Sunny

Do you have the numbers ready for the 9:30 Zoom with Sydney?

Me
The updated Google Sheet is already shared with the full team.
But is that 9:30 PST? The text message from Roberto wasn’t clear on the timezone.

Sunny
Didn’t you get the meeting invitation via e-mail last night?

Me
I haven’t checked e-mail. Just got through notifications on Asana and mentions here in Slack.

Sunny
I’m looking at your Google Sheet now. Where are the projections for Q1 of next fiscal year?

Me
I thought we decided we were only going to Q4?

Sunny
Really?

Me
Yes, I’m trying to remember … where was that?
Wasn’t that Roberto’s recommendation in a Comment he made on an older version of the spreadsheet?
Maybe the original Excel e-mail attachment?

Sunny
That’s not what I understood from my Skype chat with him yesterday.

Me
Well, if it’s 9:30 PST, I’ll have time to put in Q1.
Gotta go! getting a call from Joe on my mobile…

Have you had any work exchanges like that? In an era of distributed work and virtual teams, communication is often splintered across many channels, making it enormously challenging to manage. While we’re admonished to deal with the digital deluge by turning off push notifications, that at best gives us a bit of distraction-free “maker time” in which we can focus our attention in order to be maximally productive. That’s no small benefit, but it still doesn’t address the underlying inefficiencies engendered by fractured multi-channel communication: miscommunication and misunderstandings stemming from the mismatch between the message and the medium, “dropped balls” due to missed messages, and an inability to find key information quickly (or at all) resulting from having communication spread over multiple channels.

So what to do? Following is a three-step process for dealing with communications chaos.

Simplify

A first step is to consider whether your organization needs to be using all of the channels it currently is. Do you really need both WhatsApp and Slack? Can you drop Discord and just use Microsoft Teams to consolidate synchronous messaging? Can we all finally stop using faxes?

Clarify

Of course, each communication platform has its advantages and limitations, so there may be good reasons you’re still using them. (Except for faxes. Stop it. Really.) Given that you’ll always have multiple channels available for your employees to use, the most significant step you can take is to clarify which channels are most appropriate for which type of communication. To think this through, here are the key factors to consider:

Purpose

What’s the reason for sending the message? Common categories in the workplace include:

  • Delegating work
  • Clarifying delegated work
  • Announcing information
  • Asking a question
  • Solving a problem
  • Making a decision
  • Providing performance feedback

Audience-Primary

Who is the intended audience for the message? Which primary stakeholder(s) must receive it? Common recipient types include:

  • Task assignee / requestor
  • Project lead / sponsor / team
  • Team / department / workgroup / division
  • Entire organization

Audience-Secondary

Are there secondary stakeholders who may benefit from having access to its contents? Can you facilitate its availability to that secondary audience without it becoming an interruption or unnecessarily adding to their information load?

Urgency

How quickly must the topic of the message be communicated to its primary audience?

Sensitivity

How sensitive or confidential are the contents of the message? Are the privacy, legal, or regulatory concerns in sharing it widely?

Format

What does the combination of communication Purpose, Audience, Urgency, and Sensitivity suggest about the most appropriate format for communication? Is it a routine announcement that can be efficiently communicated via a short written note? Is it a complex issue that requires a long-form written explanation? Is the emotional content important, so a voice or video recording will be most likely to convey the appropriate tone? Is it a nuanced issue likely to end up in misunderstanding if not done via synchronous videoconferencing where mutual nonverbal cues can be communicated? Common communication formats include:

  • Short-form text: A quick text/e-mail/instant message post or thread, …
  • Long-form text: A long e-mail, shared document, group discussion, project/task breakdown…
  • Voice message: Recorded voicemail, audio post or attachment, …
  • Video message: Recorded video post or attachment, …
  • Audio/video conference: Synchronous individual or group call, …

Channel

Of the available channels for communication, which is the most appropriate given the preceding considerations? Platforms vary widely by company, but typical categories include:

  • Audio and video conferencing: Individual and group telephone and video conferencing via Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, FaceTime, Skype, …
  • Text/Instant Messaging: Individual and group chat via SMS, WhatsApp / Skype / Facebook Messenger, …
  • Chat Rooms: Individual and channel-based chat platforms like Slack, Discord, …
  • E-mail: Individual and group messages on GSuite, Exchange, …
  • Intranet Forums: Announcement-only and open threads on internal blogs, bulletin boards, discussion forums, wikis, …
  • Project/Task Discussions: Task & project-level discussion threads in collaborative project management apps like Asana, ClickUp, …
  • Document Comments: Document-level comment threads in collaborative office suites like Google Docs / Sheets / Slides and Microsoft Office Word / Excel / PowerPoint Online, …

Each of these platform types has a differing suitability for different combinations of Purpose, Urgency, Sensitivity, and Format.

Response Expectation

Given the Purpose of the message, what organizational expectations should you have for a response from the primary audience? This will vary among the following depending on the Purpose of the communication.

  • None: No response is wanted. For blast e-mail announcements, a Reply All typically is perceived as noise by most recipients and therefore frowned upon.
  • Explicit: No response from the recipient is expected unless explicitly called for in the message. Typical for “FYI” messages.
  • Implicit: A response from the recipient is implicitly expected.

Response Time

If a response is expected, what organizational expectation should you have for how quickly a response is sent? Again, this will vary from “ASAP” to some number of business hours or business days depending on the Purpose and Urgency of the communication.

Communicate

If your organization is suffering from splintered communication, defining organizational expectations given the previous considerations and communicating those expectations as clear guidelines to employees can pay dividends. How you go about doing that should depend on the size and culture of your organization, but summarizing it in written form will allow you to more easily orient new hires to company expectations during employee on-boarding and use it as an ongoing guide to coordinate organizational communication. The sample guideline provided below, which synthesizes the factors in the previous section into a decision matrix with examples of common combinations, can be used as a template for an organizational communication policy.

 


MyCo Communication Guidelines

Overview

Open, timely, accurate, and respectful communication is a foundation for success in any relationship and is especially important in a distributed team crossing multiple time zones and cultures. At the same time, preserving interruption and distraction-free “maker time” is essential for individual productivity.

This guideline establishes basic recommendations for communication. Its contents are intended to facilitate, not impede, communication, so use your judgment!

Conduct

The principles of conduct to which MyCo team members employees should aspire when communicating with others are grounded in common standards of professionalism and in our core values.  All MyCo-related communication should comply with commonly accepted standards of network etiquette (“netiquette”), including avoidance of spamming, flaming, and sending chain letters and the general guidelines presented in such articles as Internet RFC 1855 and Virginia Shea’s book, Netiquette.

Recommendations

Factors Recommendations
Purpose Urgency Sensitivity Audience (Primary) Audience (Secondary) Format Channel Response Expectation Response Time
Delegate work normal normal assignee any Task assignment Asana project explicit <1 business day
Clarify or provide updates on delegated work normal normal assigner any Comment on task Asana project implicit <1 business day
Schedule meeting normal any attendees N/A Meeting invitation e-mail implicit <1 business day
Collaborate on work product normal any assignees any Short-form text Google Doc Comments implicit <1 business day
Announce information normal normal team ≥ some Short-form or long-form text Relevant Slack channel explicit <1 business day
Announce information normal normal individual(s) ≤ limited Short-form or long-form text E-mail to individual(s) explicit <1 business day
Ask general question normal normal team ≥ some Short-form or long-form text Relevant Slack channel implicit <1 business day
Ask general question any sensitive individual(s) any audio/video conference Scheduled audio/video call implicit synchronous
Solve complex problem jointly any any individual(s) any audio/video conference Scheduled audio/video call implicit synchronous
Make important decision any any any any audio/video conference Scheduled audio/video call implicit synchronous

Key

Purpose Why is the communication being initiated?
Audience (Primary) To whom is the message directed? Which primary stakeholder(s) must receive it?
Audience (Secondary) To what extent does the message have potential relevance to other stakeholders (inverse of message being considered “noise” by recipients)? None / Limited / Some / Significant
Urgency How quickly must the topic of the message be communicated to its primary audience? Low / Normal / Elevated / Critical
Sensitivity How sensitive or confidential are the contents of the message? Are the privacy, legal, or regulatory concerns in sharing it widely? Normal / Sensitive
Format What does the combination of communication Purpose, Audience, Urgency, and Sensitivity suggest about the most appropriate format for communication?
Channel Which available channel best suits the communication given the prior factors?
Response Expectation Given the Purpose of the message, is a response from the Audience expected?

None: No response from Audience expected or desired.

Explicit: No response from Audience expected unless explicitly called for in the message.

Implicit: Response from Audience implicitly expected in messages of this kind.

Response Time If a response is expected, how quickly should the Audience reply so as to not be considered “tardy”? (Business day understood as working hours/days of audience.)

Conventions

  • Dates: We are an international team with differing local date conventions. When specifying dates to other team members in writing, prefer ISO 8601 format.
  • Times: We are distributed team crossing multiple time zones. When specifying times to other team members, always include the timezone. Prefer 24-hour time notation. If not using 24-hour time, always specify AM/PM.