It is nearly a year now since COVID-19 came to the United States. Many of us (the lucky ones) find ourselves working from home. For those that have been working in globally distributed teams, perhaps this is not so new. Is there truly any difference between working from home or working from a business office when the team members are distributed over many time zones?
Table of Contents
- Communication and Project Management
- Model of Communication
- Asynchronous Communication
- Asynchronous Communication Limits
- Communication and Distributed Team Limitations
We do not believe so.
A significant component of project management is communication. The project manager bears the bulk of the responsibility for ensuring a productive environment for communication. This includes ensuring the stakeholders receive the information they need.
Besides creating an environment wherein communication can occur freely. We have balanced developing the team environment to ensure the psychological safety of the team members, and not creating an environment where group think predominates. Our team members will need to be able to speak freely about what they think and see.
This environment of open and transparent communication allows us to bring the entire team into the discussion. We can explore the veracity of the team member's observation, through the perspective of multiple team members. This environment of open communication has other benefits like facilitates team learning, as well as bringing this collection of individuals to an actual team.
To further explore, we provide a short model of communication below. Communication is more complicated, and much of that complication and complexity is unobservable. Another thing worth noting is the impact of distractions, both external and internal on the reception of the message. Finally, the message is subject to the interpretation of the recipient. That means what was interpreted or understood might have no resemblance to the intended transmission. There is a saying, communication is the responsibility of the sender, which means the sender is required to ensure the interpretation of what was sent is what was intended. In truth, clear communication is the responsibility of all participants. This will require questions from both the sender and the recipient to ensure the message sent is what was received.
Figure 1 An example of a model of communications
We noticed a theme out there regarding communication in the time of COVID-19. Specifically, we have noticed a topic referred to as asynchronous communication, we should take a moment to articulate what we mean by asynchronous communication.
Asynchronous communication includes every form of communication that doesn’t happen in real-time – responses can occur intermittently.1
For years, globally distributed teams have no doubt employed what can be referred to as asynchronous communication. As we learn something in one time zone and need some input from team members in another time zone. We will perhaps send an email to that team member during our work hours and will get a reply back from them the following day. They crafted the response as we slept. I worked at a large multinational corporation. That corporation had testing facilities ranging from the United States, through the European Union, to India. Their goal was to be able to perform systems testing 24 hours out of the day by distributing the specific testing needs for a project (product and systems) across these sites.
Asynchronous communications have limits. Asynchronous communications can be very frustrating for those who have been able to walk down the hall or to another building floor to communicate with team members. Collocation makes the possibility of productive impromptu communications. Brainstorming events can happen with little or no lead time. For example, the anticipation of potential close aboard risks along with generating a quick list of actions to eliminate or at least mitigate. We work with engineers in a distributed team. The engineering portion of the team had located in one office. One of the engineers recently lamented the way we now work makes exploration of design ideas and concepts requires more time.
A collocated team and quick lines of communication can have interactions beyond the work focus. These interactions help develop our collection of individuals into a true team. These types of interactions are difficult with globally distributed teams and are not in the least promoted via asynchronous communication. A globally distributed team then has a similar impact as asynchronous communication.
Even as we are putting the final touches on this article, we have a discussion with one of our colleagues about three different documents describing a common system interface to the product they are developing. The problem is, these documents were describing a single interface, should have been the same description, but were not. Three different incarnations of a single interface. Now, this is a special category of asynchronous communication, that of product specifications, but it is a good demonstration of the limits of written material.
From experience, a project planned when communication was ‘smoother’ due to collocation can now expect unplanned delays due to communication challenges. We are also able to plan for the expected time our team members would be unavailable for the project. For example, working on projects that spanned Thanksgiving to after New Year’s Day, one was able to plan for those working part-time or not at all due to holiday or vacation time. We have worked with global companies with a large contingent in Europe. We know the availability of talent during July and
August would similarly be restricted. COVID-19 has made those six weeks of year-long activity. It is not possible to exactly know when resources and talent would be available, though this is not an asynchronous communication difficulty.
In the current environment and with asynchronous communication, effective responses to a ‘critical event’ cannot happen. Unless one has the cell phone number of the sponsor, every team member, and supplier contact getting an immediate response is highly unlikely. We must also be willing to call these team members at any time, holidays, weekends, and ridiculous hours of the evening. To avoid these critical events, we go out of our way to have phone calls with team members that are 13 hours’ worth of time zones different. This leads to phone calls either at 3 am or 10 pm, which is much better than a hard project failure.
Other challenges are the potential technical glitches of using the internet, wi-fi, and appropriate applications I.E. Skype, Zoom, etc. These glitches can thwart even the best thought out and presented communication. By way of example, we have recently been in a virtual meeting with the executives of the corporation, and at our time to present, the network goes down. This was not a very comfortable situation.
Distributed working comes with challenges, both in communication and team building. Working from home in this distributed environment has those same challenges. From experience there are some personal benefits of working from home, perhaps we will write about that in later articles. Acknowledging these communication challenges will help us plan and respond proactively. We align expectations with what is likely to happen. We can plan and execute other communication approaches (not rely solely on asynchronous communications) in our project. There is a place for asynchronous communication, and in some cases, we have to use what we have available to us.
However, any project manager or even manager that believes all communication or even the majority of it, can be written or via asynchronous communication.
The method is slow, and there is no guarantee that, on its own, there is a single interpretation of the written material by the reader.
• Asynchronous communication should not be the only project communication method.
• Communication is one of the elements that can turn a group of individuals into a team.
• Never assume your message accurately decoded by the recipient.
• Allow more time for communication with a distributed team.
• Develop common mental models and lexicon. These will change over time as the team learns.
The Art of Async: The Remote Guide to Team Communication