Deliberate Communication – surfacing the person behind the avatar

I’m experimenting with a storytelling-type device for the book on Visible Teamwork in remote teams. Here’s my first bash at it. Do let me know what you think.



“I feel like we’ve gone from being in touch all day, pinging each other constantly, having group virtual coffees every day to… silence. Everyone seems to be ticking along nicely, but there is a sense of disconnection, like we are each doing our thing. I quite welcomed it at the beginning, but lately… I seem to feel a bit… sad is not the word… empty maybe… like something’s missing…

We’ve set up a way to communicate about the work, but to be honest, those small messages are so dry, everything’s about the task… I don’t know… at the same time, I’m a little bit bored with pure social chat.”

That feeling of disconnection Anna was expressing is not unusual amongst team members.

Some remote workers feel can feel isolated if they work from home and rarely interact with other human beings, or if they need to be physically together with others to feel a sense of togetherness . Regardless of how prone we are to feeling isolated, when we work apart from our colleagues, there is a danger of feeling disconnected from those we work with. That lack of presence can make us feel like others are not around to help, or like no-one is paying attention to our work. Not knowing about what others are up to can stop us from getting in touch with them, for fear of interrupting them mid-task, or catching them in a bad mood.

Visible Teamwork as a whole is designed to create a feeling of connection amongst team members, but the principle of Deliberate Communication is about making visible the personal information we need about those we work with.

Deliberate Communication

Talking to Anna, I thought that setting up some processes of “Deliberate Communication” might help and her team feel more connected. I asked her, “So, what kind of information are you missing from team members? What do you think would help you feel closer to them?”

“ Maybe… for a start something as simple as whether they’re busy. I don’t need to know what they’re working on, only, if I have a question, can I pick up the phone?” She laughed. “I can’t believe I’m saying this. Since when do we think it’s a problem to pick up the phone to call our team members?”

“Mobiles,” I said. “They’ve complicated everything.”

“Maybe… So that’s one, whether they are free for non-urgent stuff, or to just hop on a quick call to do some quick planning. I also feel like I don’t know what’s going on in their lives. I never thought this would be an issue, but I’d like to know if everything’s ok at home, if they, I don’t know, had relatives staying over for the week. I know Sandra gets stressed out when her in-laws come to visit… Also, I do miss looking over at Pete’s desk and seeing whether he’s frowning or not. When we worked in the office, I used to look over before asking him if he was ready to get feedback on his documents. If he was frowning, I’d wait a bit, or even ask him if we could schedule a meeting for the next day. Now… I haven’t got a clue what his face is doing, so I just go ahead and write an email!”

“It’s amazing how much information we pick up from others without even thinking about it.”

“Yes, and it’s only now that I’m realising it. But I don’t know what to do, I can’t ask everyone to report every day about their personal lives, or ask them to work with their video cams on…”

I smiled. “But you can set up some simple ways of regularly checking in, so that you don’t have to worry about being connected all day, but still be able to gather enough information to feel comfortable pinging each other when you need to. You know that in the online space, unless you deliberately communicate something, it doesn’t get through. And that goes too for non-work related things that affect us as human beings.

You could think of three things that need to be communicated, that can be useful to us in our team. The first is context, communicating what is going on in your life that others can’t see but which might affect your work. You mentioned Sandra and her in-laws – it could also be building works, children having a tough time at school etc but also things that have cheered you up, like watching a beautiful sunrise, or feeling the spring arrive through your window. For some team members, it might be a point of connection to imagine others’ surroundings, or to feel like they share a little bit of their joys or troubles.”

With her head slightly tilted to the right, Anna said, “I can see how that would work for some, but I don’t want to force people to share their personal lives…”

“And those are parameters you can agree with your team. Also, think about it. Context becomes important when it changes. So you could agree to share context only when it changes – a change in what’s going on around you that could affect how you show up at work. And as you’ll be sharing this in a team space, one option could be to say, “something’s changed, just letting you know I might be distracted today,“.

“That could work.”

“One other thing you mentioned was around availability, and that would be the second area of Deliberate Communication. Now that you are working away from each other, you can each design your day to suit you best, and that might mean that some of you use some the daytime for activities other than work.”

Anna nodded. “The best time for my run is 10 o’clock.”

“There you go. So it’s good for team members to know that (plus, it also reminds them to get some movement and fresh air ), and also, there might be times when you are indeed working, but you prefer not to be disturbed.”

“Definitely!”

“But, from what I’ve heard, you also want to be seen as available to your team as much as possible. However, it helps to signal when you are more open to being interrupted, because then people don’t hesitate to get in touch when you are.”

“I’d never thought about it that way.”

“You know that if we don’t have enough information about what someone is doing, or why, we tend to make up stories in our heads about other people’s lives, so, if a team member knows that you have a busy week ahead of you, they might leave any kind of communication until later – whereas you’d be quite happy to hear from them any time after lunch, when you need a bit of outside stimulus to get going.

Finally, the third thing that might be useful to you, is to deliberately communicate mood. For example, you mentioned Pete. If he had a system to communicate when he’s frowning, when he’s struggling, you would know not to give him feedback at that moment. Mood’s also a reminder that we’re human, which is something that we can forget about if what we see from each other every day is mainly a string of words.”

“I’m not sure about that one,” Anna said. “It’s not something we used to do back at the office, say what mood we were in.”

“But you could sense it, couldn’t you?”

“Yes, but I’m not sure how Sandra for example, would feel if she had to report her mood every day…”

“Then maybe that’s something to think about. How regularly would that be useful? The other thing is that, setting something up like this can help to build team culture, you can design a process that becomes a unique ritual, with a code that becomes part of the team’s vocabulary.

A code that many use is the traffic light system: “red for don’t come anywhere near me”, amber for “everything’s normal today”, and green for “I’m feeling fantastic, throw anything at me!”. Also, it depends how much importance you give it. If you make that part of your daily check-in, together with availability and context, then it doesn’t carry much weight, but it’s still valuable information.”

“I see… But some might think it’s unprofessional for example to show you’re in a bad mood.”

“You’re right, it’s a personal thing, and it really depends on personality, culture and team dynamics. For some teams it’s “we don’t talk about emotions here, we just get on with it”, and at the other end of the spectrum, you might have team members who are used to having very open conversations, and signalling that they’re not having a good day can help them feel less vulnerable.”

“Mmm… I see…”


Dear Reader, let’s leave Anna to digest the the elements of Deliberate Communication and take the time together to go through this first concept of Visible Teamwork.

GRAPHIC showing Mood, Context, Availability

A sense of presence of others can help us to feel connected to team members. But nobody is just “present”. With that presence comes a degree of availability, within a unique context and enveloped by mood.

[RESEARCH Presence in virtual teams]

[Atlassian on Open Work high performing teams 55% have a culture of sharing who they are and what’s going on outside of work in their teams versus 17% not high performing]
https://www.atlassian.com/blog/teamwork/happy-high-achieving-teams-research

Our context, availability and mood, all affect how we show up when we work with others. While in the physical workspace we might sense much of this subconsciously, in the online space, this information gets lost unless we communicate it deliberately. Having a regular process for team members to check-in can turn this into a habit (meaning you need less processing energy to carry it out), and it ensures that you all don’t miss out on simple, but valuable information about each other.

How often you check-in and how much information you share around your availability, context and mood will depend on how often you need to interact with each other and your need to feel connected.

At this point, it’s useful to look at the mechanics of your collaboration, to understand how team members depend on each other to get the work done.

Task Interdependence

If your team members can get on with their tasks independently from each other, you could say you are working with Pooled Interdependence. You share a main objective, but not your tasks. Individuals can get on with their work without affecting the workflow of others.

On the other hand, if team members need to wait for someone else to finish their task before starting theirs, then you are working with Sequential Interdependence. For example, the workflow of the 21st Century Work Life podcast is made up of small, sequential tasks, grouped into three different stages. Each stage is completed by one person. I provide the audio files, editing instructions and show notes materials (web links and images). Ross takes the audio files, puts the episode together and then for the third stage, Maya creates the show notes from the audio file. Ross cannot start his tasks until I’m done, and Maya picks up the chain where he left off. One person’s output becomes another’s input.

The third kind of interdependence is Reciprocal Interdependence. This emerges when you work closely together on a task, and in a cyclical manner. Dependency on each other moves backwards and forwards between team members and the input we need from each other is less defined, and less predictable.


During my conversation with Anna, I shared my screen and talked her through this concept. I invited her to think about the type of interdependence her team worked with, and what kind of process of Deliberate Communication would be helpful.

[DIAGRAM OF TASK INTERDEPENDENCE]

Anna moved the index finger that was resting on her lips and pointed at the screen.

“Well, this changes project to project, but if I think of what we’re working on now, we have more of a pooled interdependence. Everyone has their own little turf, and to be honest, everyone could pretty much get on with their work without interacting with others. So, if your next question is about how useful it would be to know about our availability, mood and context, well, I’m not sure. Maybe not that useful in our day to day. Maybe knowing our availability would be more important, as there might be random times when we need something from each other?”

“Yes.”

“Now that I think about it, with this project we have grown a little bit apart. Because we don’t need to work with others, we’re only talking as a team in our weekly meetings. And I sometimes don’t hear from team members all day…”

“In which case, maybe you would benefit from knowing more about context and mood, and setting that as a regular, even daily process; it could be a way of feeling more connected, of feeling more involved with each other at a personal level, while getting on with your individual work.”

“I never thought of it like that. When we work together on tasks, with… Sequential Interdependence, I can see how knowing our availability, mood and context could help our collaboration. And we did talk at one point about having daily check-ins of some kind, but we decided to do it only when necessary. But now that you mention it, yes, when we’re working so independently, knowing a bit about what people are up to, or even just how they show up to work, could help us feel more connected.”

“Sometimes we want these processes to help us with the work, but other times we need them to provide a sense of connection. I suppose Deliberate Communication is more about the “team” in Visible Teamwork than the work.”

Anna’s brain seemed to be ticking away.

“Ok, so, I suppose I need to go away, think about this and discuss with the team, but have you got any examples for inspiration?”

[EXAMPLES]
[Step by step examples in Appendix]

“What about this sequential interdependence, because sometimes we do work in that way? What should we do then?”

I smiled. “I wouldn’t worry about adapting your system of Deliberate Communication every time you change projects – it will evolve anyway, and will settle down as something that works for your team. However, I can see your mind is naturally moving onto the next concept of Visible Teamwork, which relates more to how you make the actual work itself visible, the conversations around the work, the progress of the tasks… Do you want to set up an experiment first around availability, context and mood, and then we can look at Work Visibility?”

“Sounds good.”

[Bullet point summary]

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