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All growing teams eventually become distributed, whether it’s across rooms, floors, buildings or cities. It’s not a new problem—organizations like the Roman Catholic Church and the Hudson Bay Company managed distributed work before the invention of most communication technologies, and found effective ways to manage ambiguity and distance over time.*
importantReliance on being close to each other limits how fast a team can grow or where it can be distributed. It also makes communication fragile when one or more team members can’t be close to the rest. When you’ve built a team that relies on physical presence to operate, you’re unintentionally building communication patterns that will eventually break with growth, or when life happens.
Although you’d think being in the same physical place would make communication easier, it actually can emphasize suboptimal habits, such as:
Hallway decisions. Relying on a serendipitous encounter with a co-worker to get a decision made can bring work to a halt if the encounter doesn’t happen.
Reliance on spoken communication. As information is relayed from one worker to another, the message is subject to modification and interpretation. It also becomes dependent on the working relationships of those who had access to the information.
Physical presence as implied productivity. This is the practice of judging someone’s value by their presence at a desk, rather than the content and outcomes of their work.
All teams, distributed or not, can benefit from strong communication that doesn’t rely on proximity. Teams that can make decisions and achieve their goals regardless of whether they are in the same space or time zone, are more resilient to events that can impact progress, like a team member’s attendance at an overseas conference or such larger-scale events as outbreaks.
Effective remote teams architect intentional communication practices that overcome challenges that result from distance. It’s easy to think of “distance” as simply not being in the same location, but in a growing distributed organization, distance manifests in three distinct ways:
Physical. Physical separation is when one or more members of the team can’t be in the same physical space as others. It is a spectrum: individuals may be on different floors or on different continents. It also varies depending on whether a group of members is remote from the majority, as can happen in hybrid organizations. The relative size of the remote group also matters.
Temporal. Temporal separation is when one or more members of the team are not in the same time zone as others. It also is a spectrum; you can have varying degrees of time zone overlap for standard 9am-5pm business hours among different team members. A team in California has six hours of overlap with someone in Bogotá, Colombia, but none with anyone in India. Holidays or eating schedules around the world can also increase temporal distance in teams.
Cultural. Cultures can vary within the same organization, city, country, or continent. It can be as subtle as the meaning of a word in two regions, or as marked as two separate languages, styles of working, or even perception of concepts like professionalism or punctuality.
Effective distributed communication depends on reducing physical, temporal, and cultural distance by being deliberate about how, when, and where we communicate.
Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Communication
Thanks to the internet, written communications are accessible and aren’t subject to the limitations of physical presence, serendipitous encounters by the seltzer machine, or inconvenient taps on the shoulder.Juan Pablo Buriticá, remote engineering leader*
Before looking into the specifics of various communication channels and tools and how they should be used, it’s important that we understand the difference between the two basic modes of communication that can make distributed teams successful:*
Synchronous communication happens when messages can only be exchanged in real time. It requires that the transmitter and receiver are present in the same time and/or space. Examples of synchronous communication are phone calls or video meetings.
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