Umbrella Inc. is an organisation distributed across multiple offices around the world. It is not a secret that one of the main challenges for employees is to find the right information or the right person to talk to. In this scenario communication methods play an important role and here below an assessment of some used in the company.
Verbal communication effectiveness
It is a special meeting in which the team reflects, in a guided way, on the progress of a specific project or its work in general over a certain period of time. Norman Kerth (Kerth, 2001) highlights the need to reflect regularly on the progress of the project, in order to correct its functioning before it is finished. This is in contrast to post-mortem reviews carried out in traditional projects: even when done, usually very rarely, they give information that can only be used in subsequent projects and does not help to achieve success in ongoing projects. The main benefit of retrospectives is the fact they enable change and interrupt actions that do not bring benefits. Nowadays these meetings are always online so it is important that everyone has the chance to actively participate and contribute to the discussion. Occasionally participants may feel these meetings are time wasted if the suggested changes or action points agreed are not applied. A recommendation is to always start a retrospective by analysing the outcome of previously agreed changes before starting the discussion of new topics.
Daily stand-up meetings
As mentioned before the stand-up meeting is a practice used by software development teams following agile methodologies. This meeting happens every morning before a team starts its activities. The whole team gets together in front of the project board and each member answers to three simple questions:
- What did I do yesterday?
- What am I going to do today?
- Is there something that slows down or stops my work?
For the team this is a moment to kickstart the workday. The meeting cannot last more than ten minutes. When a discussion starts the meeting lead, usually called agile lead or scrum master, has to step in and postpone the conversation after the stand-up. The goal for a manager involved in these meetings is to become aware of obstacles and work to remove them. This is why the stand-up meeting is essential for the success of the project. This forum is the perfect place for a manager also to notice if the team is proactively collaborating or there is tension in the air.
Umbrella Inc. started to adopt agile methodologies a few years ago so today there is a good knowledge on how to effectively use the stand-up meeting. The main challenge the company is facing today is how to keep the same efficiency now that everybody works from home and usually hides himself behind a switched off webcam. A recommendation in this case is to force team members to join the meeting and turn on the camera to allow everybody to perceive not only the verbal part of the communication but also the non-verbal one.
Andreessen Horowitz describes (Horowitz, 2012) 1:1 meetings (also spelled as one-on-one) as the “free- form meeting for all the pressing issues, brilliant ideas, and chronic frustrations that do not fit neatly into status reports, email and other less personal and intimate mechanisms.” In these meetings, by demonstrating trust, a manager has a unique opportunity to strengthen a relationship with the person reporting him. For this purpose, the communication has to be open, personal and clear. Both parties need to show their own wish not only to share but also to listen. Ideally these meetings always happen face to face but with the current situation, where everyone is working from home, this is nearly impossible. A suggestion for the time being is to always use a webcam that can allow the communication to go beyond the words and overcome the physical barriers today imposed by the global pandemic.
Written communication effectiveness
Group chat communication system
Umbrella’s main offices are located in Asia and multiple teams are composed of members working from different locations. Few offices are located in time zones far from Asia such as the United States and Australia. In this scenario where work doesn’t happen in the same location and at the same time for everyone, asynchronous communications are a fact the organisation cannot avoid. In this distributed setup it is extremely important that employees have a cost-effective solution to communicate between them. While emails are an option analysed later, the company also uses a business communication platform that offers workspace chat and videoconferencing. When it comes to the chat, this tool allows users to exchange group and private text messages. When a user has time to reply immediately the exchange becomes a near real-time conversation using written messages. If the receiver is busy or not available, the asynchronous style of communications kicks in and allows parties to still interact with each other but over a longer period of time. While this tool before COVID pandemic was mainly used for communications between offices nowadays, where everybody is working from home, this tool became essential. The risk though is that employees end up being always connected and do not understand when to stop looking at the messages they receive. It is extremely important that managers safeguard the wellbeing of their peers by telling them to log off and stop looking at incoming messages after working hours.
As said above the workspace chat solution today allows Umbrella to keep the business running smoothly during this pandemic. Together with this tool, written messages exchanged via email still play an important role in the communication options the organisation today has at its disposal. The email is a tool designed to send asynchronous messages. It requires time to deliver the messages and some time can pass before replies are sent back. To use emails effectively, senders and receivers have to understand how not to over communicate via email and use the chat tool when there is need for a back-and-forth discussion. Email is more effective when message’s author is polite, uses of subject lines properly, keeps messages brief and clear, checks the tone and reviews the spelling, grammar, and punctuation before sending the message. To maximise the benefits of both email and chat the company could organise training sessions to teach employees how to use them properly in a work environment, when to choose one in favour of the other.
A wiki is a web application that allows the collaborative creation and modification of pages within a website. It is a collaborative software that typically uses a simplified markup language or an online text editor. Wikipedia is the most famous public wiki publicly available. Umbrella has used for many years an internal wiki website as a knowledge management system, project collaboration and to encourage teams, from technology to commercial, to share information across the organisation. This tool works perfectly when the information published is kept up to date by the owner. On the other hand, when published information is not reliable, obsolete or no longer valid, readers get easily annoyed by this fact and quickly lose trust in the whole system. To avoid this to happen it is important not only to keep publishing updated information in the wiki but also to invest time to remove from the site the information that is not more valid.