We can get away with having lazy communication practices in a co-located team or single building environment. In a co-located team we have accidents and chance encounters that help fill in the gap that exists without a proactive communication plan. In a single work building, we can expect to run into coworkers from different departments and perhaps discuss some of the things we are working on. It isn’t perfect, but it can work.
They are just accidents. There is no guarantee that your co-located team will be struck by innovation while running into someone in the bathroom. Many companies rely on those accidents a bit too much. They do nothing to encourage them, in fact, they sometimes even work to hinder them through rules governing breaks, idle chit-chat, or overbearing management presence.
Those accidents and chance encounters are very often cited as a reason to not allow remote working. At the top of the list seems to be:
Companies fear the loss of innovation potential that chance encounters at work can bring.
There is a sense of irony in that comment above. Your innovation strategy relies on pure accidental encounters. Great innovation can certainly happen on accident, but it may explain why companies rise and then began to fall after their peak decades earlier, perhaps only sustaining themselves through acquisitions of more innovative companies. The accidents aren’t guaranteed and most people only offer vague references to innovative moments gained through so-called “watercooler moments”.
There aren’t teams of people having huge epiphanies while standing in the breakroom at work chatting with coworkers. The specific moments are much smaller in scale and far less profound. The encounters do sometimes still have benefits, but those benefits are still accidental. For each accidental benefit granted through a “watercooler moment”, how many opportunities are lost? Why aren’t we concerned with those lost opportunities? (Osmotic Communication: Flawed Communication Practices)
Getting rid of its telecommuting workforce isn’t going to bring Yahoo back to its glory days. It has been several years since Yahoo brought its remote workers back into the office and it hasn’t happened yet. Yahoo’s problem isn’t a remote workforce.
Stop Being Lazy
We plan everything, often we over-plan. Except we don’t plan enough on how we are going to communicate with each other. We rely on lazy and random communication to get things done. A project may have a communication plan, but most projects I have seen only focus on how to report project status.
What about the members of your project team? How should they handle communication? How are the project manager, project sponsor, and business analyst supposed to communicate with the team or with each other? Do they need to communicate with each other? Under what conditions should meetings be made, so we can avoid the tendency of some people who like to load up meetings on the developers in a project?
These are not just questions for a telecommuting team, but you can get away with not answering most of them for a single building team. Not answering them (and many more) for a distributed team makes a day full of meetings, little time to do actual work, and people getting annoyed because they need an urgent meeting right now but no one has the same time available because they are all in other meetings.
I have honestly been on a project as a Business Analyst where my entire conversation with the Project Manager consisted of one instant messaging conversation where I both “met” the Project Manager and answered one question (She wanted to know what my role was on the project). I couldn’t fault here for the communication issue, she was tossed on the project to just track the project progress and she had absolutely no other involvement in the project. She wasn’t even told what the point of the project was because she didn’t need to know. (That is, by the way, what some companies view as “being Agile” – the Project Manager becomes a secretary with no additional involvement and it becomes 1 of 20 projects they are tracking. I have been a Project Manager on projects like that as well. It can work fine, but it is rarely agile.)
Levels of Communication
Many organizations have no communication plan outside of a project. A manager dictates to their staff what they want, and if you are lucky that is the only person you have to appease. Different departments wanting the same information in their particular format seems to be a rampant problem in larger organizations.
When it comes to communication, it should be considered on the appropriate level.
- Interpersonal: Individual communication. Interpersonal communication should be more fluid. Organizations should not try to discourage it, but in fact, should encourage it. It may or may not be business related.
- Team: Communication that is intended for the whole team or a majority of the team. Communication plans should be decided on a team level by the team.
- Multi-Team Communication: Multiple teams communicating together within the same department. This communication plan should be worked out through a collaborative effort among representatives from the teams.
- Multidepartmental and Organizational: Communication between multiple departments. This communication plan should be facilitated by the highest levels of leaders or management. It should include representatives from the departments. Things that should be considered – standardized formats to common types of communication or reports.
Communication plans include generic agreements about how the people in the organization will interact. It should include some establishment of “idle” chit-chat time. Most importantly, it should help guide the team into becoming a more cohesive unit. See this article, The Watercooler Moments: 8 Tips for Remote Workers, for some ideas on things to include.
What is missing is a team collaborating together to decide on the best course of action to communicate. Agile should never mean leaderless teams. Someone needs to help bring in the focus and encourage emergent leadership to develop (because it doesn’t always do that on its own and it can sometimes be extremely chaotic when it does). That person also needs to encourage the development of a communication plan to govern the team member’s interactions and avoid as much as possible the lazy communication practices.
These plans should not be isolated to specific teams either. They need to take into account outside the team communication and refrain from placing too many constraints on the information they receive. Adding restraints and rules dictating proper graphical format, for example, is just asking for the communication to be spotty and probably not as complete as it could be – especially when multiple departments want the same information in different formats.
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