Communication overwhelm? How we control the flood.

Over my decades of running a distributed company with a completely home-based workforce, I’ve learned a lot. And I’m still learning. There’s just too much information and not enough time. And there are a lot of great tools competing for our attention and our wallets.

One of the keys to using these tools is to create an agreement within the team about what they’re each for. You want to use as many as you need, but no more.

Our setup functions as a system of gradually more immediate channels, like this:

Basecamp

This renowned project management system has been our repository of project information for years. All our formal documentation, client input, design iterations, and internal and external reviews take place there. It lets us easily get back to critical information, trace progress, revert to previous versions, even for client relationships that go back years. (Here’s a Zapier article on how Basecamp uses Basecamp to manage its projects.)

Slack

Slack is a newer addition to our arsenal. The nice thing about it is the way it encourages camaraderie. Our team members feel closer to each other, more engaged, since we started using it. Slack is the equivalent for us of a stand-up meeting or a water-cooler conversation. It’s not good for emergencies, though. Or for things you need to keep track of. We post GIFs and links there, not files. We talk about personal observations, ask questions like “where’d we find that photo last time” and “who’s the rep for that illustrator we liked?” Not to mention, “Did you watch Fleabag yet?” Communication is asynchronous, and not everyone is on it all the time. (Here’s a helpful article from FastCompany on taming the Slack beast.)

Texting

We use texts as our emergency channel. “Hey, do you have a second to talk?” “The meeting started — did you forget?” “Let me know as soon as you’re back at your desk.” When we need an answer now, we text. (If you want to code your own Slack app that texts your team in an emergency, I guess you could try this. Personally, I’m fine with sending an actual text.)

Phone calls

If something requires dialogue or interactive brainstorming, nothing beats the personal exchange of information, the tone of voice, the nuance of a one-to-one call or a conference call. Sometimes the phone is the most efficient way to handle communication. The problem with it, as Jason Fried points out, is that the information that’s conveyed on a phone call is only seen or heard by the people on that call. So we are careful to document any decisions on Basecamp, coming full circle.

Email

This is usually how we communicate with clients who may be Basecamp-averse. We have one client, for example, who gets a ton of email and scans it all on his phone where the subject lines need to be short. Our Basecamp posts generate subjects with some built-in identifying text that pushes the distinguishing info to the right, where it gets cut off. So we accommodate him by emailing him AND posting to Basecamp.

We also use email for threaded “conversations” where outside people are involved. We’ve found that it’s a natural channel for certain kinds of communication, but that we need to be aware that, when critical decisions are made that way, they are documented somewhere else. I don’t think you can realistically get away from email when you’re communicating with the “outside world”. (You’ve heard about the idea of “Inbox Zero”, right? Here’s where that came from: the original TechTalk at Google from Merlin Mann.)

Got other ideas?

Knowledge workers (that’s probably you) deal with a flood of communication every day. Figuring how to manage it is a big part of staying productive and not going completely insane. I hope this helps.

What works for us might not work for you. If you like your own system, please share a comment here, or — even better — on the Worklife@Home Forum. Everyone could use a little of your insight.

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