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21st Century Work Life and leading remote teams

Brought to you by Virtual not Distant, the 21st Century Work Life podcast looks at leading remote teams, online collaboration and working in distributed organisations.

Join Pilar Orti, guests & co-hosts as they shine the spotlight on the most relevant themes and news relevant to the modern knowledge worker.

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Mar 24, 2022

In this episode, Maya and Pilar discuss the different communication rhythms that remote teams adopt. They also cover the concept of documentation, as something that can help slow down a team's rhythm, or at least help it towards "burstiness", a characteristic of successful teams. Plenty here to reflect on.

Communication in an online team requires a different mindset to that of when you are collocated, and requires different ways of interacting which might feel unnatural, or even uncomfortable.

It all started with this tweet:

“Over the last years, I’ve worked & collaborated with a wide range of people online. 1 thing that strikes me is that the rhythm of communication & the speed of the workflow become apparent. I’ve noticed when somebody’s rhythm clashes with my own. Is this something you’ve noticed?”

Saskie replied that she also noticed when it WAS in sync, and gave this metaphor: “Musing on your tweet brought to mind an image of 3 legged races as a child. Just agreeing to begin with the outer leg first was a winning tactic. It wasn’t about running faster – just about not falling over ourselves!”

As external people, we notice this when we come into a team, but the team might not be aware that there are different rhythms of communicating. There are teams which communicate constantly, either because the task requires it, or because they’re used to it. So this presents itself like constant tagging, and many near real-time replies; on the other hand some teams barely tag anyone, just post messages at some point, and don’t require as much synchronous communication, neither to do their work or to feel connected. 

We explain the terms “asynchronous communication”, “documentation” and “single source of truth”. For more on this, you might want to check out this newsletter from Remote Fabric:


Teams can start by pulling together different bits of information and gather them in one single space, so that it’s accessible for everyone. Think of it as a key area in your online office.

You can also adopt the principle, thinking, “is this conversation or document something we want to keep for future reference, could it help someone?” It’s about making it easier to find where the expertise is in the company, so this is not only about content but also about knowing who can help you in the company. 

Could this be relevant to learning and development roles? Shifting the mindset from how to run “engaging online workshops” to how can we curate the information and knowledge in the company? Technology is making this easier by the year… 


(For more on this check out next week’s episode on Knowledge Management in organisations.) 


19.00 MINS

DIfferent teams have different rhythms and they are influenced by the nature and progress of task and task interdependence, perception of and real hierarchy and level of autonomy to make decisions and social culture.

We begin talking about the rhythm around tasks and how this is affected by the nature of the task, the progress, and if we’re in a project, the stage of the project. Eg kick off and brainstorming at the beginning might require regular lots of exchanges, then a slower rhythm and less interactions as everyone “gets on with it”, and a faster pace.

We can reflect as individuals and as a team whether the rhythm we have is useful to us. Also, don’t forget about our wider context and how this might affect the rhythm in which we communicate.

Task interdependence will also affect your communication cadence, as well as whether you have a space where you go to communicate your progress. (You can find out more about this in episode 239, or read the show notes.)

By the way, creating documentation is all about creating the space for meaningful conversations, and conversing when it’s the best way of getting things done together, not as the only way of getting things done together. It helps us avoid information being held in someone’s head.

Documentation is live, so that improvement to our processes can be communicated too. But none of this helps if we don’t develop a culture of accessing documentation and other asynchronous communication. (We know, it can feel like a lot of extra work, but transitions are always difficult…)


As team leaders, we need to change our mindset and focus on creating an ecosystem within which people can work rather than always being the main point of contact for information. It can be difficult to figure out which technology can help us best though… Another challenge… 


And of course, none of this works without psychological safety…

36.00 MINS

The sense of hierarchy and real hierarchy, as well as the ability and trust to make decisions on our own also can result in constant communication, as everyone feels like they need to check in.

Presenteeism and the need to be seen as working really hard, can also result in lots of “push communication” when we complete the work – rather than the more calm cadence of making our workflow visible in an agreed way. 


If we don’t have a system for communicating innovations and experiments, one person can end up in the receiving end of lots of information requests, rather than people going to a specific place to find out more about this. 


As team leaders, we can take the coaching approach and document some of the answers people might be looking for, so that they can access them on their own, rather than relying on you. Personality also plays a part in this, and the ability to figure out things on your own, or finding your way through information is a core skill for remote workers.


43.00 MINS

Finally, let’s look at culture.
Is psychological safety as important in remote teams as in colocated? At least you have to know it’s ok to bring things up.

In teams where people have a need to feel connected physically or emotionally to each other throughout the day, we might also get fast paced communication. 


There was some research done on the rhythm of communication done a couple of years ago: Successful Remote Teams Communicate in Bursts by Christoph Riedl and Anita Williams Woolley, published on 28 October 2020 HBR online


Bursts of rapid-fire communication with longer periods of silence in between are characteristic of successful teams. Bursts help to focus energy, develop ideas, get closure on  specific questions and condensing the synchronous time, can help those who really miss the ‘buzz’ of face to face interactions. 


Find synchronous time together and define it, rather than suddenly move to synchronous communication. This does not need to be set in advance, but can be built on what’s going on organically or can be emerging by sharing availability. 

From the article, “The bottom line: Worry less about sparking creativity and connection through watercooler-style interactions in the physical world, and focus more on facilitating bursty communication.”


Let’s not forget that artificial intelligence is making it easier for us to find information, including how real-time conversations are being recorded (in video, audio) and how they can be searched.

We know none of this is easy – let us know if you need some help. 

54.00 MINS

We’d like to share an article by our friend Jennifer Riggins which is both timely and evergreen: How to Support Teammates Living in Ukraine — or Any War Zone.

The article offers examples of how to support people in crisis situations in both practical and emotional ways. It’s very relevant to today’s context, but can also help in the future.

We hope you enjoyed the episode, feel free to send us some feedback or any other thoughts you would like to share with us and the listeners.

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