by Wayne Turmel
There is a ton of technology out there to help remote teams and co-workers collaborate effectively. We don’t recommend any particular technology on this blog because we believe two things are true: One, most technology can get the job done if it is used correctly and two, the tool hasn’t yet been invented (nor will it) that can handle every single communication need your team will have. There is no “Unified Field Theory of Team Tech “
Einstein, and a lot of other physicists, have driven themselves bonkers looking for the one thing that will make sense of all the competing theories and laws that drive the universe. They’ve yet to find it. Without sounding harsh, you and I ain’t Einstein. What does this have to do with choosing and using the right tools for your remote team?
Too often, we find a product that does a lot of what we need it to do, and that tool becomes the default for your team’s communication. Over time, though, you find it doesn’t do everything equally well and disenchantment sets in. I was reminded of this when I came across an old blog post from Fast Company that demonstrated this fact.
A company called Doist was an enthusiastic adopter of Slack. At first, they used the heck out of it, and the tool addressed any number of problems that bedeviled them up until now. We use Slack here, and like it very much. It does some things like create discussion threads, help us manage conversations, and quickly and easily set up groups and topic forums. It also has video and other features. Where I have a small issue with the theme of the article is that their initial logic was faulty. There is no “unified field law” of team technology. Never was, never will be. No single tool can do everything.
What happened to the team in the article was not the fault of the tool. Slack, in this case, did everything it was asked to do. The problem is it was being asked to do things it shouldn’t. What are some of the common traps teams fall into?
If what you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
When a tool works well for most tasks, it becomes the default. In a lot of cases this means that when a challenge arises, the first instinct is to “set up a new discussion thread” or “Let’s ask everyone for their input over Slack (or Microsoft Teams, or Skype or whatever tool you’re using.) Not every problem can be solved with an asynchronous discussion.
People don’t feel empowered to say, “this isn’t working.”
Here at the Kevin Eikenberry Group, we encounter this problem once in a while. The discussion thread goes round and round without reaching a conclusion, or people aren’t getting the information they need. This results in a lot of frustration and private chat discussion, but doesn’t solve the problem nearly as well as someone standing up and saying, “this is getting us nowhere, let’s pick up the phone.” In most organizations it takes a major act of will to blow the whistle on a process. It’s hard enough when (as we do at KEG) people are encouraged to take the initiative. If you have a compliant culture, or people don’t feel like they should or can step up, you get a lot of frustration and few solutions.
Blowing the whistle on the process should be a stated expectation.
We encourage teams to create charters, or agreements, or rules of engagement (whatever you want to call them) that include the stated permission to challenge the effectiveness of any tool or process for a specific purpose. Has your team had those conversations?
If you apply Richness v Scope, this all becomes less frustrating.
One of the guiding principles we teach at Remote Leadership Institute ( and our new book, The Long-Distance Leader-Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership) is the idea that the tool you use should be selected based on the job to be done and the desired outcome. This means that the answer might be to send an email, make a webcam call, or you might have to get on a plane and get nose-to-nose if you’re really going to solve the problem. These decisions should be made mindfully, rather than out of habit or whatever seems easiest at the time.
There is no one tool that will solve every communication challenge for your team. Some can be more useful than others, and the more robust tools (Slack, Skype for Business, and their competitors) do an awful lot. Maximize the heck out of them. But don’t expect them to do everything for you and your team.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.