Still figuring it out: communicating remotely with lots of people

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Typically my blog posts are pretty thought out, because I’m sharing things that I’ve learned. This blog post is going to be pretty rambly, because I’m sharing something I’m still in the middle of figuring out.

This all started when I noticed my Workbar friends Devin and Emily were using Slack a bunch at work, but completely differently from the way I use it at work. They used it in lieu of email (like I do at work), but they don’t summarize or document any of the Slack communication (I could not believe this). It made me realize that the way my team communicates at work is unique, with awesome advantages and interesting challenges, and it’s something worth posting about.

To back up a bit, I work remotely. My company communicates exclusively online, and we don’t use email. This is how we communicate:

  • For day-to-day chatter: Slack
  • For discussions, logging calls/notes, team goals: P2 (a WordPress theme)
  • For weekly video chats, or one-on-one chats: Zoom, Skype
  • For client communication: Zendesk, email
  • For team project management: Trello

P2 is really where all the action happens. Unlike email, P2 is accessible to the entire team, so no information is locked away. This means we’re awesome at internal documentation, because every team call, discussion, todo item, or client conversation is logged for the entire team.

Here’s what P2 looks like (from my colleague Beau’s presentation):

Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 5.23.57 PM

Here’s the thing though, our team has doubled in size over the last year, which means keeping track of our team’s communication is starting to become unwieldy. All of the skills I’ve learned over the last two years on how to communicate remotely is being put to the test.

Here are some problems I’m running into:

  • Too much information. When our team had 8 people, keeping up-to-date on the latest P2 posts was manageable. With 24 people, reading every comment and post, along with Slack chatter, has become really time consuming.
  • Communication happening all the time, and we’re missing out on discussions. Last year, our team primarily worked U.S. hours, but now our team has now grown to include a bunch of folks located in Europe. This is awesome, because it means our work hours have expanded, but it also means when I’m asleep, I’m missing out on communication.
  • Helping new people find the information they need. I posted about this when I first started at Automattic, but learning the ropes of a job remotely is a painfully slow process. For everyone who has joined my team in the last few months, there’s even more information to sift through — how do we make sure new teammates are caught up without being frustrated?

Here are some of the solutions I’m working through for each of those problems. Cue the rambling… 

Too much information. I’m consciously blocking out more time to read, and forcing myself to be much more disciplined about catching up on team communications. I’m also learning to let go of things I can’t keep track of.

Also, I know this sounds ridiculous, but consuming information by reading is hard for me. I’ve always been an auditory learner, and my favorite way of consuming information is podcasts. I also have an excellent memory for people and conversations — I can remember things people have said to me in conversation for years and years. But, I don’t have that kind of memory for blog posts or books or articles. I’m actively trying to reframe the way I consume information on P2s (trying to treat reading more like a conversation with the person who posted), and also give more time for Slack chatter.

Also, when you work remotely, there are no random, chance interactions or hallway conversations that allow you to learn about what colleagues outside your team are working on. I’m making an effort where anytime someone outside of my team pings me about anything, I’ll take the opportunity to ask how they’re doing, and what they’re working on. This sometimes leads to really informative and interesting conversations where I get a bit of context about my wider company (instead of me parsing through all of their team’s P2 posts) — and, cross-pollination between teams is a great thing. I think of it this way: if someone stopped by my desk in a real office, I would casually chit-chat for a few minutes, so why wouldn’t I do that for a random Slack ping?

Communication happening all the time. With a team spread across timezones, our team has decreased the reliance on realtime chatter, and taken on the mantra of “P2 or it didn’t happen.” This means that any time there’s a discussion on Slack, the assumption is that people don’t read the backscroll (because for 24 people over the course of a 24 hour work day, that’s a lot). So if there’s an important discussion that other people need to know about, it must be logged on P2 with a link to the Slack archive. This helps keep the team aware of important discussions that are happening around the clock, and allows people across time zones to participate asynchronously.

Helping new people find the information they need. Imagine 24 people creating content (whether it’s code or posts) every single day — over time, there’s an enormous archive of information. Learning to navigate that takes time, and the longer a person has been on our team, the more efficient they become at finding stuff, because they know where to look. When you’re new, you have no idea where to look.

HBR had an awesome podcast called “Learning What Wiser Workers Know,” basically all about transferring and sharing institutional knowledge, and it boils down to this: nothing is more effective than apprenticeships. If you think about it, when someone is coaching you, they are parsing all of the institutional knowledge into nuggets they can share with you at exactly the right time. Think of it as a hypercontexual search engine for work information, tailored just for you. We make sure every new member of our team has a buddy for exactly that reason.

In addition, our team has had a lot of conversations about surfacing contextual information. That means tagging and marking our data (P2 posts, Zendesk tickets, etc.) and figuring out how to surface it at the time that’s relevant to your learning. So, if I’ve posted a P2 post about a client, you should also be able to quickly see all the relevant Salesforce and Zendesk entries without hunting for it, to help you learn about the client quickly.

… and that’s it for now. As I said earlier, I’m still figuring it out. But, if you have comments, advice, or thoughts, I’d love to hear it.

/end rambling.