A Problem Shared is a Problem Identified

Transitioning to “remote” does not just involve learning how to use new technology to help us stay connected. It involves re-designing how we communicate as a team - and this includes how we ask for help. In this article, Pilar makes the case for sharing your questions and requests for help with your whole virtual team, instead of defaulting to the one-one conversation.

My friend Mark Kilby, who is an Agile Coach in a distributed company, told me that when people first join his organisation, they are encouraged to ask for help on a public channel in their collaboration space at the earliest opportunity. (When I say “public”, I mean visible to the whole company or team, not the public.)

This is one of the behaviours people find most difficult to adapt when making the transition from a collocated space.

Too Public?

Posting on an online space might feel uncomfortable when we’re not used to it. It’s the collocated equivalent of standing in the middle of a room and asking for help. However, if we get into the habit of only reaching out to people via direct messages or email, we are in danger of missing out on two important aspects of collaboration.

(1) Receiving help from an unusual suspect.

When we reach out to the whole team instead of asking specific people, someone who hadn’t even come to mind might offer just what we were looking for.

This colleague might be someone with a skill we didn’t know they had, or who has knowledge they haven’t had a chance to share yet; or someone who happens to have an understanding of that particular problem because they’ve come across it in another company.

(2) Helping someone else.

You might think that your problem is specific to you, but others might be experiencing a similar problem. They just haven’t got around to solving it yet.

Furthermore, some people might not even be aware that they should be asking your same question, until they see it written down in front of them.

In addition to the “helping element” of our message, we’ll also be adding to our Working out Loud practice, whereby we share what we’re working on and our process. This is particularly important in teams with freelancers who do not engage every day with the team, as well as for those not holding regular meetings.

(It’s worth clarifying at this point that I have nothing against private communication. Building strong relationships with colleagues tends to happen in one-one interactions. My worry is that the number of private conversations overtakes whole-team ones and we miss out on an opportunity for team development and strengthening team identity.)

If these calls for help are dispersed amongst private messages and closed channels, problems affecting the whole team might go undetected.

I Don’t Like Asking for Help

Let’s face it; it’s very easy to say, “Ask publicly for help”. It’s another thing altogether to feel like asking for help will not backfire on us in some way. Our team culture has to be conducive to making ourselves vulnerable and not being afraid of sharing what we don’t know, as well as what we know.

It’s All too Much!

There is also the added danger of generating too much noise in your collaboration platform, so you will need to find a balance between broadcasting all your thoughts to the whole team and restricting your communication to private channels. The optimum balance will be different for each team. (For more on this, read The Dangers of Working Out Loud.)

A Problem Shared is a Problem Identified

Sharing problems in public also gives us a clear indication of whether we have everything we need as a team to do our work. For example, if the number of posts asking where documents are kept is large, we might need to redesign our information sharing system.

If many of us keep asking for clarification around decisions that have been made, we might have a problem with decision-making in the team, or with how we communicate those decisions we make individually or in sub-teams. If these calls for help are dispersed amongst private messages and closed channels, problems affecting the whole team might go undetected.

Many teams transitioning from office-based to remote, or to a flexible working approach, fear that communication will break down. It’s only by adapting our behaviour to the new working environment that we will be able to sustain our performance. And if you continue to review your processes and keep your eyes on your teamwork, who knows, you might find yourselves even more aligned and more productive at work than before you went “remote”.