Thoughts on communication in remote, growing companies

TENSION

As the number of people we work with grows the number of communications between them greatly increases. In order to keep focus to get our tasks done each of us creates a strategy for coping with the communication overwhelm, such as; optimize availability (allow interruption), optimize current task (notifications off), respond selectively (reply based on what content is).

While the strategies each fit the goals of each individual they can be at odds with progressing collaborative goals forward. If I require the attention of one or more people for a decision to be made its likely I’ll need to create a meeting. However as the company grows this can lead to people constantly being in meetings. Which in turn means that more people will move to the strategy of optimizing the current task (aka current meeting they are in). Which in turn means there attention is less available for ad hoc conversations. etc. Likewise if i optimize for availability eventually there will be a point where I am no longer able to complete my primary task.

This leads to 3 things increasing (none of which is good); response times for 1:1 messages, messages on group channels without responses, and number of meetings. This may show up in other places too such as For developers code review requests without reviewers. In each case there is an increase in the attention need by the originator to ensure that others’ attention is adequately on the subject. Although more obviously true for meetings we cannot expect to be able to increase these sustainably.

REFLECTIVE ANECDOTE

As I think about the strategies I use often it is to optimize my availability, yet not all the time. When I am in an meeting i will optimize my attention on that. When I don’t know how to respond to something I will not respond at all effectively becoming a selective nonresponder.

The question I put forth to myself is: How can I make myself even more reliably available?

I believe the answer is to practice selective participation in an explicit and public way. If there is a channel I do not need to be in, I remove myself from it. If I cannot provide context on a pull request review I remove myself. If I do not know how to respond to a question I say so and provide a time when i will come back or I redirect the query to someone who might be able to answer.

The important part here is that I communicate that I will not be available for this discourse. In this context simply removing myself from a slack channel or as am assigned reviewer on a code review request is a communication, although sometimes saying so directly will be needed.

Hypothesis

While I could say that everyone should just do what I am doing, I have a hunch there is another part of this. Some people become thru tenure or talent or both key parts of many disparate functions of the business. When a company is 10 being able to fulfill multiple roles is vital. When a business becomes 100 it starts to mean that the vital attention of these key people becomes harder and harder to obtain. In other words it’s not that as we grow everyone becomes very hard to reach rather key people become even harder to involve.

PROPOSAL

Do less, better

Ask the following questions.

How many projects and meetings are you part of? why?

What responsibilities have you had for a long time? Do they still need to be yours? Can you not just delegate but surrender full sovereignty to a new person to hold that responsibility?

Are you uniquely good at being a key connector? If so how can you become more available to make timely connections?

What can you drop off?

A snake sheds its skin to grow. What can you let go of?

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