How Remote Teams Can Communicate Effectively

These observations are based mostly on my experience at DuckDuckGo where strategies have evolved as we’ve grown over the years.

Firstly, we each have a profile/bio that indicates the timezone we’re in, the hours we tend to work, and how we’d like to be addressed. We also clearly mark when we’re out so it’s easy to see who can be contacted. We don’t do out-of-office auto-replies because…

We don’t use email! Well, we do for external communication e.g. with partners, but internal communication is all through a project management system or chat channels. The aim is to keep communication as open as possible so no-one’s left out and past conversations are discoverable.

The benefit of this openness is less confusion but at the risk of more noise. To minimise that, we’re quick to move conversations into new subtasks or separate channels. We have an informal rule to switch to a call if a written conversation gets too long.

We rely on project updates a *lot* but try to save everyone’s time by using a consistent format:

  • Current status
  • Next steps
  • Blockers

Other techniques include:

  • Using bullet points
  • Using bold to highlight certain sentences
  • Starting updates with a summary before the details.

This makes things faster for both the writer and for readers who want to skim-read. To prevent messages like questions and requests from being overlooked, we @mention specific people as much as possible.

Another thing that saves time by reducing clutter in inboxes is to ask for objections rather than approval. E.g. saying “If no-one objects, I’ll start work on this on Wednesday” avoids getting lots of “Fine with me” replies. Allowing 24 hours for objections seems to work.

We also try to reduce avoidable questions and answers by having clear processes and documentation, taking time to get them right in the first place. Processes have examples as well as templates to copy and paste.

Having said that, one thing we encourage is “questioning assumptions” and although it may sound like a cliché, in my experience questions are always answered patiently and respectfully – even my own that in hindsight were me not reading something properly!

In summary, the overarching aim is clarity. From the company vision down to individual projects, we try to make expectations and goals clear and visible to all. We don’t have all the answers to trouble-free communication but these steps have worked well so far.


tl;dr

  • A profile/bio that indicates the timezone we’re in.
  • Internal communication is all through a project management system or chat channels.
  • Quick to move conversations into new subtasks or separate channels.
  • Use a consistent format for project updates.
  • @mention specific people as much as possible.
  • Ask for objections rather than approval.
  • Have clear processes and documentation.
  • Question assumptions.
  • Make expectations and goals clear and visible to all.

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