Written communication in distributed teams
Writing is not that easy, though we write all day long. It is important for our own work and life, but also to interact with other people. It is important, when working in a team. Writing gets even more important, when working in distributed teams.
In a distributed team you can’t always rely on video calls and talk to each other on the phone. When working in a different location, different time zones, with a flexible schedule, calling everyone to transport information gets cumbersome.
When writing notes to ourselves or our teammates, often we struggle with writing down the right thing, at least I do. Probably everyone knows this situation, looking at a note that you have written down before the weekend and suddenly it does not make the slightest sense.
Is there a method or a way to write down information in a way that you understand it even after eons?
Can we keep control over all our notes and get them at hand, when we need them?
Before we dive into a possible solution, first, have a look at data, information, and knowledge.
Data is just the pure value, like a number, a name, a set of words. Data without context is mostly useless. Data is the basic building block of the information we want to transport, and the knowledge that we want to create.
Let’s take the number 29, it is a data point, another one is 08.02.2021 and still, it does make no sense.
When we add some context to the data, then Information is created, taking the number 29, which represents the maximum temperature in Miami on 08.02.2021, in degree celsius, according to the google weather forecast.
To create knowledge from information, we need to put the information into use. Like knowing the weather forecast for Miami, I would suggest wearing a shirt and not a winter jacket in Miami in February.
For more on data, information and knowledge, refer to Helmut Willke
Transport information to create knowledge
Thinking about this, information it is, we want to transport with our written communication, to create knowledge at our audience, but data it is, what we can transport. Also, we have to take into account, that information is only transportable when we have the same frame of relevance for the data that is transported. The transportation of information is always error-prone since we all have different frames of relevance.
All hope lost? Note taking techniques to the rescue. Here are three things that are necessary to take good notes:
- Can my teammates find the information and does it resonate with them?
- What is the context of my audience, do I include all the data points that are necessary to recreate the information that I want to transport.
- Is the note linked to other useful information?
Make sure you are all on the same page
Though obvious, this is the first thing you should discuss in your team, where and how to communicate. When working in a distributed team, written communication becomes essential, therefore it should be the first thing to establish, and agree on. Nowadays there are many options for exchanging written information, make sure you have a common ground to keep your teams information. This could be a Slack channel, a Confluence site, a common OneNote or Notion, or whatever, just make sure that you all use the same system.
Keep your communication system simple. If your documentation/ communication system is too complex, involves too many places to find information, people will get lost and either do not use the system or in the worst case, create a total mess of somehow related, partially outdated, and useless information.
Transparency is also key to successful teamwork when distributed. Hence, agree on writing down almost absolutely everything. Make sure your colleagues get information when you discussed something relevant on a 1-to-1 phone call. Make sure, every get’s updated on your latest ideas and findings concerning the projects. Be bold in showing your work to your teammates. You need a circle of trust within a successful team anyway, if that is not the case, get out there as fast as you can.
First, start with the why
If you want to get the readers’ attention, answering the question, “why should I read this” is the start of your communication. Recap in one sentence the answer to this question. It is as simple and difficult as this. You have one sentence to get or lose the attention of your reader.
Next often it is a good practice to give a quick outline of what is in the following lines. Make it short because you’ll be going to explain it anyway. If it is only one or two points that you want to transport, you might skip the outline.
Write down your points
Write about one point at a time, though it seems obvious it can be difficult because items you’re writing about, link to each other.
Write down the item you are talking about. Add an explanation, if needed. Add reasoning, if you state an opinion. Help people to put the thing, you want your audience to take note about, into a meaningful context.
Think about the context
When you make your points think about the context that your readers might have. Make a point and put it into relation to first principles or already known facts of the tasks at hand.
Try to make as many links to other useful information as possible. Most modern communication systems allow links, use them.
Even if you write stuff it needs to resonate with those who read it. Take your time to review the feedback you get from your colleagues on what you have written. Also, give your colleagues feedback on their writings. Add your thoughts to the notes or write down questions in the comments.
Questions and feedback help to understand and to improve the transportation of information.
If there is no feedback, you will be lost and get hardly a chance to improve the communication. In case there is no feedback, get a discussion on written communication started.
Other useful thoughts on writing notes
- If you and your team have a setup review the functionality of the system regularly. Together, think about, what annoys you, what doesn’t work, and how to improve.
- When writing down our notes. We should take care of writing them down in a system that has a good search engine. No matter how good your structure is, at some point, you will get lost and need to search for things. Having a useful search engine at hand is essential and difficult at the same time.
- There are methods for taking literature and lesson notes, like Cornell, charting, or mapping method. These are focused on learning, but work for team communication as well, at least partially.
- The process of writing should be easy. Get a pen or a keyboard that fits you. If writing down gets hard, you hardly want to do it. If it takes too much time, you hardly want to spend the time on it. If you want to assure fast writing and good readability, using computer systems might be your best guess. To learn touch typing and get faster at typing go to typing.com or other sites like 10fastfingers or keybr.com, just to mention some.
Written communication is essential for distributed teams and possibly also a good idea for non-distributed teams — you never have everyone at the table. Writing good communication is easy and not easy at the same time.
Make sure everyone who should get the information gets it. Give your data context to create information and actively “talk” about it, feedback is essential.
Find a way to make it as easy as possible for you to write down information and make it as easy as possible to find information.
Link your communication to other information to create a network of information.
Some techniques promise to get you to this goal, to be honest, though I use these methods, sometimes I fail to apply them without error and try to understand what it was I wanted to tell my future self.
If you like the content, leave a clap and a comment on how you share information with your team mates.
It if was helpful for your work consider
Helmut Willke — Einführung in das systemische Wissensmanagement
Sönke Ahrens — How to take smart notes