Remote Communication

Sustainable remote communication requires being intentional and mindful of yours and other’s time.

In distributed companies, we can’t bump into each other in hallways, have casual coffee chats, or even be able to offer a proactive helping hand if a teammate looks confused. Every conversation: be it in video, text chat or private message needs to be initiated by someone with intention.

What we trade for potential increased focus and flexibility, we lose in in-person spontaneity. This isn’t all good or bad, just different. Being mindful of this while we pick the communication tools at our disposal is key to communicating clearly and efficiently.

If you find that you’re constantly task switching, are having endless back-to-back meetings, or are spending all of your time in text chat, this post offers a few things to experiment with and try. 

It’s 2020, so put on your own oxygen mask first 

Before we dive in, I want to acknowledge that there is a pandemic raging, climate change making itself ever present, and all the while, we’re still expected to work. Maybe you’re also struggling with additional caregiver responsibilities, or the social isolation of not being able to go outside and see physically visit people without calculating the risks. 

If this remote stuff feels impossible, know that it isn’t a normal time to be working remotely. Long time remote-first workers are feeling the strain too. Please take care of yourself as best as you can and if you’re a manager reading this post, please encourage folks to take some time off and model that behavior by taking that time off yourself.

Types of Communication Mediums

Long-Form Writing

Long-form writing is the binding glue for most well-functioning remote companies. If you’re ever unsure of a medium to pick it’s hard to go wrong by starting with a long-form post.

A post written by one author can start a conversation in the company with many people and teams. The medium is also flexible enough to handle everything from routine meeting notes and team project questions (working through technical, design or product questions) to a well-honed north-star vision that might guide company direction for the following year.

Benefits

  • Long-form writing forces the author to stop and take the time to frame their thoughts in a succinct and coherent way.
  • Participants don’t need to drop what they’re doing, right now, to focus on a problem that someone raises. They can instead reply when it’s the best time for them. A response within a business day or so, for example, is more than appropriate. This allows for more experimentation with personal schedules. Many find it more efficient to devote one part of their day to reading and responding to posts.
  • It allows folks who are more time-shifted to catch up with what’s going on. This can especially be helpful if you have colleagues in very distant timezones or are working flexible hours.
  • We can eliminate some meetings and better prepare for the remaining ones.
  • With search, we can find out why things have happened in the past without us being there or relying on imperfect human memory.

What type of problems would we pick long-form writing for? Really, just about everything: from a CEO describing company vision to an individual contributor getting into the weeds and needing to work out a solution with feedback from co-workers. 

Examples

  • A group post (written by many people) outlining the north star for company direction 5 years out and a specific roadmap for the quarter. The post asks readers for feedback with a given time deadline, e.g. open for the next 2 weeks.
  • A project lead summarizes the why, the challenges, risks and estimated time for a given project.
  • A designer asks for feedback from the team and stakeholders for the latest flow for their new feature. 
  • A developer outlines two implementation options for the feature and asks for feedback from both product and other developers on tradeoffs and a check in on if they understand requirements.
  • A lead writes up routine team meeting notes: highlighting the agenda, who attended, what was asked, what decisions were made, any follow up action items and who was responsible.

Tool requirements

Roughly, when picking out a specific tool to power internal discussions, it should have the following elements:

  • Posts can notify the right number of people – There should be some ability to tag individuals and larger groups like teams or divisions.
  • Searchable –  letting us find out why things have happened.
  • Editable – Mistakes can be fixed and we can go back to summarize conversations and outcomes at the top of the post, or in a summary comment. For example, if a post asks a question and a direction was picked, we should double-back to edit the post to point out what happened.

Internally at Automattic, we use a tool called P2 to power these discussions. Forum software or wiki tools might also work for you. 

Try this when:

  • You need to collaborate with one or more colleagues.
  • As a first step to see if a problem can be described and next steps can be taken asynchronously, without a meeting.
  • If no other communication medium is a good fit!

Documentation

Documentation is a specialized form of long-form writing where information remains relevant over time and is often maintained by many people.

Tool requirements

  • Searchable –  Information is easily discoverable by anyone in the company
  • Editable – by many people

Examples:

  • Company Culture Book
  • Onboarding documentation
  • Team Processes
  • On-Call Runbook

Try this when:

  • Knowledge is buried in someone’s head and only one person knows how to do something
  • Information is repeated, either through video chats, text chats, or in time-sensitive posts
  • A one-time post resonates with your co-workers more than expected

Workflow Specific Tools (Issues/PRs/Figma/etc)

As a company you may already be communicating asynchronously with very specific tools for a given workflow! For example, bug and feature requests may be written in issues, while developers may spend a lot of time pull requests and code reviews (aka asynchronous pair-programming).

Try this when:

  • Tools and workflows are already in place for your team or company

Try switching mediums when:

  • A discussion is going in circles. Some signs of this might look like needing to click to expand to see a full discussion, or seeing two participants rapidly commenting to each other. When this happens it may be the case that folks are accidentally talking past each other. Text chat or video calls/screensharing can convey information more quickly between two individuals and may help clear up any misunderstandings.
  • We need to step back to better frame a problem at a higher level. For example, instead of going back and forth on implementation details in code, we might need to ask if it’s worth building said feature at all. To reach the right folks, writing in long-form is usually a good call.

If people do choose to switch mediums, please remember to follow up with a summary update or comment summarizing what was decided. This helps others understand what was decided without needing to reach out to others synchronously.

Text Chat

Synchronous communication is a bit of a two edged sword. On the one hand it lets you talk with folks right now, which can help greatly when working through problems and building camaraderie on a team. It also means that we may leave out folks who are in different timezones or are working flex hours out of conversations.

For some, text chat can be very distracting and draining. Let’s go over some reasons why this might be so.

  • Are you allowed to mute chat for focus time, or after hours?
  • What is the expected response-time for a ping in a public channel or direct message? Talk with your lead to get a clear understanding! For example, since Automattic has no core working hours, on my team it’s okay to respond within a business day if folks are not online or have muted chat for focus time.
  • If you’re not on-call, how well are you silencing these notifications on personal devices after work?
  • Can private messages be taken to a more public channel instead? Too many private messages can feel like the equivalent of someone stopping by your desk and interrupting you. If the subject isn’t confidential and can be discussed in the open (think projects not feedback), consider moving the conversation to a more public area. This helps gives others visibility of what you are spending your time on. It also avoids ever growing group direct messages where some subset of folks have half of the conversation.
  • If someone asks for non-urgent help and you’re in the middle of something, can you schedule a time to chat in text or video later on the calendar?
  • Don’t force others to read text chat backscroll. If an interesting conversation has occurred, and we’d like to share what was talked about, a long form post summarizing this is much more appropriate than having someone else parse a long-winding conversation.

Try this when:

  • You need a bit more bandwidth to quickly discuss an idea with a few people.
  • Team/co-worker bonding! a.k.a all of the emojis and gifs! ✨

Video Chat/Screen Share

Video chats and screen sharing demand one’s immediate attention. I can juggle a few ongoing text chats, but I can manage only one video call at a time. In return for this demand on our attention, we can share a lot of information in a short period of time.

Try this when:

  • We’re building relationships! 1:1s, the weekly team call, watercooler chats and so on!
  • When we quickly need to build consensus or brainstorm next tasks in meetings.

Video calls, for whatever reason, tend to be more draining than meetings done in person. Except for 1:1s, aim to keep meetings small, short and on point. An hour for example tends to be the maximum limit of focus, no matter how much people would like to pay attention. Team process may need to be altered to help accommodate this additional cost. I’d recommend simplifying process as much as possible, and preferring async over sync when looking at communication options.

Summary

Regardless of what medium we pick, remember to communicate regularly and often! While working remotely, we often need to work twice as hard to make sure folks know what we’re accomplishing and when we need help.

Communicating in a sustainable way requires being intentional and mindful of yours and other’s time. If this ever feels draining, try switching mediums or start a discussion with your lead on experimenting further with process. It may make all the difference!

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