Hello, I’m Michael Sliwinski, founder of Nozbe - to-do app for business owners and their teams. I write essays, books, work on projects and I podcast for you using #iPadOnly in #NoOffice as I believe that work is not a place you go to, it’s a thing you do. More…

The Pyramid of Communication in a Remotely Working team


In the 18th episode of The Podcast with Radek we talked about how we use different tools for different types of communication. The credit for this idea goes to Radek (just listen to the episode and him explaining the thing) but the credit to the way we’ve developed it goes to the entire Nozbe team. And I strongly believe companies NOT working remotely should also pay attention to this because this is how you get meetings done efficiently. And when you’re located in the same place, you might be abusing one form of communication and under-using another one. OK, I’m getting confusing now. Anyway, this advice below is good for both, remotely and non-remotely working teams. Here goes:

The Pyramid of Communication in a Remotely Working team

The Foundation — Level 1: Asynchronous communication with Nozbe and Github

The tools we use most are Nozbe (to manage our projects and tasks) and Github (to manage code — we’re after all a software company). Communicating through these tools is slow, but more deliberate and most efficient. When you share a project with someone, you can create a task for them, add a comment… and you expect the other person to deal with it when they see fit. You know this task is now on their Priority list and when they review the list, they’ll see the task and get on with it. The same goes to Github. You work on code, you commit it, you review other commits. You add comments. At your own pace.

Communication here is asynchronous because what you do in Nozbe and Github requires blocks of focused time. And responses from other people require also focused time. So these tools are not designed to bother others (although we do have push notifications there if we want), these tools are designed to get stuff done effectively with full focus on tasks and code at hand. With these tools we move projects (and code) forward together, while each of us moves at their own pace.

Again, the key word here is “focused time”. This is what we, knowledge workers need the most to get things done. And I’d argue that we, who work remotely, have more of it than the rest. But I digress, let’s move on to the second phase:

Moving to 2nd Level: More Synchronous, faster communication: Slack Channels

If we need more direct, low bandwidth, but faster way of communicating with our team, we have Slack Channels for that. Slack is our Chat client and we have different channels set up there to talk about stuff. We have one channel/room for the firm in general, for design, for development, for random stuff… and this type of communication is quicker, sometimes real time. But it doesn’t have to be. You can still focus on your work, get back to your channel and read the discussion you missed and contribute. We use this to talk about issues more in real time, to brainstorm on ideas, to have a quicker interaction with each other.

3rd Level — Direct Messages through Slack, iMessage or other Chat clients

Now this is quick. It’s still just text, but when you send a direct message you are expecting a reply pretty quick. This is still pretty low bandwidth because other people can choose to ignore you and only respond to you when they have the time. Or chat with you “on the side” while they are still doing something that needs finishing.

We try to be reasonable here and exchange only a few messages to decide on something… or ping someone when there is a task for them that we really need done as soon as possible.

4th Level — Voice over Skype or FaceTime Audio (or phone :-)

We’re reaching higher bandwidths now. We usually schedule voice chats before. We arrange on chat when is a good moment to speak and only then we call each other. We usually use Skype for this. I sometimes use FaceTime Audio or most recently Whatsapp calls. OK, sometimes I even use a phone. But very rarely nowadays.

This is a meeting now. It’s still possible to be doing something while you’re talking but because it’s voice you’re more-less expected to have full attention to the other person you’re talking to.

But not really full attention. And what I mean by that is that very often we use Skype voice to just chat while we work. For example if we’re finishing a project together and we’d like to be connected, we know the other person is listening and we can talk to them anytime… so we keep a voice connection open.

And we also use this for meetings. Then we do try to give each other full attention… but this really happens at the:

5th Level — Video communication at high bandwidth (Skype Video)

This where you really talk to someone and give and expect full and undivided attention. This is similar to talking with someone in real office. You are face to face. You talk about stuff and you expect each other to be there “in the moment” and be focused on each other. Conversation like this is a serious commitment.

Now, as you can see, this is the 5th level. This is a form of communication we use rarely when we really need it. We use it for brainstorming ideas on my whiteboard, we use it for important, deeper conversations. We use it when we really need it. For everything else we use the other 4 forms of communication.

If you work in a traditional office where everyone commutes to work, how often you use this 5th level of communication? How often it’s just convenient to skip the other levels and just go to 5th level? Just go over to someone, disturb them in their work and talk to them and involve them at 100%? Just think about it.

Each level is at a cost. Nothing is free. Level 5 is the most expensive.

Just think about it. When two people talk at level 5, the’re using their full time for this conversation. For a talk of 30 minutes, one man-hour is being used. All other forms of communication are cheaper as they don’t require full, undivided attention. Just think about all these man-hours spent chatting in an open office. That’s a lot of wasted productivity right there.

And how do you communicate with your team? Which tools/levels you use most? In which situations you use levels 1–5? Don’t you overuse the level 5 there?

Let me leave you with this:

Talk is cheap? Not really. Communication can be efficient and cheap. And focused. On your team’s best work.

Let me know what you think. Thanks!

Friday, November 6, 2015 /communication-pyramid/