The BYOD nature of many modern companies also precludes effective oversight and management of these tools by IT departments.
  • Data security concerns: Most third-party collaboration tools involve transferring data to a vendor’s servers. This can pose compliance and security issues for certain types of organizations.

Factors driving real-time collaboration

The inefficiencies and limitations of current collaborative enterprise tools is a significant factor driving the need for better, innovative solutions to how teams can work jointly with greater efficiency and productivity.

Other factors driving real-time collaboration in the enterprise include the following:

Tech-driven enterprise strategies

Forty percent of companies who lag behind their peers in adopting digital technologies have reported the biggest revenue hits during the pandemic.

Forward-thinking enterprises are pouring large investments into their IT architecture to better align business objectives with their IT strategy and deliver measurable returns. Along with that comes utilizing the appropriate enterprise apps to support and streamline business operations.

Real-time collaboration smooths digital workflows, shortening the product-to-market time. As a result, organizations are able to deliver services with lower cost, but higher quality and speed.

Growing UX expectations

The global business landscape is experiencing a shifting demographic of workers. An increasing majority of employees are digital natives and bring certain expectations with regard to how web applications should perform.

Their lives are run by the high-quality, intuitive user interfaces offered by the consumer-grade apps in their pocket. If something doesn't work the way they believe it should, users become easily frustrated. This raises the bar for enterprise apps that often lag years behind in terms of UI design and UX.

End users expect simple, intuitive UIs, and an overall UX optimized for efficiency and productivity that allows them to engage in a workflow with as little friction and disruption as possible. 

With real-time collaborative features built directly into enterprise apps, the need to hop between several different apps, manually transferring data, and emailing colleagues about project updates is removed. After all, exceptional UX equals happy and satisfied users and, for a company, that means more engaged employees and better retention rates.

Features of real-time collaboration in digital workflows

Replicating real-time collaborative experiences in digital workflows relies on three basic functionalities:

  • Users sharing data and activities in real time: Collaborators must be able to seamlessly create, edit, and manipulate data together in real time. Changes must be reflected near instantaneously. All participants must feel that they have the necessary control over the work item to keep them actively contributing.
  • Real-time conversation and activity logging: End users need to be able to communicate and log changes in real time (using integrated direct messaging, activity streams, etc.). These features should let users get the contextual information they need in order to productively contribute to projects, without being overwhelmed by them.
  • Selective and actionable notifications: Teams must be able to get relevant information in real time, allowing them to respond to situations without delay. When physical presence is missing from collaboration, tools must step in and drive engagement and focus.

The UX patterns that govern these functionalities must be natural and enable user behaviors such as:

  • Real-time participant identification and tracking: Participants in the editing process need to be aware of any other users currently in a document, view or application, and what they are doing there.
  • Synchronized changes: The UX and behavior must discourage users from making changes or edits that override previously agreed changes. Where unavoidable, conflicts should be resolved logically in a manner and sequence that are clear to all users.
  • Balanced security and performance: The application must provide both seamless access control and seamless collaboration, without compromising either requirement.

Finally, any collaborative tool must focus on accommodating:

  • Organizational culture and workflows: Digital workflows are like fingerprints – they are unique to the teams and organizations who use them. Any effective collaboration tool must be custom-made to fit into an organization’s culture and processes in a non-disruptive way.

Benefits of real-time collaboration

In addition to the obvious necessity for real-time collaboration in distributed workflows, digital collaboration has a positive impact on profit margins, employee satisfaction, and greater overall collaboration between internal and external stakeholders.

Here are just a few of the benefits provided by real-time collaboration:

1. Increased efficiency

Collaborative web apps increase the efficiency and speed with which global teams are able to complete projects. Improving communication and collaboration with social technologies can increase productivity across teams by 20 to 25 percent. For example, instant messaging built into collaborative software eliminates the need for users to email each other back and forth regarding project updates, pending edits, or looming deadlines.

2. Organized workflows

Real-time collaboration replaces scattered multi-platform workflows and the chaos of multiple versions of the same document by having a single, shared document that lives in the cloud. The content of each file is organized under one copy, reducing errors, as users automatically access the latest version on the web app. Changes are reflected instantaneously, allowing collaborators to feel in control over their work whilst improving engagement.

3. Improved workplace UX

Enterprise apps that support real-time collaboration greatly enhance UX. Unnecessary steps and inefficiencies are removed from digitized workflows, and employees can better focus on their tasks. A high-quality UX helps employees feel more invested in their jobs, which directly translates to the success of the organization.

4. Greater cost-effectiveness

Businesses save time and money by avoiding costly mistakes due to poor design. In addition, real-time collaboration digitally offers greater cost-effectiveness over traditional methods. Face-to-face collaboration requires office space and specific equipment, and incurs travel costs. Now, collaboration can take place digitally in a breeze, despite differences in location.

Dive deeper into the benefits of real-time collaboration here

How are software companies embracing real-time collaboration?

Don’t just take our word for it. If you observe the surrounding landscape for enterprise web applications, you will notice how a range of companies are jumping onboard and enabling real-time collaboration features in their software.

Real-time collaboration is no longer a fancy add-on

The future of work has taken a completely new trajectory, and more and more companies are embracing hybrid work models. This requires innovative, real-time collaborative tools to support the new digital workplace. 

For example, Sketch has enabled real-time collaboration features into its fully featured design platform and native Mac app. By saving a document in a shared workspace, Sketch users are able to collaborate with multiple editors. Avatars show who is present, and each editor is assigned a unique colored cursor.

To build real-time collaborative features into your existing web application, a number of available frameworks and solutions exist. Let’s take a look at a couple.

Real-time collaborative software and frameworks

YJS is a shared editing framework that uses modular building blocks to build collaborative applications that sync automatically like Google Docs and Figma.

Other solutions to build real-time collaborative apps include Weavy and Convergence. Both offer additional features in comparison to YJS, such as in-app messaging, secure data sharing, live editing of documents for multiple users, activity feeds, and more.

Vaadin's solution: Collaboration Engine

Vaadin’s fully customizable Collaboration Engine (CE) is the simplest way to build and securely integrate real-time collaboration features into specific UI components, views, or new and pre-existing Vaadin Flow apps.

It provides developers with everything they need in order to build robust solutions for simpler workflows, superior UX, and security of sensitive data. CE can be hosted on any on-premise or cloud server that supports Docker. This means that sensitive data never leaves your servers, making it easy to ensure regulatory compliance and data security.

In addition, Collaboration Engine is suitable for intranet or offline usage, and supports a wide range of access control and security options. Get simpler workflows, superior UX, and complete control over sensitive data.

Don’t have a Vaadin Flow app yet? Configure and download our free starter with Collaboration Engine included to get going!

  • Collaboration Engine provides the server-side logic necessary to synchronize data and user state across multiple client instances of a web application.
  • Intuitive high-level APIs that allow developers to access various predefined Collaboration Engine functionalities, based on specific use cases. Currently, we provide:

    • CollaborationAvatarGroup: A special collaborative extension of the regular AvatarGroup component. It automatically makes use of Collaboration Engine to populate an avatar group with all the people in the same view. 

    • CollaborationBinder: A collaborative extension of Vaadin’s regular form binder. This adds field value synchronization and field highlighting functionalities that synchronize values between users, and indicate the presence of other active users in a field.

    • CollaborationMessageList: An Extension of the MessageList component which integrates with the CollaborationEngine. It reads the messages from a topic and renders them within the component. The list is automatically updated when new messages are available. You can use the CollaborationMessageInput component for submitting messages.

    • CollaborationMessageInput: Extension of the MessageInput component which integrates with the CollaborationMessageList. The user can type a message and submit it. The messages will be displayed in any CollaborationMessageList that is connected to the same topic as the list passed as the argument of this component constructor.

  • A low-level Topic API that offers finer-grained control over Collaboration Engine’s features, and allows the construction of functionalities, such as “audit trails”, that have yet to be implemented in the high-level APIs.

Take a look under the hood and find out more about how Collaboration Engine really works, here

What can developers build with Collaboration Engine?

Collaboration Engine works with all Vaadin components out of the box. In addition, it supports custom UI components that comply with the widely supported Web Components standard.
Developers can easily build complete collaborative workflows that are fully customizable and incorporate:

  • Real-time co-editing that allows multiple end users to edit the same form.
  • Live discussion features, such as audit trails and real-time commenting, that allow end users to actively communicate and keep track of changes in real time.
  • Indicate user presence, which automatically updates the displayed avatars on the users who are currently active in a view.

Please note, if our current or upcoming features aren’t an exact match for your specific requirements, then you can use the low-level Topic API to code them yourself.

Enabling real-time collaboration is as simple as a few lines of code

All it takes is just a few lines of code to set up the Collaboration Engine and integrate it into new and existing Vaadin Flow apps. It really is as simple as that! Enable all the features with the following four steps:

Or, if you prefer, you can find a written version of the tutorial here.

How can I try Collaboration Engine?

Experience Collaboration Engine in action by trying out our collaborative web application demo.

If you would like to learn more about Collaboration Engine, the following resources are helpful. Follow two Vaadiners in this webinar as they take an in-depth look at how Collaboration Engine helps you build multi-user collaborative apps with ease. For any additional information, pricing, and FAQs, please check out our product page or the CE docs.

All Vaadin subscribers (including the free Core tier) can get started for free!