Best Practices for Remote Work Communication Systems

Best Practices for Remote Work Communication Systems

Remote organizations have a clear critical dependence on their communication systems and while the specific tools can vary over time and/or between organizations there are some best practices that will improve any company's ability to share and effectively leverage the knowledge they have. This article highlights three key practices of preemptive communication in order to promote collaboration via remote work.

1) Authorizing an open single source of truth

2) Maintaining work process artifacts

3) Empowering individual authority

These are independent practices and while each is useful on its own, but when implemented together they allow organizations to dramatically improve their capacity for asynchronous collaboration, meaning the limitation of real time interactions, by actively decoupling (or separating) individuals from the information they possess*.

*Note that an implicit assumption here is that people are significantly more than the information they hold. Therefore, while this aim to decouple people from information relaxes one dimension of reliance, it does not suggest that individuals are interchangeable.

Authorizing an Open Single Source of Truth

The idea of a single source of truth is something that has been widely discussed as a beneficial method to produce the consistent up-to-date use of shared material. While a useful habit for any organization, remote companies may find additional communication benefits as a result of leveraging this practice. One way to think about authorizing an open single source of truth is that it encourages the movement of communication from (what is often) a dyadic outcome-based projection to a series of public, regular, and frequent in-progress updates. This could look like norms shifting to a time-paced updating of information (i.e., posting an end of day status summary) and away from a project team sharing a finalized report at the completion of a milestone. Specific enactments will vary with work stage and task characteristics, but the idea is to eliminate team (or group, or individual) specific information which withholds access until work is "presentable". The documentation requirements on each individual to sustain this practice are not trivial, but the time required is balanced by the ability of others to search broadly, locate needed information, and act independently. As such the interruptions of "quick questions" will be significantly mitigated. Furthermore, authorizing an open single source of truth allows those who are interested to build a richer picture of the organization including their relative position, follow topics they may not be currently assigned to but have an interest in, or contribute in unexpected way such as identifying potential interdependencies or disconnected divergent strategies.

Ideally, there would be no technical restrictions (nonetheless normative social expectations would play a significant role) on the ability of any person in the organization to access, comment on, or even edit the current work of another individual. However, realistically speaking constraints will be established; for instance, software companies probably do not want their source code to be open for an accidental edit when a curious marketing person is clicking around (restriction here on the ability to edit, not necessarily the access). Similarly, most organizations would set constraints on access to the personnel files of individuals maintained by HR as well as private data about those going through the hiring process. That being said a core aspect of authorizing an open single source of truth is placing a high value on transparency and the default for access to information and communication records is intended to be open, with permission restrictions applied where deemed necessary. This is in contrast to a system which grants access as needed.

The practice of authorizing an open single source of truth also calls for the entire organization to leverage a unified information system. This is important so that when searching for needed information, an individual will know where to go logistically to look, then how to navigate. Often different functional roles use unique tools to produce and utilize information, which can be linked into an overarching system with a statement about what is being done, this would be sufficient for most individuals. Additionally, as is common with the general concept of a single source of truth infrastructure, each piece of information is generated (or at least shared) using version control and cloud storage which strongly discourages (if not prevents) individuals from creating divergent private versions. By authorizing an open single source of truth organizations provide access to a complete (or close) and up-to-date snapshot of the organization, this in turn provides the foundation for efficient and effective organizational communication.

Maintaining Process Artifacts

The practice of maintaining process artifacts is perhaps the most challenging (or original) for many, but if done well is able to meaningfully mitigate the misunderstandings common when communication is technology-mediated. It is essentially the explicit tracking of decisions throughout the process, requiring the regular documentation of work and discussions. One key aspect of this practice is that these process artifacts are not organized by individuals but rather by topic, or decision. A second important distinction is that it is not sufficient to simply record final outcomes/decisions. The practice of maintaining process artifacts relies on the making available the full work process (i.e., experiments, debates). As such, there should only be additive content, meaning no going back to delete prior thoughts that have now evolved. This allows for the production and preservation of a rich shared context whenever an individual access this information and independent of their prior knowledge.

The practice of maintaining process artifacts can be achieved in a variety of ways. For instance, if code is being developed in a git-based system all of the prior work will be saved in the version history, by itself this is not sufficient to claim use of the maintaining process artifacts practice. However, if context is added along with the functional code, either through embedded additive comments or attached issue-based discussions then a future individual would not only be able to understand how the code changed, but why and what else was discussed or attempted. The use of topic specific communication threads is a critical element (easily enabled by tools like Twist).

While the use of tools that temporally structure communication (think Slack) can be used; they require significant modification to their default use patterns in order to support the maintenance of process artifacts. To leverage a Slack type platform (or even Zoom) one possible sequence is to imagine that as a significant decision or contested discussion emerges it triggers a secondary documentation routine where key information is then transferred into a database, such as a handbook. However, it is likely that this second step will be perceived as cumbersome and a high level of passive monitoring would be required to develop and sustain such a norm. Furthermore, the decreasing visibility of these temporally structured forms of communication could lead to the more permanent version vulnerable to impression management edits as well as a general dissipation in effort which would act to reduce the richness of information being maintained. The documentation of conversations, through the use of items like summary documents stored in file sharing system, is possible to use in conjunction with synchronous communication, but requires the development of additional practices. Therefore, when developing the practice of maintaining process artifacts, the selection of what tools and how they are used is going to be essential for adoption.

Empowering Individual Authority

The practice of empowering individual authority is based on the self-directed discovery of information across organization. The idea that each individual is trusted and has the authority to act as they see fit to do their job. This does not mean someone can go off for months doing whatever they feel like. Instead, it supports day to day activities to continue, without the bottleneck of bureaucracy. While individuals are entrusted to make decisions, they do so knowing it will be reviewed in time. This pattern of action supports the flow of knowledge and "bottom-up" innovation. Empowering individual authority is a communication style allowing each individual to share knowledge, ask questions, gather information, and then set a plan of action. This is then articulated in a way that provides the context needed, notifies those who are impacted, and is open to feedback.

With the implementation of this practice the norms for seeking information shift to a dependency on tools rather than relying on conversations with other people. As such the pace of monitoring actions is decoupled from actual decisions made. With regularly focused communication (i.e., weekly check ins) and more frequent indirect verification (i.e., awareness of conversation in group chats) along with each individual holding an informed context any potential issues should be caught early. Importantly, this practice removes the constraints of waiting for permission prior to taking action. A necessity for empowering individual authority is that each individual has a significant cross organizational awareness including an understanding of strategic priorities and their tasks relation to them.

One example of this in action is when developers are given an outcome goal, with no direction on how to accomplish it, they write the code and then push it for review. It is possible to imagine a scenario of work where there is very little interdependence and the code is sent and relatively quickly approved to merge. However, it is also conceivable that the way (say a backend) engineer chooses to modify something has significant impacts on numerous other elements of operation. In this case, that engineer would have the authority to act as they deem most appropriate but part of that process would have been to engage with peers seeking feedback, or explore with what, how, and to what degree their potential solution interacts with other aspects. A second example is the implementation of a marketing campaign centering on the release of a new brand-based hashtag, a potentially more strategic decision. This is something where monitoring and approval is warranted. Yet, instead of a meeting, where hopefully no one was misses, and numerous opinions are being expressed in an attempt to reach a consensus, by empowering individual authority action can be taken and an information made available by the person ultimately accountable for the campaign. Additionally, each person who intersects with the campaign is also responsible for engaging with the information being shared. However, the potential for blind spots, particularly in highly interdependent situations is real, and the intent of authorizing action is not to have people move forward without consideration. One way to encourage big picture reasoning is through the structural design of organizations, which suggests potential overlap. Additionally, by examining the chain of authority (likely a traditional hierarchy), insight is available for who may be able to provide guidance if needed. This is important because while the pacing of monitoring is separated from granting authority to act, it is not eliminated, and a plan which is poorly thought out will be scrutinized.

As an organization implements this practice of empowering individual authority each individual is pushed to take responsibility for their work and how it impacts the whole. The ability to have that larger context and understand the interdependencies is enabled by authorizing an open single source of truth and maintaining process artifacts. Although these practices can be implemented individually their full strength is in them all working together. An effective communication system, such as the one created by these three practices, is essential for remote organizations. It is possible to implement these with a variety of tools (both those available commercially as well as options that are developed in house); it is how the tools are used that is most important. Applications such as Slack can be utilized as part of a communication stack which enables these practices, or it can be used in ways that are unproductive and distracting.

The benefits of removing the need for (this does not mean they can not happen by choice at times) real-time interactions include the increase in opportunities for a truly global distribution of employees. When meetings are relied upon to communicate information then time zone overlaps become mandatory. Additionally, these practices promote "deep work" allowing individuals to block off uninterrupted time. When a person (and not an information system) is the holder of information it may be difficult for them to maintain any significant amount of uninterrupted time. Furthermore, this ability to step away as needed can extend to personal needs (e.g., caregivers or those who are chronically ill). While the vast majority of remote organizations are already providing more flexibility than in-office work, there is distribution in this level of flexibility, and removing the need (again this does not mean it can not happen, just that it is not required) to communicate with individuals by establishing practices of preemptive communication allows individual flexibility to be maximized.

At the organization level if companies utilize these practices (as well as a complimentary tool stack) they will likely be able to scale the organization rapidly. Of course, there are specific structures and behaviors that have to adjust to growth, but the principles behind these practices and the type of systemized workflow that is produced is a key element of what organizations have to build when they want to expand. By employing these practices early on companies will have a solid foundation.

The design of organizational structures and practices are based on a number of tradeoffs unique to each organization. It is important to note that the blind copying of practices from other companies will likely fail. Instead it can be more useful to aim at an understanding of the principle behind why specific practices were developed and tools implemented and then to see how those concepts can be integrated into another organization.

Multiple exemplary remote companies have shared their communication tactics in blog posts, podcasts interviews, and conference presentations. One resource to actively engage with leaders on this topic is the Running Remote Conference, where those who operate remote-first organizations share what they have learned. Past examples include the keynotes by Doist CEO and founder Amir Salifefendic and Gitlab founder Dmitry Zaporozhets at Running Remote 2018, while upcoming opportunities include talks by Wade Foster the CEO and co-founder of Zapier as well as Lori McLeese the Global Head of HR at Automattic taking place at Running Remote 2020 on September 2-3 in Austin, Texas.

On April 20 they're organizing Remote Aid - a charity online event aimed at helping organisations to set up remote work management practices from scratch.

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