A simple system for effective team communication

Kyle’s note: For remote teams, a good system for team communication is critical to move your business forward. A few simple rules to keep your communication clean and efficient can save you hours each week. Nico Appel joins us to give us some simple strategies to help you streamline your communication. Over to Nico:

The purpose of this article is to help further the essence of great teamwork: communication that is geared towards producing result.

This is not about a new set of tools. In fact, it doesn’t matter which tools and software you are using. Tools are great, but they have little influence over how well and effective people are actually using them for communication (contrary to what most marketing would have you believe).

After you’ve read a handful of “25 team communication tools your startup needs” you realize that having the latest tools alone does not ensure good communication and team productivity.

Why is communication so important?

Growing your business leads to hiring and working with other people. A team is an organization, it needs to be organized to work efficiently. Collaboration is based on communication, especially in modern knowledge work.

We must therefore (learn to) express ourselves clearly. We must translate ideas into action. We need to coordinate our work.

The major part of our work-related communication happens in writing – and if it doesn’t, we’ll soon have an issue with accountability. Your team’s writing skills have to be adequate to the task; not necessarily great, but clear and concise writing is what we’re looking for.

So what are the ingredients of good team communication? And what are the hallmarks of great team communication?

Let’s dig into what is rarely covered or made explicit, not to mention taught properly: how a team communicates effectively and gets stuff done.

Related: How we effectively use Trello for project management

The final goal

The purpose of our work communication is to get things done with as little friction as possible. In this sense, quality is measured by how close we are getting to

  1. communicating without ambiguity (= no misunderstandings),
  2. providing complete information (= no missing information), and
  3. providing context (= coherency).

A combination of these factors inevitably leads to accountability, short(er) communication cycles, and focus.

Team communication in the wild

We should start with a little real life example so you see what we are concerned with.

Following is an actual screenshot taken from one of my client’s task management system (Yes, I asked for permission to use this. I would have a hard time to make this up).

example from my client's task manager (Asana)

Screenshot from my client’s task manager (Asana)

What do we have here? That last comment was made about one month ago as I write this and nothing happened since then. Why? Because there are several things wrong with this:

  1. This isn’t a task yet, although the task manager is used here. As we will see in a minute they should have communicated about what’s going on in an appropriate channel, then translate this into the task manager. (Remember: A task is something that can be done, not a question.)
  2. There is not enough context provided (see “Provide context”) and the information is incomplete. Where is the screenshot/screencast (see “Use media”)? What is the URL? Where is the Github link to the line of code in question?
  3. This is ambiguous and unspecific. The developer writes “seems like …”. What does that mean? Does he want the business owner to look into it? Is he himself intending to find out what caused the problem? If so, when?
  4. Most important: What’s supposed to happen next? Who is responsible for solving the issue? (see “Think ahead”)

The last reply comment starts with “No doubt.”. What does this refer to? No doubt that the slideshow is broken or no doubt the updates affected the code?

I guess there is certainly no doubt about one thing: this problem is not going to get solved as it stands.

Sorry, I just had to flip my table—again—I can’t help it, but that’s because I know these two people are actually smart and tech-savvy knowledge workers.

My assessment is simply this: They haven’t thought this through. And in its current state this is a dead end.

Unfortunately though, I see this kind of stuff all the time. As I said, I’m on a mission to change this for the better. So here are some rules.

Principles for great team communication

Let’s dissect this. I will offer you a set of simple, common sense rules so we can all get more stuff done (and I can stop flipping tables).

Appropriate channel

Today, we have a plethora of communication tools or “channels” at our disposal (email, team chat, and many, many more). Therefore, a central aspect of communicating effectively is using the appropriate channel for the job at hand.

To decide which channel is in fact most appropriate, everyone on the team needs to understand and make the following distinction. (Some people get this intuitively in some cases, but seeing the following criteria at least once should evoke some nodding in agreement and the occasional aha-moment.

What are you doing?

I differentiate three categories of communication/messages:

  • You provide information.
  • You collect information.
  • You delegate work.

Either you’re informing people, you’re asking questions, or you’re assigning work (and responsibility). Simple, right? While this distinction is rather obvious, the trick is to (try to) keep these things separate and, again, to choose the appropriate channel.

So decide on what you are doing first and keep the categories separate as much as possible.

As you could see in the given example above, it was a mix of all three and at the same time not doing a good job at either providing information, asking a question, or delegating work. I hope you can see this is part of the problem.

Mind the interruption you’re causing

“Interruption is the price we pay for urgency (or laziness).” (CLICK TO TWEET)


Take a look at the graphic here and note how it sorts the channels we communicate with on a scale of interruption caused from left to right.

We must consider how much interruption—not to forget work—we are causing. Sure, our teammates can manage their notifications, but it’s in the best interest of the team as a whole to be aware of the “interruption level”. Be respectful and cognizant of your teammates’ attention.

Related: How to revolutionize your team communication with Slack

Additional criteria

Once you sorted out the category and considered interruption, there are a few more criteria that will affect your choice.

  • Is this addressing a one single person or a group?
  • Is this rather transient in nature or does it need to be referred to later?
  • Is this more of a simple matter or indeed quite complex of an issue?

These questions will often help you decide between available alternatives, e.g. team chat vs. email.

To sum up – basic rules for choice of channel

  • Use email or team chat to provide written information. In some cases a quick screencast is even better.
  • For getting information any written way can work. Make sure you have a record to get back to the information later.
  • And finally, if it’s something that can be done, add it to the task manager (to-do list).
  • Try to keep these three categories separate.

Interlude: The funnel of getting things done

All communication has to be translated into tasks at some point. Otherwise, how would things get done, ever(CLICK TO TWEET)

If the information which is being provided or collected is not translated into tasks/work at some point, you might educate or entertain yourself and your team but you are not producing results. So, at the end of the day, stuff has to go on a to-do list and somebody has to get the work done.

Related: After the meeting.

Communication gets translated into task which produce results

The funnel of getting things done: translating communication into tasks which produce results.

Team communication enhancers

It’s about empathy

In order to improve the quality of our communication we must first and foremost consider the recipient(s), the person or group we want to reach, inform, and possibly (re)act in a certain way. It is about empathy for them, for what they know and don’t know, for where and when our message finds them, that should guide us.
Therefore, re-calibrate by using the feedback you get, meaning: if people don’t understand your message or often times come back with lots of questions, it is you who needs to provide more information and be more specific.

Think ahead – know your outcome

Ask yourself, “What do I expect/wish to happen next?”. Always communicate with intent. This will help move things forward and keep the blabber at bay.

Your message or comment should always have a purpose and be related to our goal (getting things done).

It’s okay not to comment or reply at times, saving your teammates some time and attention.

Be aware that questions generate/trigger more back and forth, especially open questions like, “what do you think?”. That can be fine it intended. If you want the recipient(s) to reply, then yes, ask questions or explicitly tell them to confirm such and such.

Be a closer

With lots of stuff going on all the time and attention being a scarce resource, closing conversation threads is almost like a baby version of getting things done.

Often times, closure is closer than you think. For example, instead of “So I guess we should try to finish task B first and leave task A for the time being. Or what do you think? “, write: “Let’s move on to task B now and leave task A as it is until we hear back from Mr. Smith.”

Make the decision and take responsibility (when that’s in line with your role in the team). If there are any objections, you will hear about them. Don’t kick off an open ended discussion (as in “Or what do you think?“) if you can avoid it.

“It’s not the purpose of team chat to keep the team chatting.” (CLICK TO TWEET)

Be specific and consistent

Probably the most agreed upon piece of advice for good writing style is to use definite, specific, and concrete language.

So what does specific mean? It’s simply the difference between a message like, “I’m working on the page this morning.”, and, “I’m working on the copy of the sales page for client X this morning”.

Related to that aspect and relevant to the knowledge worker is the following rule, called “One thing – one word”:

“When naming files or referring to any one thing, keep things simple: stay with one (and the same) name / word.”

It is good practice to give things a name and stick with it. Be consistent. This avoids misunderstandings and facilitates searching/finding things.

Use media

Use screenshots, screencasts, sketches, … whatever it takes to get your point across and facilitate understand at the recipient’s end.

Provide context

Since we all have to jump from one project to the next, switching between email, team chat, calls, etc. we run into a problem: We lose context. We come across bits of information and don’t understand where this information belongs to what it’s meant to relate to.

This can be remedied. Use and add phrases like “regarding X”, “re: Y”, and others to help your teammates quickly and easily understand what this is about.

When forwarding email, never just type “fyi” and hit the send button (FYI rule). Always take the time to sum up or explain what this is about and which part is relevant for your teammates (and why), example:

Hi Max,

here is Mr. Jones’ reply to our proposal.
Take a look at the paragraph “Technology” below  and please add his requirements to your spec doc.

then insert the forwarded text here

Be human

And last, but not least, producing results is also a matter of having fun and picard is annoyed that you don't even know what a meme isbeing engaged. So, yes, be human. Crack a joke. Throw in a funny GIF from time to time.

This is about working in a team. I for one really enjoy working with competent people who have a sense of humor. After all, we spend quite some time in real or virtual the office together. This is about respect and empathy just as much as it is about producing results. Make it fun.

Bonus: TightOps Team Communication Check

I have a short test for yourself, your staff, or potential new hires to quickly gauge how someone is doing in regards to efficient team communication, called the TightOps Team Communication Check. Go give it a spin. It only takes a few minutes and I will personally evaluate the input and give you some feedback.

Related: 12 remote workers reveal how to be happy, effective and valuable

Thanks for reading. Please add comments with any questions or insights you have.


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Nico Appel is the founder of the TightOps, a coffee enthusiast, antifragilista, and efficiency geek. He co-hosts a podcasts about running a business remotely at HoboCEO.

2 responses to “A simple system for effective team communication”

  1. Dan Norris says:

    Nice Nico thanks for the article mate very timely!

  2. Debbie Madden says:

    Great article! Agreed. Team communication is a key foundational piece of any successful business. But the truth is: effective team communication is hard. Yet on the flipside, improving team communication is the most effective thing companies can do this year to give their team the biggest competitive advantage. I’ve seen teams go down in flames because of failure to communicate. In fact, it’s happened so often that I wrote up my thoughts on it here – http://blog.stridenyc.com/the-importance-of-effective-team-communication

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