Effective collaboration is a necessity and goal in every organization. Get it right, and you gain a strong operational and competitive advantage. Mess it up, and the consequences could be dire.
LAC Group’s ability to maintain clear, strong lines of communication and to bring forth the unique talents and skills of all of our people is a concern of mine. The company recently underwent a major reorganization and consolidation of multiple operating divisions and brands. These concurrent events of leadership changes, business growth and reorganization have tested our communication strength and prowess. In the process, we’ve taken notes for future reference.
LAC Group rebranded into one company, one website
LAC Group has been growing both organically and through select acquisitions, driven by the needs and opportunities of our knowledge and data-driven economy. Our growth has enabled us to leverage and expand our strengths in information management and optimization services. Yet we were also left with multiple divisions that were operating under different identities, connected by graphic design as much as strategic design, with a discreet “Part of LAC Group” statement in all our branding materials.
By the end of 2017, we made the decision to streamline those divisions into one company and consolidate our websites. Operationally and culturally, it has affected all our employees to some degree, but none more than our marketing team, a small group comprised of full-time, part-time employees and contractors. They reside and work in every time zone in the contiguous 48 states and, as you find in all teams, they bring a mix of experience, skills, personalities and approaches to their work.
As I mentioned, the marketing team works remotely in locations from southern California to upstate New York. It’s only been in the last several years of our company’s evolution that we’ve had a structured marketing team and, while the people have been working together for a few years, they had never all met at the same time in person. Instead they “meet” weekly via web conferencing, and most of their work is accomplished through various online systems like email, Trello for project management, Google Docs for working on deliverables and Yammer for collaboration and networking within marketing and across the entire company as needed.
These are all asynchronous communication methods used throughout LAC Group. We have a large distributed workforce that includes employees and contractors with flexible schedules and work arrangements. People need the ability to respond as their schedules allow.
Asynchronous communication delivers some overlooked benefits:
- The ability to break down walls and incorporate the fresh insights and involvement of people throughout the organization.
- The time lag enables reflection and consideration of what you want to say and how you want to say it and provides “cooling off” periods and space if things get tense.
- A way to draw out the insights and input of employees who are more introverted or less willing to actively participate in real-time.
Yet asynchronous communication has a disadvantage: the absence of non-verbal cues that contribute greatly to perception and understanding. Body language, facial expressions and tone of voice all communicate meaning. Emojis can handle only some of the burden, and they can be misinterpreted, too. In addition, when typing, people tend to use shorthand or make assumptions or neglect details they believe are understood.
When active, immediate feedback and answers are needed, synchronizing communication is a necessity. Synchronous communication uses the same means at the same time, and it can be in-person or remote via phone calls, online chat and web conferences.
Sometimes, talking in-person is the best option. The added time and expense of travel are well worth the investment because it ultimately saves time and money. Since the marketing team would be tasked with driving and implementing the one company / one website consolidation, their ability to plan and deliver was going to be key to its success. To kick off this project, we realized it would be best to bring them together in our office in Los Angeles.
Being together in the same room at the same time allowed the team to whiteboard ideas, meet with me and other key people, discuss and argue ideas and come to an agreement. Even downtime together, like lunch and breaks, gives everyone an opportunity to get to know each other, further developing trust and relationships.
Most importantly, meeting for just two days allowed them to clearly assess needs, identify deliverables and establish attainable time frames and targets.
Multiple tools and systems to facilitate both communication methods
Even a relatively small company like ours, with about 400 employees, has deployed several communication and collaboration tools and systems:
- Microsoft Exchange-based email and scheduling
- Yammer, our current enterprise collaboration system
- Google Hangouts for web conferencing
- Trello for project management
- Google Docs for sharing and editing documents
- Our own proprietary research management system for some of our research & intelligence staff
- ProofHQ (now Workfront) for document approval workflow
No one system does it all, yet many of them share some cross-over capabilities. As a result, vital information ends up residing in different places.
For example, the marketing team uses Trello for project management, but many projects are influenced by threaded discussions and documents shared in Yammer. The combined use of the two systems ended up creating some misunderstanding around a particular section of the new consolidated website, as one team member was relying on something from a threaded discussion in Yammer, while other team members had moved on from that, which was part of the planning process but hadn’t made the “final cut” in Trello.
Communication learnings from the rebranding project
In the team’s post-mortem discussion, it was decided that Yammer would be the place for cross-department input and remote collaboration. Trello is where ideas would be solidified into actionable assignments, deadlines and reminders. One marketing team member said she has started including specific Yammer links in the corresponding Trello project card to save on search time and to make sure she remembers what was discussed.
Collaboration on any project faces unique challenges with distributed teams — time zone differences, nuances and true meaning that can be missed when communicating online vs in person — lack of body communication, short-hand text and abbreviations, and tone of voice.
Two important takeaways for improving communication effectiveness
We’ve discovered, or perhaps I should say reinforced, two important learnings about remote communication and collaboration:
1. Diffused communication means diffused power.
Regardless of how hierarchical or controlled a company’s structure is, a distributed workforce will diffuse and decentralize power to some degree. Left to their own devices, people will tend to make assumptions and do their own thing to some degree. This may be the biggest reason why some companies are hesitant about adopting a remote work policy.
In addition, we like to have an entrepreneurial spirit within the company. As much as we can, we let various teams, departments and service lines figure out what works best. Yet in this situation, a bit more top-down decision-making would have been helpful. As one team member put it, it sometimes felt like the tail wagging the dog, and while that freedom allowed them to make decisions, it also contributed to some frustration and confusion as changes and requests came trickling in last minute.
2.The lack of nonverbal cues can handicap communication.
Rebranding is not a routine business activity, but communication is, and perhaps the biggest communication obstacle facing remote teams is the lack of nonverbal cues we get when we’re talking in-person. Online, asynchronous communication lacks what experts call the “3 C’s of nonverbal communication”— congruence, context and clusters:
- Congruence—do the words being said match the person’s tone of voice and body language.
- Context—factors like the environment, relationships and roles such as supervisor / subordinate or executive / staff.
- Clusters—the combination of various non-verbal cues and how they fit together, or essentially, the whole of non-verbal cues is greater than the sum of their parts.
In most organizations much of the burden of communication and collaboration has shifted to email or systems like Yammer or Slack, which are missing the 3 C’s. That doesn’t mean that effective communication and collaboration can’t take place. If every interaction had to be face-to-face, no organization would ever expand to multiple locations, and live meetings would be much more effective than many are.
I think of that oft-quoted saying about the biggest communication problem being the myth that it’s taking place. The number of people involved is likely to be the number of different perceptions and understandings you will get, and that applies no matter how the communication takes place.
The overarching message is to match your communication purpose and priority to the right method, and to maximize the benefits of each medium while taking care to address and minimize any downsides.