We don't work together in an office, many of us not even in the same country. We're spread across teams and time zones. While that provides us with enormous flexibility, it also has its drawbacks. Chief among them: we lose the advantages of in-person awareness and communication. We rely on digital communications for this company to work, but we had a problem: we weren't communicating well — or smartly.
When you work in an office, communication is easy. You can see what your coworkers are up to, when they're heads-down working on something, when they're in a meeting or on the phone. But when they're on another continent, working long hours, and always logged on to a chat platform… that awareness disappears. When we communicate almost exclusively through chat messages, we do so poorly and selfishly. We're sending when it's most convenient for ourselves; it might be a bad time for the recipient, but they're getting a ping.
The deluge of notifications is nonstop. In the past several years it's become so extreme that we've been mentally reprogrammed by our phones — we don't even wait for the phone to buzz, the draw of the notification addiction is so strong that we're checking our phones every few minutes regardless. This mental distraction cuts into our ability to focus and do the work that we creators, makers, coders, and builders do.
We're driven to distraction through bite-size engagements. Twitter, Slack, Snapchat, reddit, etc., they're all cutting into our day and killing the ability to focus and get work done. These notifications demand immediate action, when in reality it's likely not that important. Replying quickly generates a dialog that can easily evolve into a conversation — conversations are good, but they can also be enormous time sucks.
It's too easy to have a chat in Slack or Hangouts, feel like you've made decisions, and in the end not accomplish much (or anything).
And then there's the simple matter of communicating poorly leading to a lack of accountability. It's too easy to have a chat in Slack or Hangouts, feel like you've made decisions, and in the end not accomplish much (or anything). Projects assigned via Slack chats are forgotten. Meetings that are wrapped up without notes may well have not happened.
We've grown as a company significantly over the past few years. Our headcount grew by 40% in 2016, we adopted new technologies, and expanded our coverage and business to new areas. But a growth in headcount never results in a linear growth in productivity — in fact, the more people you have on staff, the less productive the team becomes per person. Communication and management overhead turns producers into managers.
So we had two problems to solve: notifications that never stop and picking the correct medium of communication.
Time to get work done
Over our 15+ year company history, we've used many different forms of digital communication to bridge the distance gap between us. From ICQ to AOL Messenger to BBM to Skype to Campfire to Hangouts and most recently to Slack, which we were early adopters of. If you're a Slack user, you're probably like many of us on the team - you absolutely love it and hate it all at once.
Don't get me wrong, Slack is a great and ever-improving tool, but it's also possibly the worst offender when it comes to notification overload. As a company, we felt like we were becoming slaves to Slack, spending increasingly more time "Slacking" with less time going into work to be done.
So we borrowed a concept from Googler Jeremiah Dillon: Make Time.
We've adopted this into a company-wide Slack quiet time from 9AM to 1PM U.S. Eastern Time. Except for essential and urgent communications, Slack should basically be a ghost town during these hours. This allows our writers and developers to go heads-down without concern of needless interruption, and through our Trello planning process they already know what it is they need to get done that day.
It required a change in mindset, and even rescheduling of several recurring meetings to move after those hours, but it's also had a positive effect on our productivity and morale. We're forced to ask ourselves if the question can wait for a few hours, and often it can. When we hold ourselves to these quiet time hours, we're able to minimize distraction and diversion and we're getting more done and better.
The right message in the right place
I'm hardcore about business communications. From my college education to founding CrackBerry.com to authoring one of the earliest books about our addiction to smartphones and notifications, communication has been at the core of much of what I've done. And for many years we've been doing communication poorly and in the wrong place.
As much as Smartphones and push email liberated us from our desks so we could work anywhere, it also ruined what was great about email. The expectation used to be that you'd get a reply to an email within 24 hours, but as email got faster people started replying faster and with shorter messages, effectively turning email into chat conversations, which it simply was never designed to do. That's why we've seen such a big adoption of Slack by companies and teams, because it's much better designed to handle this type of free-flowing communication which so companies we're still handling via email.
Ironically, as much as Slack felt like a solution to the email problem when we first rolled it out, with time we found we needed a solution for Slack overload which we found again in email. In addition to recognizing when to communicate, we had to define where to communicate. This boils down to the concept of real-time versus own-time communications.
Real time is chat (at Mobile Nations, that's Slack). It's for when immediately responses are required, for hashing out problems with a small team, ongoing project execution dialog, and for a few of our teams — News and Deals, for example — that require real-time communications to operate effectively.
Own time is email. Yes, email. It still has a vital role in 2017, and in the most basic sense it's for messages that don't need an immediate response. In a word, email is asynchronous. This can be project proposals, assignments, team updates, meeting notes, submitting expense reports, including outside parties, etc.
"I do love email. Wherever possible I try to communicate asynchronously. I'm really good at email."
— Elon Musk
Email has the added benefit of being an open protocol — it works on every version of every platform, between the multitude of service providers, and with any client you want. Everybody has it, everybody uses it. Email is universal and universally compatible.
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, founder of PayPal and SpaceX, is an evangelist for email. He's a busy guy, after all, and between running two high-tech firms (and building neural nets and digging tunnels and everything else he has going on), email is his go-to communications tool. He told Mashable: "I do love email. Wherever possible I try to communicate asynchronously. I'm really good at email."
Taming the chat beast
We need to differentiate between real time and own time communications and where each belongs.
With multiple teams, properties, and projects all under one roof, our company-wide Slack is simply too active for anybody to be subscribed to and notified from all channels at all times. We might be attached to or have an interest in something happening in the company, but there are only a few channels — or even one — that require your active attention. Most can even get by only checking in frequently throughout the day to catch up on missed messages.
Notifications: There's a reason that Slack has mentions, DMs, and even voice and video calls. You don't need to be pinged for every message in every channel. Slack's @channel, @here, and @group mentions should be used thoughtfully — you're going to be interrupting several people at once, after all. It's the equivalent of walking into a group office and shouting "Everybody stop what you're doing right now and listen to me!" So make it worth it, especially since as a virtual company you're probably not calling everybody into the break room for donuts.
The Right Channels: It's very easy for Slack channels to proliferate. At Mobile Nations we have channels for each site, channels for various tasks, teams, projects, and groups. While we encourage and embrace transparency across the company, at the same time very few people need to be in every channel. Unless you have a reason to regularly be following the conversation in a channel, it's okay to leave it — you can always come back later if necessary.
Company Channels: There are three company-wide channels, each with a notably different purpose.
- Announcements is essentially the office PA system — everybody is subscribed to notifications and it's used for company-wide, well, announcements. And unless it's time critical, Announcements posts should be saved for post-quiet hours. Of course, with everybody subscribed, notification overload could become a problem, so threads are encouraged.
- Bulletin Board serves for lower-level announcements, the kind that don't require immediate attention. Articles to share, requests for feedback, and the like. As these aren't critical messages, notifications needn't be turned on. Think of it like the office cork board in the break room.
- Off Topic exists as the virtual water cooler. It's important for us to develop bonds around things other than work; and let's be honest, you're never going to stop people from chatting. By setting aside a channel we can make sure it doesn't interfere with our work while also letting our company culture and relationships flourish.
Threads: Threads are a great way to enable dialog in Slack while compartmentalizing it to avoid notification overflow. Take the example of a happy birthday message: replying in the thread lets you express your birthday wishes without cluttering the channel with yet another "Happy Birthday!" message.
Emoji Reactions: Hand-in-hand with threads in minimizing unnecessary messages, Slack's emoji reactions are a great way to request acknowledgement of a message without causing clutter.
Doing it the right way
While back in the early days we communicated a lot via email. While Slack has replaced email for those real-time communications in Mobile Nations, email is still a very important, powerful, and effective tool — at least when used intelligently.
Email is still a very important, powerful, and effective tool — at least when used intelligently.
One of the things we've done is adopted an email tool called Timyo for our team leads, executives, site managers, and other leaders. (Disclosure: Mobile Nations is invested in Timyo, but that's because we like it). Used as an extension with Gmail, Outlook, Office 365 and with standalone iOS and Android apps, Timyo allows the sender easily and clearly communicate expectations from an email — who needs to respond, who needs to take action, who just needs to read it, and when. Timyo matches up with the expectations of heavy email users in a way that few other services do.
And if the recipient is also using Timyo, their inbox sorts received emails from other Timyo users by priority. Ambiguity is pretty much eliminated when both parties are using Timyo. It fixes one of the biggest problems with email in a way that chat platforms like Slack never could.
Because changing the way you do email is kind of a big ask, we trialled Timyo with a small part of our team before rolling it out company-wide. The more people on a team that use it, the better it works.
Speaking of Gmail extensions, I'm a big fan of Giphy. Text, be it email or Slack or a long post on Medium, has always struggled to convey the emotional intent of the writer. Imagery, on the other hand, is a lot better at that. At Mobile Nations, despite all of the serious business we have to do, we love to have fun with all of it. What good is spending your day writing about the latest gadgets if you're not having fun with it? Adding a gif or two to an email as and where appropriate helps to keep that fun going even in the admittedly staid environment of email.
Getting in some face time
Enough about text. Let's talk about meetings as a virtual company. Taking the time to sit down and talk face to face about current projects, or even just regular status updates, is vitally important. It helps build camaraderie and culture in a way that chat just can't. But we're dozens of people spread across the globe, so our meetings have by necessity gone virtual.
We use a few different tools for video call meetings, and it depends on the nature of the meeting. If it's something impromptu and short, firing up a Slack or Skype video call is an acceptable option. If the meeting is planned and longer, such as our recurring site outline calls or trade show planning meetings, it should take place in Google Hangouts, which allows for a permanent URL for meetings that you can add to the calendar appointment.
Without notes, the meeting may well have not even happened.
Regardless of where the meeting takes place, there's one thing that has to happen: the team leader (or somebody they designate) must take notes and send then in an email to the team. These notes should included clearly denoted action items: what needs to happen, who needs to do it, and by when. Without these notes, there's no record of what was discussed in the meeting, what was decided, and who is responsible for what.
Without notes, the meeting may well have not even happened.
The right message, in the right spot, at the right time
To boil it down, there are four key points to how we've improved communication at Mobile Nations.
- Quiet Time: By enforcing daily hours of limited communication, we've enabled our creators to focus on getting more work done.
- Slack: A great tool for real-time communications, with useful tools in reactions, threads, and notifications. Works best when everybody on the team learns to use it the same way and obeys some friendly policies.
- Email: Own-time communication still has a place in 2017, and is enhanced with Timyo by providing clear expectations around what kind of an action/response is needed and by what time.
- Meetings: Whether on Slack or Skype or Hangouts, notes with action items ensure that they don't happen in a vacuum.
Of course, all of this only works when you have buy-in from the entire team. These principles can't just be guidelines or even rules — they must be sacred. Effective, efficient, and deliberate communication must be a core value of the company. After all, our job is communicating to the outside world, so we better be good at it internally too.
A look behind the curtain
Mobile Nations How We Work
This is only the first in a look at how Mobile Nations operates. I picked communication because it's something I'm super passionate about, but there's plenty more about how we work that we want to share. From the tools we use to our best practices for working from home, there's a lot to cover.
I want to know what you're most interested in when it comes to the behind-the-scenes of Mobile Nations. Drop a note in the comments here or ping me on Twitter @kevinmichaluk with your thoughts on this and future Mobile Nations How We Work installments!
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