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  • January 19, 2012

Streamlining Internal Communications

Three and a half years ago, I left the world of traditional print marketing and entered the world of the Interwebs. My old company said “No!” Decorative Illustration to video chatting or instant messaging in the office and worried more about proper email subject line etiquette than finding the best ways to communicate with each other. Change was in store as I entered the land of Instant Messaging (IM) and Skype, Basecamp and Campfire, but was it a change for the better or do more lines of communication further complicate things? I found myself being asked a similar question by a couple folks at a Dribbble holiday meet up this past December. I was asked how I manage projects, how we communicate as a team, and more specifically, how I manage communications in a virtual environment.

Working behind the curtain

As Project Manager, I’ve had the challenge (and privilege) of managing projects both remotely and in a traditional office setting. Working in a virtual environment makes answering the question of “which line of communication is best?” that much more difficult. I don’t have the luxury of peeking into someone’s office to see if they’re on the phone or chatting with a co-worker, or to say, “Hey, do you have a quick minute?” There are so many options from which to choose, it usually comes down to how best to communicate with specific individuals or the individual situation or circumstance.

Last March, Ryan Irelan wrote a post about The Challenges of Working Remotely, which touched on the different means of communication we use here at Happy Cog. The methods of communication Ryan outlined in his article are essential to our day-to-day goings-on. Given our roster of in-office and virtual full-time staff, contractors, and consultants, we’ve narrowed our lines of communication down to five key methods:

Basecamp = Project logging and one-stop shop for all things project-related
Email = Project and non-project items; easily organized and trackable
Skype/Phone = Verbal, direct and clear communication
IM = Quick check-ins, yes/no questions
Campfire = Group project discussions and water cooler chatter

To further explore how and why we use each of these, I took a quick poll of the Happy Cog crew to see which methods my co-workers prefer, as well as how they use each mean of communication. For the sake of this article, I left out the obvious first choice: the in-person (like, in real life) conversation, which is always the best method, bar none. Below is a ranked list (by preference) of the different methods of communication:

  1. Basecamp
  2. Instant Messaging (IM)
  3. Email
  4. Skype/Phone
  5. Campfire

Aside from Basecamp ranking at the top, I found the results to be surprising and very informative.

What to choose…what to choose…

More often than not, I begin by asking myself this question, “Will it take less than 2 minutes to talk about?” If the answer is “Yes,” then I have one of two options: hop on over to IM or walk down to someone’s desk and ping them with a question. If the answer is “No,” then it’s either over to the phone, off to Basecamp, or to Google Calendar I go! As you saw in my office poll, most of my co-workers preferred Basecamp as the top means of communication with IM coming in at a close second. Let’s explore the “why” behind the rankings.

Basecamp is our central repository for any and all project and client communications, both internal and external. It’s no wonder it took the top spot in the poll. Basecamp is where we post milestones and timelines, schedule meetings with clients, post deliverables, hold internal brainstorms or discussions, place meeting notes, etc. Without Basecamp, everyone would have a different way of organizing client communication in either their preferred mail application or some form of Dropbox and too much would get lost. If/when conversations happen outside of Basecamp that are project-related, they should immediately be accounted for in a public or private post for the benefit of the rest of the project team.

Instant Messaging (IM)
Instant Messaging ranked second. While most find the bouncing IM icon annoying, the overwhelming response was that IM is very useful for providing a quick answer to a question. The key to using IM effectively, and in a way that doesn’t piss off your co-workers, is to be careful not to engage in long conversations over IM. Too much miscommunication can occur and, hey, isn’t it easier to just walk over to their desk, or hop on the phone/audio chat and avoid the headache?

Email’s ranking, and reasoning, surprised me the most as it seems everyone uses email for different purposes. Some prefer to go directly to Basecamp for their project notifications and communications. Others prefer to use the email notifications from Basecamp as a means to organize their day and project deliverables. Then there are the few who either hate email or only use it for non-project-related communications. I see the logic behind all of the responses. As Project Manager, I prefer the level of organization Apple’s Mail app offers that Basecamp doesn’t. I can flag messages that need an extra level of attention, organize messages into project folders and subfolders to make it easier to find them quickly because, as we all know, Basecamp’s search functionality is sub-par at best. However you use your mail app (or don’t), make sure it has a purpose rather than just being a secondary place to store information.

Shockingly, Skype/Phone conversation placed fourth. Alexander Graham Bell must be rolling over in his grave. So much can be misinterpreted over written communication and yet clear, direct verbal communication came in almost last in the poll. Given the larger percentage of virtual team members, Skype/Phone was more popular with the Happy Cog West office while Happy Cog East trumps all with their in-person pow-wows. Skype/Phone is largely used to solve key project issues, to hash out any miscommunications, to virtually brainstorm on a project, or to video/audio chat with co-workers.

It came as no surprise that Campfire was dead last among everyone polled. Its main use is to chit-chat throughout the day, post cat videos, share silly (and not so silly) links, etc. The Happy Cog West office uses it as a forum to provide status: if you go to lunch, are on a long phone call, etc. Additionally, it is used as a place for group brainstorms where it’s useful to have an open chat to post updates, ideas, and progressing work, usually in the final push of a deliverable.

Untying the Knot

So, now we know a little bit more about why and how we use these lines of communication. I’ll ask the question again: does allowing for all of these different methods further complicate things or does it actually help streamline our communications? Perhaps a little bit of both. Only having one or two methods (phone and email) can become frustrating. People are oftentimes in meetings or on the phone for long periods throughout the day. When they do finally emerge from behind closed doors, they have about fifty emails to get through, or there are five other people waiting in line ahead of me to talk to them. Limiting yourself to a couple ways of communicating with someone more often than not results in delayed responses and, inevitably, a lot more time spent being reactive rather than proactive.

On the other hand, adding too many inter-office methods of communication: Google Chat, Skype/Phone, iChat, Campfire, Basecamp, Email, MSN Messenger, Text/Blackberry messenger, Twitter, etc. creates a jumbled mess where nobody knows where anything lives or how to reach someone quickly and effectively. By narrowing down the options to a select five or six and establishing clear directives on how each is used, you can create some structure around each method as outlined above. It takes away a lot of the guessing game and constant feeling of being interrupted. Haven’t we all received the same message via our work email address, personal email address, text, Basecamp, IM, etc. just because the person sending it wasn’t sure how to get the message to you and really wanted to make sure you got it? By considering who you’re communicating with, the priority of the message, and what best suits the situation, you can easily determine the best and (hopefully) least intrusive way of getting the answer you need.

When it comes down to making the choice, I follow a simple formula:

Personal Assessment (PA) + Desired Response (DR) = Method of Communication (MC)

Take everything into consideration in making a personal assessment of who you’re communicating with, what type of question it is, etc. Factor in the desired response: Yes/No vs. long conversation. What you’ll get is how best to reach out to said person. Try it on for size. If it doesn’t work for you, tweak it a little.

Finding difficulty communicating with a couple folks in the office? Try doing a quick office poll. You might find the results useful and helpful the next time you need information. Knowing how each person prefers to communicate and be communicated with can be an extremely valuable tool.

What do you do? How have you streamlined your communications?

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