Establishing Collaboration Channels
In today’s new world of remote and hybrid teamwork, I want to share a hard lesson from my time several years ago of leading a team of 30 people distributed across four time zones. Namely, how to streamline communication in a hybrid working model.
So many leaders grew up in a world where “line of sight” management was revered. That meant that people were rewarded for being physically available between 8 am and 5 pm or later for “chance encounters’ in working areas or hallways could lead to a spark of inspiration or collaboration.
A popular acronym from that time was MBWA. This is a practice traced to both Toyota and Hewlett Packard in the early 80’s and became popular with the classic management book by Tom Peters: In Search of Excellence.
MBWA referred to the practice of leaders wandering around the office, in an unstructured manner, at random, to check with employees, equipment, or on the status of ongoing work. And by doing so, would get a more accurate picture of what was really happening within their teams.
What IS MBWA? Management by Wandering Around.
I once had a leader who combined MBWA with Line of Sight management. He loved to wander the halls, sticking his head into doors. And when he saw you, he had an insight all right. He remembered, or created, another task that he needed your help with. And because he was the CEO, it took precedence over anything else on your list. We used to joke that whenever we saw him coming down the hall, we needed to hop into an empty office, bathroom or conference room --just to avoid another project.
Decades later, leaders still cling to this principle -- that your physical presence, for a set number of hours per day, sets your value for the company. And while it IS better for the leader to initiate connection and communications with team members, generally, it comes at a huge cost.
One of the greatest benefits to the WFH (work from home) movement is that it has dramatically reduced the interruptions of MBWA by both leaders AND team members. MBWA style leaders feel more constrained and pause before interrupting someone who is not physically present.
So, what’s happened instead? A new flavor of OCD. Omni-Channel Demands.
We sense this unwritten expectation to be always available in real time, nearly around the clock. And in multiple places: via email, text, IM, Slack, Teams, Zoom -- the list is endless.
And what was once an annoyance in the office has become even more chronic working remotely. Our ability to have focused time to work within our gifting, our purpose and what brings greatest value to our company -- is competing with incessant notifications and unwritten expectations from everyone from the top to the bottom to reply immediately. Or else, you’re ghosting/disrepecting/annoying me.
Multi-channel, Always On, Immediate Expectations (Omni-Channel Demands)
No wonder we’re exhausted, even when giving up a crushing commute for the opportunity to work from home.
We struggled with this too, especially working in many different time zones. We had a core team at our HQ, but the vast majority of our team worked from home, isolated from unplanned MBWA opportunities.
So, we decided to bring order out of chaos by collaborating on communication guidelines across the team.
As with any change, there was initial resistance. Why? Because everyone has THEIR favorite way of communicating/collaborating with other team members. Yet, by letting everyone do their own thing, it became more and more challenging to keep up with the waves of communications coming at us from a variety of ways.
It was often hard to remember: did that request come in via email, IM, text? And that means once I find it, I have to reply via that channel. And if it involves multiple people on the thread, then that means one person is happy with the reply method, while others are likely annoyed.
So, we ended up deciding upon some rules of the road for WFH communications. I’ll share them here, updated for our approach today with our remote team.
Internal Email: For longer form communications, primarily for background or information. No response needed for at least 24 hours. And if a later response was requested, that was defined in the subject line.
External Email: We began taking more opportunities to set blocks of time out of office notifications even when we were in the office. One of the best recent examples is Dr. Kristy Goodwin who not only has her approach defined in our OOO reply, but also in her signature. She shares “ Please note, I check my email twice a day & try to respond within 24 hours (M-F). I respect her approach so much, I’ve invited her to be a guest on an upcoming FLOT episode.
Slack: This is our internal communications hub. Here we are able to direct updates, questions and links into our project management/document hubs into specific channels saving us tons of time in email. But even with Slack, we go “dark” for big stretches of time during the day so we can get work done. We think of Slack as our MWBA/Office Watercooler, but with more focus & purpose.
Text/IM: Used for a quick response, mostly asking if someone is interruptible for a conversation. Immediate response IS NOT required. They will text/IM back when they ARE available.
Zoom: Cameras on for collaboration/problem solving. Cameras off for updates and information sharing.
Phone: For deep collaborations and for the occasional hair on fire needs. Typically a call back after leaving a message means we need to talk ASAP.
Again, not everyone is equally comfortable across these different channels. And we also acknowledge that different team members have different deep work rhythms which we need to respect to get our best collective work achieved.
Our overall approach is to communicate these guidelines from time to time so that we honor different work approaches while staying connected in meaningful ways. As Independent Collaborators, it’s our individual work coming together that has the greatest impact for our clients and prospects.
So, how do you tame the Omni-Channel Communication Demands within your team and client base? Leave us a comments and send us your suggestions.