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Digital communication – staff of life

Have you seen the first heartbeats of your remote team?  This week I’ll talk about the „staff of life“ for your remote team: communication. In the remote world we need to leverage digital media to make it as close as possible to a co-located team.

This post can’t give you a comprehensive list of communication tools. I’ll share some experiences with tools I use. Like with food you need to figure out what is the right thing for your situation. Your body needs carbohydrates, but some prefer noodles and some prefer rice.

Media richness

Before we jump into the tools itself I would like to summarize the concept of media richness for you. Media richness indicates how much information a communication medium can transfer. A video call is richer than a phone call, because it also transports body language. In general you should choose the richest medium possible. However richer mediums usually mean higher effort (higher bandwidth, equipment, …).

Synchronous communication

In synchronous communication sender and receiver are waiting on a response of the other. The feedback loop is closed. The graph shows some synchronous communication channels and their media richness.

synchronous communication
synchronous communication

Videoconferencing

One of my most important tools when working in a remote context is video conferencing. I use this for team meetings as wells 1on1’s. In my corporate life I use Cisco Webex:

Webex video conference
Webex video conference

It offers multiple features to make your remote meeting as close as an in-person meeting. Here are some of the capabilities I find useful:

  • Video conferencing – Biggest drawback is you only see up to 6 participants in parallel.
  • Screen sharing – You can either share a screen or a specific application.
  • The chat function is very useful as a „back channel“ (e.g. if people lost their audio or  are muted). Unfortunately chat messages can easily be overlooked in screen sharing mode.
  • The annotation function can be used to scribble into a shared document or presentation. This helps clarifying questions or co-developing ideas.
  • Also the whiteboard can be used for this. With mouse or touchpad you can’t draw like on a real whiteboard and we couldn’t make it a work with a graphic pad.
  • A very useful feature is the recording feature. If a team member can’t make it due to timezone or a conflict, a recorded version of the meeting can be watched later.

In my private context I use Zoom.

Zoom
Zoom

It offers similar features as Webex, but the App is much better. Zoom offers a free version with unlimited duration for 1on1 meetings.

Instant messaging

A very helpful synchronous communication tool is instant messaging. In my corporate life I use Cisco Jabber:

  • It integrates telephony, so it is an all-in-one communication tool for the digital workplace.
  • It shows my and other people’s status (available, away, do not disturb) and the location. Status is set automatically based on your calender and call activities. It can be manually changed and customized. Location is set automatically based on network ID. It always recognizes when I work from home.
  • Written communication is a big benefit if there’s a language barrier. I found it very useful to communicate with my Chinese colleagues, where some are not comfortable speaking English.
  • You can also use it for a group chat. This is faster than setting up an audio or video conference. Works like a charm e.g. for quick polls.
Jabber
Jabber

Face-2-face

Even if you chose some very rich communication channels you need face2face from time to time. I found that team members usually don’t share very personal stories in a video call. And did you ever go for a beer over video!? 😉

Asynchronous communication

In asynchronous communication sender and receiver don’t wait on the response of the other. The feedback loop can be open. The most famous type is email.

Email

For me email has quite some flaws, so I try to avoid it whenever possible.

  • Due to it’s asynchronous nature you might not get feedback. For 1on1 conversations I prefer instant messaging or phone.
  • I can’t opt out of long email threads, where somebody put me on cc. On the other hand, sometimes you get added into a thread but don’t know the history either.
  • Email is usually not centrally archived and information sits in inboxes. This is a challenge for people joining the team later.
  • I often wonder who the right audience is. If I choose it to narrow, interested people might miss information. If I choose it to wide, I might spam people.

For the latter cases it is better to use  group ware. I’ll give you two examples.

Microsoft SharePoint

We use Sharepoint quite often because it integrates well into the office suite and has a huge number of capabilities. The latter is also the biggest drawback. It is not very easy to use and cluttered. If you are interested in the different collaboration tools I used and implemented in Sharepoint, let me know and I can write an extra post for this.

Wikis

My favorite asynchronous communication tool at the moment is Atlassian Confluence. I see three key benefits:

  • Very easy to use. With the WYSIWYG editor you can edit pages without looking into any help page.
  • Confluence offers some very useful templates (meeting notes, requirements pages, …). So you don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
  • It easily integrates with other tools like Jira and offers a huge variety of plugins for different usecases.

Call for action

Now that you got an insight into different digital communication options, let me give you two ideas how you can get into action.

  • Pick one of your regular communications (1on1s, team meeting, …) and improve the media richness (e.g. use video instead of phone).
  • Instead of a long email thread to work on a document use a wiki page.

As I said at the beginning, there are many more options for digital communication. Lisette Sutherland has a great list of tools. Another great list has been put together by Hassan Osman.

I would love to hear about your use cases and tools you use (your „food mix“). So feel free to leave a comment.

  1. I just discovered your great blog and will surely read through more of your posts!
    In terms of video I agree people should use it more often – it helps to notice nuances in communication, facial expressions, etc, as you suggest. What we find with customers though is that they are using video more in the beginning when the tool is new, and then it goes back down again. I think that‘s because video also takes more mental energy, because it is so immersive.
    So there‘s no need to use video in very session, but when you know beforehand that the topic is going to be complex or emotional, or you talk to a person for a first time kicking-off a longer work relationship and you want to establish trust.
    About the tool mix, we have built Circuit so that it covers all relevant collaboration use cases: Voice, video, screen share, files, team chat and communities. Using multiple tools for collaboration to cover separate use cases, I believe you are spending too much time orchestrating instead of doing work, i.e. finding the PIN, searching for content across platforms, dealing with different interfaces, etc. It‘s also a matter of ROI: As a business, why pay for multiple tools when you can have one?

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