DIRECT: The seven core topics of remote team communication
Communication is essential when you work in a distributed team. The problem is that it’s not obvious where exactly the centre of balance is between sharing too little and sharing too much. That’s why I’ve created a framework that uses an easy to remember acronym to remind you of good opportunities to keep your distributed team in the loop.
Pick any guide on remote work on the web – and there are lots! – and you will read that communication is one of the most important practices in effective teamwork.
When I think back to my corporate past, that was always easy in a co-located company. You’d always have interesting talks over lunch, at the coffee machine or even just passing a colleague’s desk on the way back from the toilet. A distributed team, on the other hand, lacks the random encounters of a co-located workspace. That’s why communication needs to happen in a more intentional way in this situation. The challenge is to communicate the right amount of the right information.
Remote work experts talk about “narrating your work” or “working out loud” in order to convey that distributed teams benefit from proactive and continuous communication. But how “loud” can we work before it turns “noisy”? How can you tell in the moment if something is worth sharing?
I’ll tell you my answer to this question. Because I had to explain it every time a new team member joined us, I did what all software engineers do when they need to use something repeatedly: I turned it into a framework.
At my company, the central point of communication is a group chat channel named #direct. DIRECT is an acronym that stands for the seven topics that I found important for teams of any size or expertise: “Decisions”, “Insights”, “Results”, “Emotions”, “Contacts” and “Troubles”.
Wait, didn’t I say “seven topics”? Yes, there’s another one that I actually didn’t think of myself. One of the great minds in remote work, Pilar Orti, came up with the idea to give the final “T” a second meaning: “Thanks”. I’m grateful for this valuable addition to the framework, so: Thank you, Pilar!
At the core of effective remote team communication, there are the topics of Decisions, Insights, Results, Emotions, Contacts, Troubles and Thanks.
Let’s look at each one in detail, shall we?
As a team, metaphorically speaking, you’re on a journey together. And every time two roads diverge, you get to choose which one to go, and which one to leave, as Robert Frost put it, not taken. Each of these decisions will affect the direction of your common journey. That’s why it’s essential to communicate all the big and small decisions that are likely to affect the team.
Let me give you an example for how sharing small decisions can have as much relevance as the less frequent big ones. When my coworkers and I get to work in the morning, we decide individually what our most important tasks for the day are going to be, and we share them in our #direct channel. This achieves several things:
- It sets expectations.
- It creates accountability.
- It encourages feedback.
Transparency about our goals lets people know what to expect from us. When they’re waiting for us to finish a certain work item, it’s good when they learn that we’re on it. Or that we’re not on it because something else currently has higher priority. Usually, it will be a different work item that became more urgent, but especially these days it could also be that we just need a mental health day to regain the energy to make progress again. In both cases, our colleagues can adapt their plans accordingly.
By making our goals public, we strengthen accountability. Not only will we put in more effort to deliver a result (more on that later), our coworkers can also hold us accountable more easily. It will become apparent quite quickly when we keep declaring over and over that yesterday wasn’t but today will be the day on which task X will be finished. (Not that that ever happens with me…)
Additionally, being transparent about our decisions creates an opportunity for coworkers to weigh in on our plans. For example, recently, my plan for the day triggered a gentle reminder from a colleague that there was a deadline coming up that required my full focus but had obviously slipped my mind. Sharing my decision and receiving feedback saved me and the company from greater embarrassment.
Every decision (except the most trivial ones) is going to change the situation in its own way, and your colleagues will have to adapt to this change. Let them know what’s coming as early as possible.
Sharing knowledge is important in any team. However, in distributed teams it takes extra effort because, as I already mentioned, spontaneous exchanges don’t happen without intention.
I’d like to make one thing very clear: When it comes to sharing insight in a distributed team, you can not over-communicate.
For example, a while ago, I learned that I can assign application-specific functions to the extra buttons on my mouse. I wrote a short post about it and shortly after, someone else responded that this little tip made their work a lot easier.
The neat thing about using asynchronous communication channels for remote work is that we can set them up in a way that allow us to share the tiniest tidbits at any time without fear of overwhelming people or derailing a conversation.
You need to think about the most effective way to share your bits of wisdom. In an office setting, you wouldn’t just walk into the centre of the room and shout about having finished a task. Neither should you submit a post to the random Slack channel you happen to have open at the moment.
Instead, work with your team to find the right place where you’re going to keep each other in the loop without distracting everyone. Make sure to also set clear goals for how quickly you expect responses and how you are going to use @-mentions.
Over the many years I’ve been leading a remote-only company, I also learned not make my coworkers guess which consequences my findings might have for them. When you share something, make your motivation for doing so explicit.
If you’ve seen the movie “Office Space” (or if you’ve experienced it in real life), you know the management method I call “counting butts in chairs”. It’s lazy and ineffective. BIC has never been a metric for productivity, and counting them isn’t an effective management practice either.
The best way to foster effective work is to create a “Results-Only Work Environment”, short ROWE.
The Results Only Work Environment is a management strategy co-created by Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler wherein employees are paid for results rather than the number of hours worked. You can learn more about it on gorowe.com.
For individual contributors, an ROWE grants a lot of freedom. When your work is measured exclusively by its results, only the quality and timeliness of your work counts. On the other hand, how you did your work, when you did your work, and if a cat was involved is irrelevant and completely up to you.
For the managers, an ROWE creates focus. Your job becomes building the groundwork for the desired results. Your responsibility comes down to making sure that individual contributors can apply their magic with maximum impact. Your KPI changes from “number of butts in chairs at 9am” to the real progress the team is making towards your strategic business goals.
Because each finished result is another success that brings us closer to our shared goals, we have to communicate (and celebrate) our results.
It’s well-known by now that it’s harder to judge someone’s emotional state via digital communication than when we meet them in person. We can make it easier for each other by being proactive in communicating when we’re tired, happy, anxious, distracted, preoccupied, angry, excited or exhausted.
By sharing our state of mind, we again set expectations. When I let my coworkers know that I had a bad night and am pretty tired, it’s safe to assume that I won’t be breaking productivity records today.
What this transparency also does is invite helpful feedback. Your teammates will cheer for you when things are good, and when life’s a bit rough, they’ll offer support.
Because these effect are important for my team’s performance, I encourage my team to not only share their plans in the morning but also how they feel right now.
And, since it’s just us here, I’ll admit that I also have a hidden agenda: Sharing how you’re feeling requires doing a self-assessment first. In doing that assessment, you set your own expectations for the day. Doing this right at the start of the day can take a lot of pressure off yourself, especially on those low power mode days.
I’m well aware that sharing your personal situation with your team means making yourself vulnerable, which only works when people feel safe doing so. How to create the team culture in which this is possible will be a topic for another day, though.
Contacts have consequences. On more than one occasion, I was able to salvage our relationship with a dissatisfied customer by talking to them over the phone instead of continuing a writing battle via email.
Contacts have consequences. Giving sincere one-on-one feedback can make an employees day. Or it can be a wake-up call to make necessary changes.
Contacts have consequences. Successfully reaching out to the right person might even turn a whole business around.
Contacts have consequences. That’s why there’s the C in DIRECT. Sometimes, their impact is obvious, like having an important new customer sign up. Sometimes, they feel almost trivial but still will change the situation in a meaningful way.
Keep your coworkers in the loop about your relevant contacts. Prepare them for future interactions. Create excitement in your team about new developments! Make them aware of necessary course corrections.
Let’s be honest. We all get stuck with a problem once in a while. And frankly, there’s no environment in which this is easier to hide than in remote work. But it’s almost impossible to hide it forever.
On so many occasions, I had to profoundly apologise that I didn’t meet a deadline because I got stuck and didn’t ask for help in time.
Troubles also tend to fester. Remember when someone on your team blew a fuse for a seemingly minor reason? It might have taken a longer development of struggles to reach this point.
And let’s be realistic: Troubles aren’t that dramatic all the time. Maybe you just have issues getting used to a new process or tool. Maybe there’s a recurring issue that’s going from “annoying” to “aggravating”. In any case, opening up will make things easier for you.
Empathy is the superpower of an effective team. But opening yourself to the team requires a robust foundation: Empathy can only flourish where there is transparency.
When you hold back until either you’re getting called out or you can’t take it
anymore yourself, it’s often going to be too late to salvage the situation. And
you’re eroding your team’s trust in your ability to get things done in the process.
Of course it’s easier to share your results than your troubles. But when the whole team creates an atmosphere in which people feel safe enough to make themselves vulnerable, it can join efforts to prevent troubles from becoming disasters.
It feels nice that I don’t have to end this talk on a negative note. The T at the end of DIRECT can – well, should – also mean “Thanks”.
Expressing gratitude not only feels good for the person on the receiving end. This practice also strengthens your relationships. And when you have strong relationships, you will have an easier time expressing criticism on different occasions.
But did you know that you also benefit yourself from saying thanks? In his book “The Happiness Advantage”, Shawn Achor makes a solid case for cultivating a culture of gratitude. He writes:
Psychologist Robert Emmons, who has spent nearly his entire career studying gratitude, has found that few things in life are as integral to our well-being. Countless other studies have shown that consistently grateful people are more energetic, emotionally intelligent, forgiving, and less likely to be depressed, anxious, or lonely.
That’s why part of my morning ritual is the “5-Minute Journal”, a short diary entry in which I write down three things for which I’m thankful. This routine keeps my positivity battery charged. And these journal entries also make for great moral support when I’m in a less-than-ideal mood.
Let’s summarise. For remote collaboration to function well, everyone on the team needs to continually share what’s going on with them, all the while keeping the signal-to-noise ratio high.
When I feel that I haven’t checked in with my team in a while, I use the DIRECT acronym to identify recent events that are worth sharing.
I’d like to end with a few tips for making the information stand out from the data:
- Be as clear and unambiguous as possible.
- Focus on the big picture.
- Answer the question “What does that mean for me, for the team?” before someone asks it.
I hope the DIRECT method will help you communicate more effectively!