In this lecture, we will cover the very basics of communication theory. We will see what are the most important communication types and why is it important to be aware of them. Everything shared in this lecture is something you can apply to all areas of leadership and life, not just remote work. Understanding the basics here will be the groundwork for successfully grasping topics in other lectures of this section.
Any interaction we have in our life is done through communication. Whether this is talking to someone in person, sending an email or just liking a post on social media, it is a way of communicating our thoughts and intents.
Let’s take a moment and look at the basic structure. Communication happens over a communication channel that consists of at least three parts. These are:
In each communication channel, there is only one source. This is the entity that is emitting some sort of content. The content is emitted into the communication medium which relays it to one or multiple receivers. If we would think of this in a “normal” communication setup where you have at least two people talking about something the Source would be the person talking, Medium would be speech (sound waves) and receivers would be one or more persons listening. This model of the communication channel can be applied to any form of communication out there.
As a side note, I deliberately used the word content instead of information because, by information theory definition, information is only such content that provides a meaningful (meaning new) content for the receiver. For all purposes and intents, later in this lecture we will be only using word information.
On a high level, there are four types of communication. Depending on the source of communication, it can be verbal or non-verbal. Depending on the communication medium, it can be formal or informal. If we consider those communication types more closely and think about combining them in different ways, we will see that any kind of communication happening in an organization can be reduced down to one of the four possible pairs.
Describing and understanding the difference between formal and informal communication is definitely easier so let’s start with that.
Formal communication has the goal to share information as effectively as possible. It should be impartial, concrete, documented and fully understandable to all recipients. When communicating formally, nothing should be assumed or taken for granted. One of the most extreme examples of formal communication are legal documents which are (or at least should) be created in a way that nothing is left to interpretation and that both source and receivers have an identical understanding of the content. Another form of formal communication can be performance reviews, OKRs or feedback polls. With formal communication, discretion and secrecy will often be required
Informal communication is everything that is not formal communication, obviously :). It is relaxed, conversational and is applied in everyday life. Informal communication is the predominant way to communicate for most people and we use it in various different ways with our coworkers, friends and family. Slang, emotions and abbreviations are all commonly used.
In certain situations, such as talking with your manager, people you manage or a client you are trying to win, you will balance the usage of Formal and Informal communication. Being either at the “Yo, whasup bruh” or the “With my kindest regards” end of the informal vs formal spectrum will yield very poor effect on the person you are communicating with. Knowing what is the appropriate level of informality to use in certain situations is the key to success in a lot of situations.
Now that we understand the difference between formal and informal, let’s look at verbal and non-verbal communication.
Verbal communication is the exchange of information using words. It can happen both through spoken and written mediums of transferring information. Verbal communication answers the question of what we say. Verbal communication should be structured and easy to understand.
Non-verbal communication is the communication we emit without, or on top of, using words. It encompasses intonation of our communication, body language, different kinds of audio or visual signs and overall answers the question of how we say something.
When communicating, we would always heavily combine verbal and non-verbal communication. Unlike formal-informal distinction, verbal and non-verbal communication are complementary and it is encouraged to use, and understand, both at the same time. Especially in spoken communication (face to face, video), non-verbal communication will always be present and the kinds of body language we use will be part of the message we are conveying. This is especially true if we try not to use body language and other forms of the non-verbal message – it will only amplify the non-verbal spectre of communication.
Various research has been made to study verbal and non-verbal communication and each of them concluded that all of us actually convey more information through non-verbal than through verbal communication. This means that when we communicate with someone, it is more important HOW we say something than WHAT we say. For the purpose of this course, we will not delve deeper into explaining why this is but it is important to be aware of this. Communication science is a huge area and in these few minutes, we only covered the very very basics. In the next lecture, we will see how all of this applies in a remote environment.
In the previous lecture we have covered the fundamentals of communication and the difference between formal and informal, verbal and non-verbal. Let’s now take a quick look at how those types apply in remote settings.
If you are a leader in a remote organization, the importance of understanding different aspects and ways of communication will be more amplified than with in-office communication. This is because you are working with people you did not have a chance to meet in person, yet you need to make them feel welcome and as a part of a community. Communicating too formally and they will easily disengage and will not develop proper cultural fit. Communicate too informally and they might get too relaxed which will affect their output and productivity. Finding the right balance is not an exact science and depends on the personality of the recipients and the kind of culture you are trying to nurture in the organization. It is important to always be on the lookout for potential communication discomfort signs from the other party and by that try and adjust the level of formality.
Given that remote organizations are in their nature more progressive than average, the formal communication will also be more progressive. This means that:
Utilizing this approach to communication, remote organizations will save on operational complexity, time and costs to deliver a message. As a leader in the remote organization, you need to know your team and know which delivery option is appropriate for what kind message. Think of the level of formality, the impact message has, and the amount of it’s traceability that you require. Do you need a document signature, an assumption that a chat message has been read or an acknowledgment on the call?
In-person communication is something that remote-only organizations can afford very rarely and definitely not any time they’d like. If the team is spread across the globe, flying it in for a meeting would not be a good way to spend the money. This is one of the biggest drawbacks of working remotely. By not being able to meet face to face at will, everyone in the organization needs to excel at other types of communication listed above as well as have a strong understanding of verbal and non-verbal messaging. As a leader, you need to especially be aware of this and find ways to “read” people and ensure that you are nurturing their success and happiness in the workplace by communicating via chats and calls efficiently with them.
As a leader, it is your task to always be aware of this and set an example on how to communicate successfully. People will look up to and learn from you on this. If you communicate clearly and with empathy, so will others. If you limit yourself to formal ways of communicating, don’t expect more from the people in the team either.
A lot, maybe even the most, of communication in remote teams today will happen via chats. When in an office, due to the physical proximity of people working together, it’s almost as if you are on a constant voice call. However, actually being on a constant voice call would be pretty awkward and unsustainable. This is where the chats come in.
One of the first things any team, especially a remote one, will do is pick the official chat application where messages can be exchanged. There is a plethora of tools today that facilitate chatting in certain way and each of them comes with their benefits and drawbacks. Picking the right tool is extremely important as you eventually will end up modeling a lot of your communication processes around that tool.
Properly setting up your organization’s chat environment is an extremely important task whether you are doing that on the company level or on the team level. Just as with any other part of business, unless processes are set up and respected, things will quickly fall into disarray. Let’s then cover some of the basics about organizing the chat environment:
Chats can usually be considered as the very informal way of communicating (unless there are some official announcements being made) and are used for work and non-work topics alike. Sending messages in chats is a form of verbal communication, because we use words. However, modern chat tools acknowledge the importance of non-verbal communication and they all support different ways to communicate non-verbally. That can be emoticons, alerts, highlights or something else. For any chat communication that is not strictly formal (eg announcements), usage of non-verbal components should be welcomed in the team.
Being proficient with using chats is an important aspect of working remotely. Ability to compose sentences properly, type quickly and use emoticons with ease is no less important than speaking skills such as pronunciation and body expressions. Make sure that everyone in your team is aware of this and that this culture is nurtured from day 1.
Communication via calls is, alongside chatting, the most dominant way of communicating in a remote team.
Calls can be done with or without video component to them. This is important because of the fact mentioned in previous lectures, which is that we convey more information in non-verbal than verbal ways. When communicating via calls, especially without video component, a huge portion of the non-verbal communication spectrum is cut off. This means that facial expressions, body gestures and everything else visual will not be present. This creates problems both on the sender and the receiver sides. The sender will need to make sure they compensate for the lack of those with either more detailed verbal communication or conveyable non-verbal (such as accent) communication. The receiver will need to make sure to provide, in a verbal way, detailed feedback on their understanding of the information that comes across in order for communication to be successful.
As a leader in the remote organization you will participate in A LOT of calls and in various different roles. Let’s take a look at what kinds of calls there are depending on the size and structure of the participants:
Another type of calls that are very common are Project-calls. Everything that an organization does can be called a project. Whether that is software development, new marketing initiative or a client on-site visit. Audience on these calls will always only depend on the project and nothing else. It can contain people from different teams as well as different levels of seniority and leadership. There most usually would be a project leader on the call that would manage the flow of the call and make sure everyone stays on topic and contributes to the overall goal of the project. This fact is not specific to remote organizations or meetings done via calls, same issues happen in live project meetings too. However, the additional complication that needs to be tackled in remote organizations is increased complexity of ensuring that everyone has complete and identical understanding of what is being said on the call. When you have people in the same room it is very easy to gauge who is “on top of it” and who is lost zoning off by reading their facial expressions and body language. In a remote call this is not possible and additional measures such as doing additional rounds of acknowledgment are required.
Proper alignment and thorough understanding of the project and individual tasks by everyone is of paramount importance for the success of the project. As a leader, you need to utilize the above types of calls and communication venues in various ways to ensure each group and individuals alike have complete alignment and work in unison towards the end goal. Being skilled in navigating calls and communication is crucial. Knowing when to take initiative and when to turn to chit-chat, when to be a source of encouragement and when to show compassion will differentiate the leaders that are successful and loved by their team versus the ones that are failing.
We have seen in the previous lectures that there are numerous ways of communicating in the remote teams, both when considering the communication venue (mail or chat for instance) and structure (or participants). Various communication channels will create different types of content and, without proper structure, a situation can quickly become chaotic. To avoid this kind of noise in the communication, proper structure of communication as well as sources of truth need to be established.
One of the simplest things that should be done is that communication venues are set up per topic or per groups of topics. We have covered this in the previous lectures too but the important takeaway is that:
Venues can be both chat groups and group calls but most often they will be both.
A role of a leader is to always guide the communication into the proper venue. Discussing a project-related topic in a team chat will likely result that another project member doesn’t catch up on the discussion. It will also significantly reduce the traceability of the project history and why certain decisions were made. Having the proper communication venue processes in place will greatly facilitate this.
Always be aware that chats are much slower communication venue, where, due to the lack of non-verbal component, a lot of noise can be introduced. In the service of speed and clarity, the majority of discussions and brainstormings, especially when there are different interests involved, should be happening on video calls.
The outcome of important discussions done via a call should written down in the proper place though. This will ensure that everyone provides their immutable agreement on the outcome and next steps.
Having very clear organization-wide policies on where certain kinds of information are stored is important in any organization, but especially so in the remote one. The casual “Hey where do I find X” type of conversations that are very common and quick to execute when people are physically together are significantly slower in a remote environment. However, by setting up the information policies properly, remote organization would eliminate the need for such question by having each person in the team always know where they can find something. Whether it is project information, a process handbook, training materials or something else, everyone should know where to look for it.
There are various tools that facilitate information and knowledge storage in an efficient and accessible way. As the leader in the organization you will need to pick the right one and likely also figure out the right way to organize it so it suits your processes in the best way.