Effective communication is a topic that has been discussed and argued for as long as people have worked together as a team. Ancient hunters sitting around the campfire probably discussed how they could achieve better results hunting.
Communication is a very natural human need, however it can be very energy consuming and tiresome. It takes a lot of effort to explain our own thoughts and ideas to others in a way that they can also understand. Listening and understanding other people can also be difficult.
People do not communicate clearly or often enough because it is too easy to do badly. Consequently we communicate as little as possible, or with people that already understand us, even if they aren’t the right audience.
With this in mind we must manage our expectations as to how much communication within teams can be improved by process and technology.
I have found that technology makes communication simpler and processes enforce rhythm and regularity. We are a team of 17 people based in Estonia, we have offices in two cities (Tallinn and Tartu) and we are building a messenger app that works with email.
We use the following tools to communicate within the team and externally with customers, partners etc.
Fleep – We use Fleep messenger to build the product – we have around 40 different dedicated chatrooms dedicated to different topics such as marketing, product discussion, team news and status, design, development backlog, reporting bugs. In general we create a new chat when a new chatroom topic or membership is worth a dedicated conversation. This way there are constantly several ongoing discussions around specific topics with the appropriate people. We use Fleep not only for messaging but also for the Tasks feature to manage all our backlogs and task lists.
Google Hangouts – We use Google Hangouts as a meeting conference bridge and we use the Google Hangout screen sharing feature. As Google Hangouts has Fleep integration, it is convenient to start calls straight from the Fleep chatroom and all members of the chat can join when they are ready.
Skype – We use Skype as a 24/7/365 ongoing video call between our Tallinn and Tartu offices. This helps us to visually bring two offices closer together. By default we have microphones muted on both sides, so we don’t disturb each other, but if you want to talk you just unmute and start speaking. We use dedicated Mac Mini + Sony TV + Jabra Teamspeaker hardware setup on both sides for that.
Most of our communication happens in the context of product development and marketing and we use elements of Scrum (software development) methodology for both. From a communication perspective Scrum is very good as it enforces collaboration within the team and supports it with a strong structure. We have:
• Meta backlog planning meetings – once every quarter we sit down for one day and prioritise where we want to evolve the product and in which order
• Weekly sprint update meetings – once a week, on Mondays we have a 20 minute all staff meeting where the dev and marketing teams report on their progress
• Weekly sprint planning meetings – once a week, on Mondays each dev and marketing team holds a 30 minute meeting where they plan their upcoming week and commit to the plan
• Weekly refinement meetings – once a week, on Wednesdays each dev and marketing team holds a 1 hour backlog meeting to sort their upcoming weeks’ tasks into an ordered task list, if backlog is already dealt with then the Monday sprint planning goes fast
• Daily standups – every day, in the morning each team holds a 10 minute meeting where everyone reports their status, progress and problems
These cycles, from quarterly planning to daily standups, enforce predefined rhythms of communication flow and transparency. Of course we can and do speak to each other at random times on random topics on top of that, but these regular meetings help to maintain a base level of communication and transparency.
We’ve been using these processes and tools for two and half years while building Fleep and we will keep evolving them in the future if we see better ways to optimise them.
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