Remote Communication Concepts

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Common questions covered here
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What are the best practices for remote team communication?

Remote Communication Concepts

This section was written by Juan Pablo Buriticá.

Communication indeed plays a critical role in building successful teams. In fact, we’ve found patterns of communication to be the most important predictor of a team’s success. Not only that, but they are as significant as all the other factors—individual intelligence, personality, skill, and the substance of discussions—combined.Alex “Sandy” Pentland, Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, MIT*

Communication is a foundational human behavior. We communicate for a wide variety of reasons: to gather and share information; to ask questions and learn from other people; to express our wants and needs; and to form social relationships and deeper connections.

We communicate at work for all these reasons, but we communicate at work especially to Get Things Done. Knowledge work is fundamentally team-based. Without healthy communication, organizations lack the necessary information to do work as a group. We can only achieve goals and outcomes when we work together. To do so at a high level, we need to communicate effectively.

Research by Alex “Sandy” Pentland and his team found a direct correlation between the communication practices of teams and their performance. They mapped the interactions between team members at call centers by giving them digital badges that collected data on their individual communication behavior—to whom they talked and how much, tone of voice and body language, and more. They asked teams to wear the badges for six weeks, and found that a team’s energy and their engagement outside of formal meetings could explain one-third of the variations in productivity among groups. Using this insight, they recommended that the call center manager modify the coffee-break schedule so all workers could take the break at the same time and socialize together. After doing this, the average handling time (AHT) decreased by 8% across the entire call center.

An Economist survey found that people “overwhelmingly indicated that poor communications at work can lead to stressful work environments, stalled careers, missed performance goals, and lost sales.” Conversely, by communicating effectively we can set goals, make decisions, resolve conflict, overcome challenges, and collectively achieve results that we might not as individuals.

When it comes to communication within remote teams, it’s tricky, but far from impossible. As Pentland’s call center experiment shows, assessing what a team needs to better communicate can lead to practices that improve how that team functions. By understanding the following communication concepts and channels that impact teams in remote environments—and consciously choosing how to apply them in your own organization—you can build effective communication in remote settings.

Distance

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.*

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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.

Asynchronous communication happens when information can be exchanged independent of time. It doesn’t require the recipient’s immediate attention, allowing them to respond to the message at their convenience. Examples of asynchronous communication are emails, online forums, and collaborative documents.

This distinction is helpful, but it’s not enough to plan communication for distributed teams. How do you decide which kind to use, and when? Some channels, as we’ll see below, could be used in either manner. The common refrain for remote work is to be “default asynchronous,” but that advice is fairly hard to parse: Are we supposed to never talk anymore? Are video calls now obsolete? This line of thinking takes a narrow view of what works in distributed teams while ignoring the details of how and why different channels are more or less effective, along with individual variance in communication capabilities and preferences.

One framework that some remote teams have used to figure out how and when to best communicate is media richness theory.

In media richness theory, various forms of media are characterized by the nature of information sent over available communication channels.* Lean media like email have a slower interaction rate, fewer visual or auditory cues, and are better suited for when precision is needed. Rich media like face-to-face conversation convey multiple and simultaneous cues—like facial expressions and tone of voice—that allow for immediate feedback, have a personal focus, and enable the use of natural language, which is better suited to conveying concepts or more abstract ideas. The theory was introduced by Richard L. Daft and Robert H Lengel in the mid ’80s (and later joined by Linda Klebe Treviño).

Media richness theory predicts that people will use communication channels based on how communicative they are, but it does not take into consideration other factors, such as relationship growth and maintenance over time. It also posits that anyone can objectively determine what communication channel is more effective depending on the purpose of the communication. For example, if you aim to reduce uncertainty in a situation where more information is needed, you should use email, which has a slower rate of interaction and higher precision. A face-to-face conversation, however, should be used to reduce equivocality, a situation open to more than one interpretation. But since this theory was developed before the invention of modern communication channels like instant messaging and the enrichment of written text with interactivity, it is now a bit outdated.

Reaching Common Agreement Is Key to Remote Communication

In 2019, Kumi Ishii, Mary Madison Lyons, and Sabrina A. Carr revisited the media richness theory by validating its applications in modern communication channels (for example, text messaging). They found that individual use of media can have an impact on its effectiveness—it isn’t as simple as objectively letting the need to reduce uncertainty vs equivocality determine the right medium. Factors like formality, concurrency, organizational context, experience with the topic or medium, and the negativity of the message also bear considering, because they can influence the perceived effectiveness of a channel.

Media synchronicity theory posits that any communication medium has five different capabilities in support of the conveyance of information (making it understandable), and the convergence of understanding (reaching a common understanding). These factors are the immediacy of feedback, parallelism, symbol variety, rehearsability, and reprocessability.*

  • Immediacy of feedback is how quickly people can reply or provide feedback, and how bidirectional the feedback is. A forum post without comments has low immediacy and is largely one-directional.

  • Parallelism is the number of simultaneous conversations that can happen (also known as the “width” of the medium). A telephone call has low degrees of parallelism, whereas chat has a high degree of parallelism. The more parallelism present, the harder it becomes to monitor and coordinate conversations.

  • Symbol variety describes the number of ways information can be communicated (also known as the “height” of the medium). This can include verbal and non-verbal symbols (actual crying vs 😭). A lack of symbol variety can have a negative impact on social perceptions in communication.

  • Rehearsability is the extent to which the media enables the sender to fine tune the message before sending; it’s how “editable” the medium is. Email is more rehearsable than video chat, for example.

  • Reprocessibility is the degree to which a message can be reexamined or processed again within the context of the communication event. Written, asynchronous channels are more reprocessible than synchronous calls and meetings.

Media synchronicity theory considers the development of new media, like collaborative software and instant messaging, and is supported by studies on global collaboration of software development teams. While we don’t expect remote teams to try to directly apply all the aspects of this theory to their communication plans, there’s one important takeaway from the theory that supports what we’ve seen in our own experience.

importantIshii, Lyons, and Carr found that the “best” medium depends on which communication needs are more important for a given situation on a specific team. Most tasks in knowledge work require individuals to properly convey complex information, and to converge on shared meanings. Choosing a single medium for any task may be less effective than using a set of media that the group chooses depending on the process. A team can use email to convey the status of a project externally, and an issue tracker to converge on the understanding of the individual state of the tasks. Success in distributed environments requires that teams come to an agreement about how tools and communication practices will be used within the group.

Compatibility of communication and collaboration tools includes a common agreement and definition on how the tools should be used; for example, commitment from all team members to answer emails in due time, or being logged in to IM whenever available for communication. A common agreement on communication practices is also important, for example, when deciding who should be present in which meetings, where to store important decisions, and whether to inform the whole team about decisions made privately, for example, in IM discussions.Tuomas Niinimäki, et al., Journal of Software*

importantWhile asynchronous communication provides a wealth of advantages for remote teams—reducing distractions, increasing focus time, and providing centralized, written documentation that helps keep everyone aligned—it shouldn’t be presumed to be the sole or default mode of communication. Successful remote teams intentionally choose when, how, and why they communicate asynchronously, and diverge from that when it’s important for them to connect in real time.

Presence

Presence is the state of being synchronously available for collaborative activities that need to happen in real time. In co-located companies, this means being physically in an office. In distributed teams, presence usually means being available to meet with other people rather than doing individual work.

cautionOne of the most harmful behaviors that can surface in a distributed team is the constant expectation of presence. If employees are expected to always be on email or in a group chat to stay informed, it impacts their ability to do focused work, which is a required component of knowledge work and can be in direct opposition to virtual presence. If someone can’t ignore their email for two hours because their company has a culture of being always on email, their ability to do their work may suffer, which impacts the team’s collective productivity.

Since knowledge workers oscillate between highly collaborative modes and highly focused modes depending on the task at hand, balance becomes key. Distributed teams that want to be effective across time and space will seek this balance and communicate in ways that neither require constant attention, nor create frequent interruptions for employees.

As a general rule, nobody at Basecamp really knows where anyone else is at any given moment. Are they working? Dunno. Are they taking a break? Dunno. Are they at lunch? Dunno. Are they picking up their kid from school? Dunno. Don’t care. The vast majority of the time, it just doesn’t matter. What matters is letting people design their own schedule around when they can do their best work.Jason Fried, co-founder and CEO, Basecamp*

Friction

Friction is the amount of effort required to transmit or receive a message on a specific communication channel. It includes the time and thought that it takes to plan, edit, or create the message.

Friction is relative. It depends on the transmitter, the receiver, and the channel used to communicate. For some individuals, speaking can be a low-friction channel if everyone is in close proximity or on a conference call. It can also be a high-friction channel for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Too much friction in a communication medium slows us down, but low friction isn’t always desirable. If a message can be sent too quickly, it might mean that workers invest less time in processing and composing responses, which can lead them to communicate less thoughtfully or without considering the impact of their words on others.

cautionLow friction can also make it so that teams go too fast in the wrong direction. In an HBR podcast, communications expert Nick Morgan describes how fast-moving communication modes like chat (or even, in some cases, slower modes like email) bombard people to the point that they intuit negative information or intent when it’s not present, especially without all the in-person cues about intent that humans are much better at interpreting. The faster we compose and respond to messages, the less clear they become, opening gaps for the receivers to fill in.

The research shows that we both think we’re better at expressing ourselves in email and other virtual forms than we actually are, and we also think we’re better at understanding other people than we actually are.Nick Morgan, communication expert*

Distributed teams that want to communicate effectively will benefit from defining what they consider to be an acceptable level of friction in their communication architecture, depending on whether information is being broadcast or a team is trying to reach a common understanding.

Intent

We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior.Stephen Covey, bestselling author, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything*

“Assuming good intent” has become a common recommendation for modern workplaces.* However, it poses some problematic dynamics in distributed teams, especially those that strive to be diverse and inclusive.

cautionAsking individuals to assume good intent in written communications shifts the burden towards the receiver of the message and not the originator. When it comes to communication in distributed teams, what someone meant to say matters less than what was understood. This intent-impact gap can be perilous. No matter how well-intentioned, the wrong message can set a distributed team back significantly. Effective communication between two or more parties requires that everyone understands the message in the same way.

Your remote co-workers build a representation of you based on their interactions with your messages. They see how you gave feedback on their strategy document or how you replied to their email. They’ll observe the way you talk and interact with others in shared spaces, especially those that lack tone or facial expressions.

Distributed team communication requires the entire team to become skilled at clearly conveying intended meaning, and this can’t be replaced by using more or better tools. Communication tools won’t improve the quality of what you say; they can only make it happen faster or slower, or reach further.

Managers play a critical role in building practices to overcome the intent-impact gap, both stepping in to resolve communication-related conflict when it crops up, and giving team members clear feedback when their communication is ineffective, or worse, harmful.

cautionManagers and executives must also conversely be aware of the outsized impact their own communications can have—an exec asking about a project’s status in Slack will likely be received very differently than an inquiry from a peer. Poorly written interactions, especially those from leaders, become part of the permanent record of a distributed team. These quickly erode trust, and can create damaging situations that are difficult to fix. See Team Integration for more on better communication practices for distributed team managers.

Tone

Tone is the emotional content of a message. When we speak, the tone we use helps others understand our mood. When we write, we replicate tone by using punctuation or symbols, and by varying the formality of our messages.

An exclamation mark will never replicate what our voices can do! Emoji can be ambiguous too: 😬

Another challenge with email or other written communication is not the lack of tone, but rather, the implicit tone.* For instance, messages that are too direct can have a negative effect on recipients by coming across as rude or mean—especially if they’re coming from someone in a position of authority. Accuracy in the emotion conveyed with a message is crucial in helping us understand the reason behind the message and figure out an appropriate response.* You can use Grammarly to analyze your writing and get a tone score in real time. Tools like this help people pause and rewrite before sending.

Thankfully, distributed teams can learn from other preexisting online communities that have found success in replicating their moderation habits to help solve for tone, and documenting those in a Code of Conduct. For example:

  • The Rust Code of Conduct Work explicitly asks members to be kind and courteous, and lays down the rules for moderation.

  • Recurse Center codified their Social Rules, to help create a friendly, intellectual environment.

  • Buffer wrote and published their Code of Conduct, which shows us how it can aid in the moderation of tone in writing.

Writing a code of conduct for your team—and including it in your company handbook or team agreement—can help keep the conversations at work positive and productive.*

Mindful Communication

Consider the following versions of feedback on a proposal:

This is a terrible idea.

This is a terrible idea!

This is a terrible idea 😉

Now, think about each statement as it relates to the key communication concepts above:

  • Presence. How quickly do you think you should respond to this feedback?

  • Friction. How much effort would it take to figure out a response and where that response should be sent?

  • Intent vs. impact. Can you quickly identify if the statement has good or bad intentions?

  • Tone. Which tone does each take? Could each be interpreted differently by different people?

You can try to infer meaning from them, but ultimately they’re all ambiguous statements. If one of those statements came from your boss,* or from someone with whom you don’t have a relationship, you may even stop sharing ideas with them because their feedback wasn’t actionable and was even potentially hurtful (but you’re not sure!). And, unless you’re in an environment of high trust, you may take that criticism as a threat to your psychological safety.*

Now, evaluate this response instead:

Have you considered any alternatives?

This statement communicates that you’re not sold on the proposal, while avoiding passing judgement on whether the idea is bad or not. This aligns with the goal of helping your team make the right decision. The idea may indeed be a bad one, but saying so in a blunt way can be hurtful, out of line, or cause defensiveness. When it comes to communication, sometimes you have to choose between being effective or being right.

importantThe underlying principle of mindful communication is empathy. By thinking about and understanding what others are thinking and feeling, you’re better able to assess how your words will be received and formulate communication that is positive, helpful, and constructive (even if it contains disagreement or criticism).

Amy Ciavolino wrote a useful guide for software engineers that illustrates how to practice mindful communication while giving feedback to each other during code reviews. Much of her advice translates to other teams or disciplines. In the guide, Amy proposes tips for reviewers and authors with the purpose of improving the experience of giving and receiving feedback of written code, by considering each other’s perspectives. For example, she encourages reviewers to leave out nitpicking comments over stylistic preferences that can be subjective and are better handled by automated tools (called linters) to improve consistency and reduce fruitless arguments over programming style.

Mindful communication takes work and ongoing effort. Teams that develop mindful written communication practice the following:

  • Avoid sarcasm. This helps avoid ambiguity in your communication, and steers clear of potentially upsetting or harmful wording.

  • Proofread. Effective communication incorporates the habit of reviewing everything before you hit send or save. For particularly sensitive topics, you might even want to recruit someone you trust to review for tone and clarity before you send, to help make sure nothing you write will be taken the wrong way.

  • Use clarifying questions. Communicating curiosity can be less threatening than making statements, and asking thoughtful, more open-ended questions gives the recipient an opportunity to further explain or clarify their response as well.

  • Use emoji carefully. Emoji can help inject emotion and a casual tone when you want it, but be aware that they can also be ambiguous across ages and cultures, and their overuse can be considered unprofessional.

  • Don’t feign surprise. Saying things like “I can’t believe you didn’t know that!” puts the other person on the defensive and might discourage them from asking you for advice or getting your feedback in the future. This is a close cousin to the “Well, actually” phenomenon, which amounts to offering unsolicited advice (often in the form of criticism), talking down to someone, and not listening to what they have to say—or write—in response.

  • Don’t type angry. Never respond to messages when you’re upset. The best thing to do is to hit pause, take a break, and allow your emotions to lessen and your thoughts to clarify before returning to your keyboard.*

Documentation: Less Is More

When building a distributed team, you may be tempted to require every member to write everything down. But an overabundance of information can be as problematic as the lack of it—overabundance makes it harder for remote teams to filter what is signal and what is noise.

Instead of writing everything down, an effective distributed team will focus on how to write what matters.

The clarity of information isn’t directly related to the quantity of information, but rather the quality, and surrounding context for it. As you determine the ways in which you will communicate as a distributed team, you’ll want to create a collective understanding of what to communicate, and how to communicate it in a way that shortens or eliminates physical, temporal, and cultural distances.

importantHolloway co-founder Josh Levy has proposed a principle of documentation that is applicable to distributed teams. The OAC principle posits that any documentation should have clearly defined Ownership, Author, and Cadence:

  • Owner. This is the one person ultimately responsible for the doc. Documents should never be owned by “everyone” or “no one in particular.”

  • Audience. Is it company internal, project or group internal, for external customers, or for the whole web?

  • Cadence. What is the cadence of updates, if any? This means, what is the workflow for updating and what is the lifespan? Some options:

  • Fixed lifespan: Write, use, later archive. This could be collaborative or done by one person.

  • Long lived: Maintained and updated by the owner or others. This could be ad hoc or on a schedule. There are also variations on workflow here, such as welcoming suggestions from anyone, but keeping review and acceptance by the owner.

If for each doc or folder you create, you know the answer to these three things, your docs will be better organized, better used, and better maintained.

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