Old rotary phone

That Escalated Quickly

I have been working remotely out of my home for over 4 years now. All of my coworkers during that time have also worked remotely. Lots of folks have written about the challenges inherent in facilitating communication on remote teams and strategies for overcoming them. A popular theme around this topic is the notion of “escalating communication”. In this context “escalating” means taking a conversation from one mode of communication to a different, higher fidelity mode of communication. Here are the five modes of communication I use at work in order of increasing fidelity:

  1. Email – This is the “lowest fidelity” mode of communication that I use. I usually only check it a few times a day (and I’m trying to check it even less frequently than that) and I only keep items in my inbox if they represent an item I need to take action on that I haven’t tracked anywhere else.
  2. Forums / Message boards – Being a developer, I’ve gotten into the habit of having other people look over my code before it becomes part of the product I’m working on. These code reviews often happen in “real time” via screen sharing, but I also always have someone else give all of the changes another look using pull requests. A pull request takes my code and lets someone else see the changes I’ve made side-by-side with the existing code so they can see if I did anything dumb. Pull requests can facilitate a conversation about the code changes in an online-forum like style. Some teams I’ve worked on also liked using tools like Trello or Google Groups to have on-going conversations about a topic or task that was being worked on.
  3. Chat & Instant Messaging  – Chat and instant messaging are the real workhorses for communication on the remote teams I’ve been a part of. I know some teams that are co-located that also use it pretty extensively for quick messages that don’t warrant walking across the office to talk with someone but reqire more immediacy than an e-mail. For the purposes of this post I think it’s important to note that the terms “chat” and “instant messaging” might insinuate that the conversation is happening in real time, but that’s not always true. Modern chat and IM applications maintain a searchable history so people can easily see what might have been discussed while they were away from their computers.
  4. Voice, Video and Screen sharing – Everyone’s got a camera and microphone on their computers now, and there are an abundance of services that will let you use them to talk to other people who have cameras and microphones on their computers. I’m including screen sharing here as well because, in my experience, these discussions typically involve one or more people showing the other participants something that’s happening on their screen. Obviously, this mode of communication is much higher-fidelity than any of the ones listed above. Scheduled meetings are typically conducted using this mode of communication.
  5. In Person – No matter how great communication tools become, there’s no substitute for meeting with someone face-to-face. However, opportunities for this kind of communcation are few and far between when you work on a remote team.

When a conversation gets escalated that usually means it moves up one or more positions on this list. A lot of people advocate jumping to #4 sooner than later. Like them, I used to believe that, if it was possible, organizing a call with voice and video was automatically better than any kind of text-based communication could be. Lately, however, I’m becoming less convinced that escalating is always the right move.

Working Asynchronously

Last year I attended a talk at our local code camp given by Drew Miller. Drew works at GitHub and was talking about how they use GitHub internally. Many of the folks at GitHub work remotely, so communication was one of the main themes in Drew’s talk. During the talk Drew used the phrase, “asynchronous communication” to describe their use of chat and pull request comments. That phrase stuck in my head because I hadn’t heard it before but I think it perfectly describes the way in which remote teams often need to communicate. You don’t always know when your co-workers are at their computers or what hours (if any) they are working that day. In order to work this way you need to assume that the person you’re talking to might not respond right away. You can’t always afford to wait until everyone required is online and available to join a voice call, so you need to use text-based, persistent forms of communication so that people can receive and respond to messages when they are available. Going back to my list from the beginning of this post for a second, I characterize items #1-3 as being “asynchronous” modes of communication while we could call items #4 and #5 “synchronous”. When communication gets escalated it’s almost always moving from an asynchronous mode of communication to a synchronous one. Now, to the point of this post: I’ve become increasingly reluctant to escalate from asynchronous to synchronous communication for two primary reasons:

1 – You can often find a higher fidelity way to convey your message without holding a synchronous conversation

2 – Asynchronous modes of communication are (usually) persistent and searchable.

You Don’t Have to Broadcast Live

Let’s start with the first reason I’ve listed. A lot of times you feel like you need to escalate to synchronous communication because you’re having difficulty describing something that you’re seeing in words. You want to provide the people you’re conversing with some audio-visual aids to help them understand the point that you’re trying to make and you think that getting on Skype and sharing your screen with them is the best way to do that. Firing up a screen sharing session does work well, but you can usually accomplish the same thing in an asynchronous manner. For example, you could take a screenshot and annotate it with some text and drawings to illustrate what it is you’re seeing. If a screenshot won’t work, taking a short screen recording while your narrate over it and posting the video to your forum or chat system along with a text-based description of what’s in the recording that can be searched for later can be a great way to effectively communicate with your team asynchronously.

I Said What?!?

Now for the second reason I listed: most asynchronous modes of communication provide a transcript of what was said and what decisions might have been made during the conversation. There have been many occasions where I’ve used the search feature of my team’s chat application to find a conversation that happened several weeks or months ago to remember what was decided. Unfortunately, I think the benefits associated with the persistence of communicating asynchronously often get overlooked when people decide to escalate to a in-person meeting or voice/video call. I’m becoming much more reluctant to suggest a voice or video call if I suspect that it might lead to codifying some kind of design decision because everyone involved is going to hang up the call and immediately forget what was decided. I recognize that you can record and archive these types of interactions, but without being able to search them the recordings aren’t terribly useful.

When and How To Escalate

I don’t mean to imply that communicating via voice/video or in person is never a good idea. I probably jump on a Skype call with a co-worker at least once a day to quickly hash something out or show them a bit of code that I’m working on. Also, meeting in person periodically is really important for remote teams. There’s no way around the fact that sometimes it’s easier to jump on a call and show someone my screen so they can see what I’m seeing. So when is it right to escalate? I think the simplest way to answer that is when the communication starts to feel painful. Everyone’s tolerance for that pain is different, but I think you need to let it hurt a little bit before jumping to synchronous communication.

When you do escalate from asynchronous to synchronous communication, there are a couple of things you can do to maximize the effectiveness of the communication:

  1. Takes notes – This is huge and yet I’ve found that a lot of teams don’t do this. If you’re holding a meeting with  > 2 people you should have someone taking notes. Taking notes while participating in a meeting can be difficult but there are a few strategies to deal with this challenge that probably deserve a short post of their own. After the meeting, make sure the notes are posted to a place where all concerned parties (including those that might not have attended the meeting) can review and search them.
  2. Persist decisions made ASAP – If any decisions were made during the meeting, persist those decisions to a searchable medium as soon as possible following the conversation. All the teams I’ve worked on used a web-based system for tracking the on-going work and a backlog of work to be done in the future. I always try to make sure that all of the cards/stories/tasks/whatever in these systems always reflect the latest decisions that were made as the work was being planned and executed. If held a quick call with your team lead and decided that it wasn’t worth the effort to build real-time validation into that new UI you were working on, go and codify that decision in the story associated with that work immediately after you hang up. Even better, write it up in the story while you are both still on the phone. That way when the folks from your QA team pick up the story to test a few days later they’ll know why the real-time validation isn’t there without having to invoke yet another conversation about the work.

Communicating Well is Hard

At this point you might be thinking that communicating asynchronously is more difficult than having a live conversation. You’re right: it is more difficult. In order to communicate effectively this way you need to very carefully think about the message that you’re trying to convey and craft it in a way that’s easy for your audience to understand. This is almost always harder than just talking through a problem in real time with someone; this is why escalating communication is such a popular idea. Why wouldn’t we want to do the thing that’s easier? Easier isn’t always better. If you and your team can get in the habit of communicating effectively in an asynchronous manner you’ll find that, over time, all of your communications get less painful because you don’t need to re-iterate previously made points over and over again. If you communicate right the first time, you often don’t need to rehash old conversations because you can go back and find the decisions that were made laid out in plain language. You’ll also find that you get better at doing things like writing useful comments in your code, creating written documentation about how the feature that you just built works, or persuading your team to do things in a certain way.