It used to be the case that email was the usual beat of communication (before that standard mail). Then, if you needed a more immediate response, you’d call someone. If you had a tough or critical message to deliver, you would do it face to face. This has all changed since the pandemic of 2020, for better or worse. We have adopted being able to work remotely, which gives us a lot of freedom. Also, a lot of rope to hang ourselves. From my own experience, I’ve seen a lot of cases of what does or does not work in terms of the tools we use to communicate. So let’s dive in and explore using the right communication tool.
Note that this article explicitly tries to cover the various forms of communication tools available to us and how to use them effectively. However, I have a more comprehensive level article that covers habits of communication that would also be of interest to you and cover various aspects and practices of communication.
Check out a more high-level parent article discussing effective behaviors to use while remotely working here.
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Email as a remote communication tool
Email is mostly dying to forms of more robust and faster gratification as folk often want to know the answer to their question sooner than later. Many teams and work environments are moving away from email as email killed the physical letter mail prior. Email still has its uses, though. I still see email going strong for external communication, promotions, and company-wide communication. Instant Messengers seem to fall apart if the audience is too big, and thus it is important still to consider email as a comprehensive audience communication tool. Also, Instant Messengers usually have some internal structure to them, being that a member is likely already a part of your team or organization. Due to these hierarchical structures, they are not as efficient for communicating with individuals outside of your organization.
Instant Messengers as remote communication tools
Today, a lot has changed with the rise of social media, and instant gratification expectations are geared more towards immediate response and reward. Work instant messengers such as Microsoft Teams and Slack have grown in popularity and drive real work engagement. However, don’t confuse engagement with productivity.
There is so much information and noise in a big enough organization (and the same with a social network) that you’d have fulfilled your personal or workday alone without achieving any results if you attempted only to read and understand all of it. Yet, today, I see instant messengers at the heart of everything we do, and thus it is essential to focus more on these.
Announcements in remote communication tools
An announcement to me is like an email with a broad audience communicating intent only. Given we are using an instant messenger for this, you have concluded this announcement is exclusive to your organization. Announcements should focus on advertising, communicating a plan, and exciting things. It is not a place for conversation or argument. Think of this as a similar idea to a Twitter post. Have you heard of some horror stories of arguments from Twitter posts? It is simply not practical or conducive to getting work done. Instead, move heated debates to one-on-one conversations and post the result of the discussion afterward.
Group or Meeting Conversations in remote communication tools
A team can only be so big until communication bogs down effectiveness. A team traditionally is around 8-10 members at most, but this can vary circumstantial and around how much complexity the team needs to handle today. With that said, if your group or meeting has more than this, it is good to think about the practical purpose of the communication channel. If you don’t want to overwhelm your audience and want to keep folk productive, trim it down to those that matter. Think of your organization structure as a team of teams. Some of us might be a part of multiple teams, but even that has a lot of cognitive overload. I would recommend no more than 2-3 conceptual teams of communication. Teams that have team leaders of areas of ownership will represent those teams with other teams to move things forward and spread information to their teams.
Group conversations and meetings with these teams are a great form of communication and effective for teams to use as their bulk place of working together. It is a suitable environment to build trust and should be a safe place to inspire cooperation and collaboration.
One-on-one chats in remote communication tools
One-on-one conversations are meaningful and effective tools for building trust and taking the time to know individuals. However, it is not an effective way to share information that may impact the team. For example, if you share team information with your lead, you are only creating a bottleneck that the lead would have to share this information with you. Instead, ensure you are helping your lead and taking ownership of your area by sharing information directly with your team(s).
One-on-ones are effective platforms to communicate your own individual needs, clarifications, and care/praise. It is easiest to conceptualize your team’s body as its entity and each team member separately. Recognition in front of the team and individual has different effects, and both should be used. Getting to know someone individually versus amidst a team conversation is a different dynamic and not inclusive to each other. One-on-ones are a great tool for individual growth, understanding, personalized messages, and a potential bottleneck in communication. With diligence to understand both a team message and a one-on-one message, these tools are both practical.
Avoid holding arguments over text, simple clarifications are okay, but a lot of human emotion and empathy are lost over text. If such arguments carry forward, have a quick call and talk face to face.
Phone calls and meetings in remote communication tools
Phone calls and meetings drive value as an immediate instant gratification tool for communication. Now we have other tools for that (instant messengers, hurray!). I suspect the industry will use phone calls and meetings less, except for face-to-face interactions, to build trust and see immediate emotions in sensitive topics.
Phone calls and meetings take a lot of focus and are super distracting for focused work, especially if they are not mutually agreed to and planned. For that reason, I’d advise you always to plan these conversations, don’t call someone out of the blue as it may not be well received.
Meetings with various folks are also losing more and more value as it multiplies the ultimate cost of the meeting per effective person you invite. So please don’t underestimate the price of a meeting and do your best to avoid them.
Meetings should be rare
Meetings and phone calls still have their uses to drive communication over super urgent matters (use very sparingly). These phone calls and meetings should ALWAYS have a detailed schedule, ask, and planned outcome. I would always recommend avoiding ritualistic meetings that occur at some regular cadence. A one-and-done call or meeting to establish effective and immediate goals to move things forward is enough for a team.
There are some meetings for teams that add value but should also be used sparingly and agreed to as a team. Those meetings should be internal to the team and effectively change aspects of the team or systems around it to work more efficiently. For example, status updates can help with a team on the daily beat to help funnel conversations and teamwork, but these should be quick and short (often referred to as daily stand-ups). These are not effective environments for chit-chat or building trust. Those should have separate carved times and be more about the team members as opposed to business objectives.
Use these phone calls and meetings sparingly in today’s world. But, if you need them, make sure you know exactly what needs to be achieved, communicate ahead of schedule what those are with a plan, and keep the meeting as lean and mean as possible.
Face-to-faces (with remote communication tools)
Face-to-face conversations and meetings should be an explicit tool to achieve the proper goal, as video fatigue is real and wears on some. Explicitly, for building trust. When one sees someone’s face, you realize that you are dealing with another human being who is no longer what the business needs. This goes in both directions, and in almost every situation, two people can leave with a more positive interaction than a message delivered through text.
Given this, I’d propose the following rule. Suppose you suspect that the message you want to deliver could have any potential emotional impact on the person it is being delivered to. Opt to deliver it until you can have a face-to-face conversation. Many of us have had the unpleasant experience of a text message being taken the wrong way and hurting another. Do your best to prevent this and think about the weight your message brings.
Building trust requires face time
One-on-ones are the only way I’ve been able to feel I genuinely get to know and care about someone. There is a lot of human emotion lost via text-only communication. Seeing someone’s face cannot be replaced but having explicit meetings, such as one-on-one or team socials, helps. Requiring every meeting be with the camera on seems like a lazy blanket strategy. It is only trying to achieve the effect of seeing someone’s face without a direct emotional connection. As video fatigue is real, use face time effectively and understand its value for building trust and a team.
Video for group meetings is something of a neutral point for me. I’ve been in teams that require it, I’ve been in teams that don’t care. Ultimately, I didn’t see the camera had any added value in growing the team. What does help is having specific group meetings centered around building trust, getting to know one another outside of work speak, and caring about who your co-workers really are. In these conversations, I find the camera on holds more meaning and impact for building trust than it is off. On the other hand, I don’t personally see any value in the camera coming on for standard affairs business meetings or status updates.