Passive Communication

Jul 20, 2018

BY NICK MARKS – DATA SCIENTIST II

One of the best aspects of my job is that I work remotely, and until recently, it was also one of the worst. I missed the incidental interactions that occurred during a typical office job. Yes, this included gossip, sports talk, and other so called “unproductive” activities; but I also missed the hallway, post-meeting, and over-cube conversations that had led to my best ideas in prior roles. As Elicit recognized the limitations of remote work, we took steps to overhaul our collective communication style. The result was better morale, but also an entirely unexpected boon to company productivity that I’ve dubbed “passive communication.”

Our team communicated over a ton of platforms[1]Email, text, iMessage, phone calls, GoToMeeting, Skype, Google Hangouts, and face-to-face when on site. I’m probably still missing a couple. and this was a problem for two reasons. First, we had to think about which forum was appropriate every time we sent a message—an unnecessary barrier to discourse. Second, silos of communication emerged. Subject to idiosyncratic preferences and interpersonal dynamics, members of the same project would often develop distinct communication channels for each teammate. This led to ridiculous scenarios where two data scientists would text about a problem, one would call the PM, who in turn emailed our COO. The “game of telephone” distorted content, dropped context along the way, and added unnecessary friction to every process. To solve for these problems, we implemented a policy of centralized communication on Slack, a team chat and collaboration platform.

It was with Slack that we discovered “passive communication.” In the application, each of our project teams communicates in a “channel”, and this completely changed the convoluted “game of telephone” scenario described earlier. Now, the analysts chat in the project channel instead of texting. Since this is visible to everyone on the project, both the PM and COO have full visibility to both the problem and the context, and chime in as needed. Time is saved, and all parties involved are better informed. The process also works in reverse. With data scientists now privy to the reasoning behind executive strategy, they’re empowered to make tactical decisions without consulting leadership.

As with all change, this didn’t happen overnight. Our team had to consciously work to communicate transparently in the project channels, and not default back to our old ways. Moreover, executives had to get used to checking in on project conversations. But as the benefits became apparent, adoption took off and the team became more informed and connected.

While we will never have chats over the cube walls or banter around the water cooler, we are creating opportunities for people to stay connected. Remote work isn’t for everyone, but by shifting communication toward transparent channels, remote companies can start to get the best of both worlds.

References
Gallup four-part series on remote work, and NYT article summary of the findings

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