The Chat: the future of the culture of work

If the natural evolution of technology and work continues at it's current pace, those who are fluent in the culture of distributed teaming will come out a league or two ahead of the others. Your ability to navigate the unspoken rules of distributed teaming will eventually, and directly, effect your personal bottom-line.

The move from a local work culture to a distributed work culture is not a small one. Indeed, many of you have worked or are working for companies who are in the throws of the pendulum of change in this regard: opening the doors to distributed teaming, and then closing them again when they realize the extent of change that this sort of move entails.

It's not easy.

Liberating workers from the shackles of physical location necessitates training/fluency with certain technological infrastructures (Skype, IRC/SILC, chatrooms, virtual forums, and the like), but also a willingness to change the way communication happens and work is documented.

Einstein is credited with saying that you cannot simultaneously prepare for war and plan for peace. In my read of that statement, there is an underlying logic that operates much like an extension of quantum theory: namely that certain forms of energy exhibit characteristics of both particles and wave but never at the same time. If the characteristics of a particle are expressing themselves at a given point in time, the characteristics of the other will remain dormant.

In the same way, a 'distributed' work culture is difficult to cultivate when the infrastructures and culture of a local team are in place, in regular used, and encouraged – namely because the practices of a local culture are often times exclusive of those working remotely.

Obviously, if there is a team of 5 people, and 2 of them are located remotely, having an impromptu meeting in the Library that the distributed workers cannot attend is going to either require a degree of documentation to bring the others up to speed, or will leave the 2 behind and thus compromise the effectiveness/velocity/agility of the entire team (not just 40% of the team).

As an experienced remote teamer and facilitator of remote teaming, I have come up with the following guidelines:

Choose your technology wisely.

There are a ton of communication tools out there ranging from high-end and complicated VPN setups or custom office intranet systems to the more democratically available tools available in the cloud like Google Docs/Calendars/etc or Skype, to the more geeky IRC/SILC channels. Whatever technologies you choose, here are some questions you can ask yourself:

Where does my company fall along the gradient of Security and Openness? Is it important that some quick questions to specific team members not be visible to the team as a whole? Is it important to have security and privacy from people outside of the specific team? How about agencies outside of the organization? Do I want to use proprietary software or do I want to enable the team to use software that is free and accessible to anyone?

Do I have a variety of platforms that meet different demands of different types of communication? Skype is very different than email, and both Skype and email are different than project management tools that enable for the storage of documents and the communication of landmarks and deadlines. It's important to provide for all the needs of a distributed team without overwhelming the team with too many tools.

Know when to use what.

There are some types of communication that happen best in Skype (quick questions, humerus team exchanges) and others that are best documented with a project management tool (team deadlines, documents, policy and team practices, progress on any given assignments). It is important that the team know when to use what, and that those expectations are communicated clearly. If it is part of the company culture to CC certain people for certain communications, that needs to be made clear in order to preserve the cohesion of the team. If emails are used for all communications outside of the team, that needs to be made clear as well.

Learn how to talk at the speed of chatting.

There is a culture of chatting that distinguish it from other written forms of communications. Chats do not have to be spelled correctly. They do not need to use capital letters. They do not need to be written in complete sentences, and in fact should not be. The person who carefully crafts a multi-line of thinking in a chatroom will often find their idea moot or the point gone before the idea can come out.

In the realm of chatting,
the 'Enter' key is your friend,
and you should use it liberally
when trying to make a point
so that others will know that you
are mid sentence and in the middle
of expressing something.

Don't cheat on the documentation.

This is important.

Local cultures are not always used to writing out and documented the take-homes of the meeting just attended. Local cultures are used to people taking their own notes and can sometimes experience the need to document as something 'extra' or 'unimportant'.

This kind of thinking in a distributed culture surely results in a painful death for any project. It is important that the task of documentation is shared amongst team members in a way that makes sense, and it is also important that the expectations for different types of documentation be clearly communicated.

Good documentation frees a distributed culture from the shackles of time as well as space. It ensures that if one person misses any given meeting for any reason, that they will be able (and expected) to catch themselves up, and it also enables any new person on the team to be quickly brought up to speed.

For the employer, it ensures that the investment in labor cannot get hijacked (no one can run away with all the information) and also that any given member of the team is maximally interchangeable with any other person with comparable skills.

Don't forget the Humans.

A good team has a good repartee. There are obviously some communications where a serious tone is important, but don't filter the human out of all communications. If there is not a vehicle in your communication arsenal that can carry out a good ball-busting or a team-wide practical joke, then you are setting yourself up for failure.