When Marsha, a team member, sent us some recent research[1] about how “bursty” communication can help teams thrive, we all instantly said…”Hey, that’s us!” Well, that’s what it seemed like we said. But, we actually didn’t say it. Rather, we all quickly responded by email about how the article resonated with us.

You see, our team of seven works from home and we rarely see each other. For most of us, it’s also our first time working together. On top of this, we are a highly diverse team across gender, ethnicity, age, political beliefs, religion, and personalities. And yet somehow, we are not only a high-performing team, but a team that enjoys working together.

We knew we had many of the usual success factors in place to make us an effective team (I can share those later). And we knew that how a team works together is as important, if not more important, than what the team does and even who is on the team.[2] However, we’d never thought of the “burstiness” of our communications. Despite being scattered across time zones, we communicate as we would do if we worked in an office together. That is, we communicate often and freely, but not incessantly or unnecessarily.

In a burst of emails (Ok…I’ll try to stop using the word “burst” now), we came up with some of the things we do:

  • We use recurring meeting requests to hold time on our calendars for team discussions, but we will cancel up to 50 percent of these standing meetings depending on the discussion needs for a given week:
    • Daily Standups: Borrowing from the Agile Scrum approach, we have 30-minute conversations to discuss daily activities and stay closely connected.
    • Weekly Deep Dives: We have a 90-minute weekly meeting (and we will add more, if needed) to discuss more complex topics.
  • We use a diverse set of communication and collaboration tools:
    • Screen Sharing: We share screens for all of our team meetings so we’re all looking at the same thing at the same time and can see edits being made in real-time. (Skype for Business)
    • Instant Messaging (IM): We use IM for quick 1:1 or small group discussions. I often get pings that start with, “Hi, Vivian. Got a minute?” If the subject is complex, we’ll switch to phone or Skype. (Skype for Business)
    • Text Messaging: When someone is offline, we’ll switch over to text messaging for quick questions. Again, if it gets complex, we’ll just call. (iMessage)
    • Email: We distribute/discuss information that isn’t a topic for the weekly meetings via email. I also have a distribution list that I use to forward important updates to the entire team. (Outlook)
    • Document sharing: We store all project documents/files in a central repository for reference and editing when appropriate. It helps us know where to go for what information and keeps us from overwriting each other’s work when collaborating on the same file. (SharePoint)
    • Note sharing: We document all meetings. We store team notes and key takeaways/actions in chronological order for easy reference and review. This allows us to catch up on content we miss because of scheduling conflicts and to reference past conversations quickly and easily. (OneNote)
    • “To Do” lists: In addition to the project plan, we use an online task list for major sprints of work – one to three weeks in duration. All team members can view/add/monitor tasks and check-off completed ones. (Planner)
    • Team calendar: We stay aligned on vacations and out-of-office times by maintaining shared calendars. This makes it easy to schedule time with each other, but each of us is also able to block off “personal” time (for appointments, exercise, classes, etc.). (Outlook).

 Of course there are aspects of our team that provide the foundation for our communication style:

  • We are united by and committed to a shared, compelling goal – a must for a high-performing team. And our goal is certainly compelling: We are helping a large, global company hit the reset button on its reputation and culture.
  • We have capable people on the team.
  • We have strong sponsorship both from Expressworks and the client.
  • We all believe in Expressworks’ core values.

And to build on that foundation, we are deliberate about developing strong personal relationships and simulate working in an office face-to-face together. We work hard to nurture our “human” connections.

  • Work to build trust: We try to be polite, make sure everyone has a chance to talk, not interrupt, listen, respect opinions, ask questions, and admit mistakes. Being a virtual team, we have to say those words out loud – a warm glance or an encouraging smile won’t work.
  • Build and maintain transparency: We update each other on outcomes of client or 1:1 team member meetings (debrief sessions, meeting notes on OneNote) to keep team members aligned on the bigger team picture or informed of one-off decisions.
  • Understand everyone’s expertise, passions, and style: We try to assign work accordingly, so team members can be successful, add value, and enjoy their work.
  • Value personal connections: We share personal stories to get to know each other better. A small part of meeting time often gets used for chatting about our lives outside work. No one thinks it’s a waste of time. It’s easier and more fun to work with people you know well.

But that still doesn’t totally explain the team’s effectiveness. Here are two other things that just seem to work:

  • Everyone is flexible and egoless. Even though we try to accommodate personal preferences, project goals and client needs take precedence. When we need to go deep and talk something through, we stay later on a call or schedule something ad hoc. Team members take calls from parking lots and friends’ houses, if needed. When times are slow, we cancel meetings. Most of us are generalists, which allows us to move into different roles easily and enables the project to move through its phases. When someone is not available, another team member covers.
  • We are united by common goals and values that go beyond Expressworks. We all share a similar work ethic and take pride in doing high-quality, meaningful work. We all believe in doing what’s right for the client. We value our families and life outside of work. We help each other maintain a work/life balance. We enjoy laughing and having fun. And, we try to give each other grace.

I knew from the beginning that I loved working on this team, but until now, I hadn’t taken the time to understand why. Thinking through our natural, easy team interactions that help us produce such wonderful work makes me “burst” (just had to sneak in one last one – ha!) with joy. This team rocks and I feel very fortunate to be part of it.

 Contact us and we can help you create an environment that encourages high-performing teams and improves the effectiveness of team communication. 

[1] “Bursty” Communication Can Help Remote Teams Thrive, Christoph Riedl and Anita Williams Woolley, http://behavioralscientist.org/bursty-communication-can-help-remote-teams-thrive/

[2] John Lyden of Expressworks, in his 2018 paper on team effectiveness, Creating a One-Team Organization, comes to the same conclusion. The paper cites research that notes, communication patterns were an important predictor of a team’s success,” and [for teams] “The ‘Who’ is not the most important factor…It’s the ‘How’ that makes the difference.”