Communicating Remotely

(Thanks to Nikki Heald and Dave Murphy for their contributions)

For about 7 years, I worked from home participating in a very large Open Source project  (Ubuntu Linux). Since then, I have continued setting up and advising companies on how to work remotely.

While you might be struggling with setting up on short notice your working environment at home, soon you will find your groove, and then the next big thing will hit you: Your usual ways of accessing information and the tools you use to communicate have suddenly, drastically changed.

When you were working in an office, you used Instant Messaging (IM) to communicate with people in other offices every now and then, but you largely relied on face to face conversations or office meetings. Now EVERYTHING seems to happen in IM.

Instant Messaging (IM) is a great tool for remote working but also has massive pitfalls. This is not just your problem but something remote organisations have been struggling with for years. Here are some key best practices:

Keep communication in the open. Set up team chats and invite people from other teams to ask questions in public channels, avoid as much as possible starting conversations on direct and private messages.

It is extremely easy to misinterpret and get frustrated using instant messaging. Keeping conversations in the open makes people think twice about the language they use. It also increases the possibility of someone from the group chat replying to your urgent message faster.

Be kind and patient.  Written communications are always easier for non-native speakers, but it can also make us overestimate the language skills of our colleagues and read too much into what they write. It might be that something you feel is aggressive or even offensive is just a side effect of this. At this point, take a breath, be polite and ask to have a video call.

Move detailed conversations to private messages and then to video call.  The recommended communication flow is to start in an open forum (group chat) , then if the conversation gets into details and it is clogging the channel, ask for it to be moved to a thread or private direct message, finally if still taking too long, set up a video call to address the issue at hand.

IM is asynchronous, really!. Instant messaging gives us the false sense that we have the full attention of our colleague, and that they are going to reply straight away. This is nothing further from the truth! Work or personal life can be interrupting and stressing out the person you are talking to, leading to long pauses or terse replies. Do not get frustrated, relax, they will get back to you as soon as they can.

IM is disruptive. Constant direct IM interruptions can lead to low productivity, this is another reason to use group chats. One good tip for teams is to designate a person (maybe rotate it daily) responsible for answering questions from other teams in your group chat. This means only one of you is getting distracted, but also gives a better responsiveness to the person asking the question.

Document decision outside IM. Instant messaging is ephemeral, even if it is in written form. If you take a decision in a group or private chat, follow it up with an email, a gdoc or whatever else your team uses to share documentation.

Don’t try to read everything. Very quickly IM proliferates and becomes an avalanche of information. Don’t have fear of missing out, you shouldn’t expect to read everyone’s messages AND don’t expect everyone to read your messages. If there is something that you really need people to read, use an email or arrange a meeting.

IM is not that social. Although it is a great tool for GIFs and Memes, it is not going to replace the social interaction that you are used to in the office. Instead, try leaving a video call, such as hangouts, open with the rest of your team members while you work on your tasks, just for chit-chat.

If you have any other questions or you are struggling with managing your team communications while working remotely, don’t hesitate to reach out to me!


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