As teams begin to return to work, increasing numbers will be working remotely at least in part. This is something that companies like WordPress, Buffer and Zapier have been doing for a while. Their experience can teach us a great deal and provide opportunities for innovation that will survive beyond Covid 19.
Buffer’s study on the State of Work in 2020 reported that 40% of remote workers surveyed cited lack of collaboration, communication, and loneliness as their biggest struggles. These factors can often lead to conflict within teams and, crucially, personal unhappiness. If this is not addressed early as part of everyday culture it quickly starts to fester and employees become harder to reach. The impact on productivity, communication, collaboration and mental health is pretty immediate and can quickly spiral.
What is clear, is that addressing this is not simply a question of copy-pasting what companies do offline to online. The need to do things differently can feel overwhelming and complicated but there are some simple practices that companies can start to adopt that can impact on culture immediately. Here are some of them ….
Re-think Communication Channels
One overwhelmingly common practice in established remote teams is the use of Slack. Slack is effectively a more efficient and sophisticated version of WhatsApp. It also includes private and public channels and direct messages. With a tool like Slack comes the best practice that Buffer adopts, namely Asynchronous Communication.
Asynchronous Communication is based on the premise that when operating remotely, we don’t necessarily work at the same time. Rather, Slack provides conversation channels that keep communications and decision making open. Threads keep participants to a topic but avoids the fragmentation that we see in emails.
But, with new communication channels the communication itself needs to be rethought and with that, best practices put in place.
Assume Positive Intent (API)
Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress and Automattic (the company behind WordPress.com, Jetpack, Tumblr WooCommerce, and WordPress VIP) promotes this as a “wise interpretive principle through which to view your exchanges”. It is a relatively simple concept to adopt and, when repeated through the organisation can create opportunities to transform communication.
We know that 90% of communication is non-verbal. So, the challenge is that the subtle nuances of face to face communication can get lost. API offers some way back to reclaim this communication. API simply put is a choice: you can read things in a way that expects the worst of people or you can interpret what people have to say as well-meaning. Equally, we need to consider how our outgoing messages may be misinterpreted without tone of voice and clarify our perspective or feelings about the situation for example, “I am not annoyed about this I am just wondering what the options are about how we are going to deal with it”
Review best practice Communication Norms
Many companies have understandably been reluctant and overwhelmed in moving to enforced remote working. But, dispersed organisations and teams have focused heavily on communication. Consequently their practices are often markedly better than those operating face to face. They enable communications to become clearer, safer and increase the potential for engagement and productivity.
From a purely practical perspective, there is a lot of information through Zapier, Buffer and other company blogs as to how to communicate efficiently remotely through online channels and particularly Slack. These are very focussed on efficiency and productivity and include:
- Be specific: be clear about exactly what you want people to do and by when
- Get to the point quickly
- Don’t use jargon and acronyms
- Use #hashtags to categorise your communication
- Make your communication searchable
Alongside these types of recommendations, consideration needs to be put to which channel is used for which type of communication. When we look at these communication channels, we start to see how real-life working frameworks translate into online working. This is particularly powerful in providing a structure and a set of safe spaces to communicate. Even when people start to move back to face to face working, the structure of these channels may be even more beneficial than traditional meeting formats.
It helps for companies to provide recommendations around communication channels. What this does is to help set expectations about the type of conversation people are entering. This is not simply to provide guidance but also encourage employees to think about the type of communication they are planning to have and the best way of having it. Buffer has set this out quite clearly as follows:
- Video chat: Zoom
- Team handbook: Notion
- Discussion and decision-making: Threads
- HR dashboard: Zenefits
- Security and password management Okta and 1Password
- Tracking time off: Timetastic
- Reviews and career conversations: CultureAmp
- Instant messaging and watercooler: Slack
- Achievement and recognition: Hey Taco
- Real-time collaboration: Dropbox, Paper
- Tasks, transparency and more: Trello
- Planning meetings: Calendly
What is important is not necessarily the channel used but the clarity about what we are communicating and how.
It is much easier to agree online because the communication is so paired down. Having said that the CEO of Zapier encourages his employees to disagree “More and more, I think conflict and dissent are critical elements to going faster, farther, and better,” he writes. “Disagreement is a feature and not a bug.”
Having said that disagreeing requires us to be vulnerable. We risk being wrong and in written communications it can be tougher still as we are wrong in black and white. So, whilst encouraging disagreement, organisations need to think more deeply and work harder at developing capacity to communicate effectively. This can be done in many ways including an effective weekly check in format. Paramount to this working is the ability to develop teams’ capacity for to understand and work through conflict. With that comes a need to build emotional intelligence and a commitment from the organisation and its people to develop that capacity.
Build a Collaborative Culture
Peter Drucker’s book “Culture eats strategy for lunch” is clear about the fact that to build culture you need to be prepared to have conversations that are messy. It is also clear that organisations that focus on culture outperform those who don’t.
The online community is astonishing in its willingness and capacity to share information. It is a culture in and of itself. Word Press was a pioneer in using and developing open source licenses which effectively allow people to copy source and do whatever they want with it. This approach is an example as well as a foundation of this culture..
Research into team behaviour carried out by Harvard Business Review into team behaviour at 15 multinational companies, clearly demonstrated that increased collaboration lead to increased success. However, it revealed that “although teams that are large, virtual, diverse, and composed of highly educated specialists are increasingly crucial with challenging projects, those same four characteristics make it hard for teams to get anything done. To put it another way, the qualities required for success are the same qualities that undermine success”. In particular, the research said that members of these types of teams were less likely to collaborate. In other words, although collaboration breeds success, many successful people are loathed to do it.
Further research was then carried out to isolate eight practices that correlated with success that fell into four general categories—executive support, HR practices, the strength of the team leader, and the structure of the team itself.
- Building and maintaining social relationships through the organisation with “signature practices” tailored to the particular organisation
- Modelling collaborative for example at Standard Chartered members of the general management committee will frequently serve as substitutes for one another and have the capacity to do that.
- Creating a “gift culture” which gives executives the role of ensuring that mentoring and coaching become embedded in their own routine behaviour. I would suggest that peer conflict coaching is a specific key element to this.
- Training in skills related to collaborative behaviour in which I would suggest, conflict resolution skills have a crucial role, and support for informal community building.
What is clear is that all the practices that seem to work to build teams require risk and vulnerability. The New Normal is not just about a change in process and practice, it is not just about ticking boxes relating to process. Rather, it is about deciding to commit to a culture that values ongoing learning and education and that is willing to build the capacity for emotional intelligence within the organisation. The results are clear: innovation, productivity and an organisation which is in good mental health.
Louisa Weinstein – Author of The 7 Principles of Conflict Resolution & Mediator & Trainer at The Conflict Resolution Centre