Time to Upgrade the Way We Communicate

In this blog post, Maya Middlemiss shares her own experience of upgrading her remote communication tools, as technology evolved. Paying careful attention to the team’s needs and designing a plan to introduce the new tools was vital to the successful transition to the new tech. Throughout this post, and especially if you’re mainly using email for internal communications, we invite you to ask yourself, “Is it time to upgrade the way we communicate with remote colleagues?”

As regular readers will know, I have been working in remote teams since the dark ages, when “communications” meant calling someone to tell them that you’d sent them an email, or that their fax machine must be out of paper.

Back in those days though, however ridiculous it seems now, giving someone a call meant you had to turn the internet ‘off’ to use the phone line (mobile calls were prohibitively expensive), so the very small team I worked with at the time were delighted to discover the embryonic beginnings of what we would now call instant messaging. Now you could ping somebody a quick message in real time, without disconnecting your modem and interrupting what you were doing - great, because that email still hadn’t uploaded and sent yet!

Back in the day this first meant gaming chat tools like IRC, but then we were thrilled to discover MSN messenger. Emojis! Well, we called them emoticons or smileys then, they were pretty limited, but very exciting. Gradually though these visual symbols developed into ways to convey useful information to colleagues, such as status settings - “I am on a call”, or “away from my desk” - as well as chat messages.

As the team and technology grew, we experimented with different tools.  

The First "Pro" Tools

I remember being very keen to introduce video calls, as the ultimate alternative to face to face meetings, but frankly this was painful at first. The huge price-tag and complexity of the initial platforms meant we talked about “videoconferencing”, not calling or messaging, because it was serious stuff and worthy of a grand title. It could take longer than the meeting itself to get everybody logged on and their audio working, and then the quality was always limited by whoever had the most flakey internet. Often we’d just agree to hang up and make a conference call instead…

Then along came Skype. At last, a platform which combined messaging and video calls, AND you could use it to securely share files. It seemed like the perfect tool, and for many years it was.

However as the successful Estonian startup passed through its various acquisitions, Skype quickly evolved into a widely-used consumer tool, and everyone was encouraged to sync their contact lists with all their Facebook friends and Outlook connections. And yes, Skype was great for having a video chat with anyone, from distant relatives to prospective clients, as well as the colleagues we worked with every day.  Even as it continued to go through various professional evolutions as Lync and Skype for Business via repeated acquisitions, the elegant simplicity of being able to click in a tool and video call someone has remained the entry-point for many online conversations to this day.

It took a major data protection breach at a company I worked with, to highlight the real risks of using such an open tool however. Sure, the file transfer protocol within Skype was very secure - but when somebody accidentally transferred a spreadsheet full of sensitive data to the wrong person, the danger became abundantly clear.  With a mixture of usernames and real names autocompleting, when most people had hundreds of contacts in their lists, it was an accident waiting to happen again.

Time for a Purpose-Built Professional Tool?

So for that particular team, it was time to investigate and transition to the latest breed of tools which were emerging, aimed specifically at meeting the day-to-day communications and collaboration needs of remote teams.  At the time we trialled both Hall and Hipchat, but for various reasons wound up - like a lot of other people - using Slack. It was pretty new then, but clearly had plans to grow into just what we needed.

Since then I’ve been using and recommending Slack to a wide range of teams. Slack don’t pay me for recommending them - though goodness knows they could, in terms of how well funded they are - I just think it’s good.  You can get started with them and use most features free of charge, and it has now evolved into a very comprehensive suite of tools. They are also adding features and new releases regularly.

There are plenty of alternatives now, (including Facebook for Business), so the important thing is to choose something which reflects the way your team is used to working and communicating already.  You might be committed to Office 365 and MS Teams within your organisation, in which case the functionality is all very similar.

It’s all about how you are going to make the tool work for YOU and your team. The appearance of these tools is very convergent at the moment - usually some kind a left-menu with different choices of conversations and chats to join in with, then a main window with an actual threaded chat - but this could change in the future.

What is less likely to change is the way your team interacts and collaborates on a team or project basis, so you should consider your choice in that light, and plan to make it future-proof. Do you organise your interactions around specific functions, like admin or sales? Or around work with particular clients?  These will all help inform how you set up the tool of choice.

Planning the Transition with a Growing Team

A team I worked with recently had just scaled from 5 full-time people - relying on a single Skype chat, and emailing each other (eurgh..).  Then they needed to integrate 3 new team members, plus several temporary contractors to work on specific projects… I persuaded them that this was the moment to reflect on their present and growing needs, and consider introducing a new tool. After a look at various options, we settled on Slack, because the various services including video calls and chat, file transfer and screen sharing (paid version), reflected the needs of he work, and brought together a lot of functionality in a single app, which everyone could run on whichever device they wanted.  

The newbies had never known anything else, the contractors had all used it before, and the old guard - well, that was more difficult. Old habits die hard, and the organisation had clearly-established values in terms of letting people work the way they preferred, focussing on results rather than methods.  Whilst this was great in principle, they knew that as they scaled as a team, some behavioural norms had to be established to enable frictionless collaboration, without compromising the effectiveness of the existing workflow.

Given that the Director was committed to ensuring the transition was effective, we devised a plan to help the switch-over, which included:

  • A team meeting to discuss the reasons for the shift, and how the decision had been reached (which platforms evaluated, limitations of existing tools). This included a video walk-through of how it looked and felt

  • Careful consideration of channels, topics, and integrations - in line with how team members already worked and collaborated. This included a set of individual recommendations for each person, which would be harder to do on a larger team, but really helped in this case: “Mel, in addition to the general chat channel you might want to join the social media, sales-team and marketing channels as well, but I suggest you mute audible notifications on the latter as it won’t all be relevant, and it’s going to get noisy in there”.  It proved to be time well spent, to provide each user with a bespoke set of suggestions for when they dived in.

  • Updating the privacy policy to specifically countermand file sharing via Skype or any other non-FTP channel, due to risks of sensitive data being accidentally sent outside of the organisation - as part of the procedural changes suggested by the data breach, and coinciding nicely with the introduction of the new tool

  • Tactically drip-feeding relevant information and suggestions to the team over the first couple of weeks, as they got used to the new tool. “Has anyone tried the mobile app?” “Ooh look, there’s a giphy integration!” (yes, you might end up regretting drawing attention to that...)

  • The Director leading by example and setting the communications norms for the new chat spaces - even as simple as checking in and saying good morning to everyone, and using emojis effectively (like a quick thumbs-up to signify agreement, or a checkbox to indicate something is done).

Reflecting on the Changes

A month in and we reviewed the transition. The team felt it was serving them well - and so far as I know, it still is. It saved them time, avoided the risks of lost data, and one of the new team members remarked that it really helped with their personal onboarding - by giving them a sense, from the list of channels, of what activities were going on across the team, and who did what and with whom.  

The existing team members were now some of the most passionate advocates of the new platform, and it was clear that people had been exploring the possibilities and integrating some of the other tools they used, including calendar alerts and social media feeds (the giphy one, by popular demand, had been relegated to a special chit-chat channel of its own).

So, if this has given you something to think about, remember that every change takes effort - habituation creates inertia and potentially friction, and the one thing you don’t want to do is make repeated and unnecessary changes.  Making the right decision, designing your digital workspace to reflect the work you do and how you do it, is worth investing in at the outset, as well as evaluating afterwards. Slack, combined with some specific integrations, was just right for this team - the solution for yours might be different, because we all work in different ways.


If you are about to start moving some of your communication and collaboration online or if you are in the middle of the transition, you might also find these other posts useful.



And if you would like some input from us at Virtual not Distant into evaluating your needs check out our Professional Services pages, to see how we could best help you transition to working even more effectively and happily on your remote team.