Writing is now widely celebrated as the basic skill for any distributed team. Even before remote work became in focus, most work was already distributed: For anyone working in a big companies, your team mates and project collaborators would often be on another floor, in another office building or another part of the world: So whether or not you specifically work from home, you already had to rely on ‘remote communication protocols’ to be effective.
I personally saw this play out in several of the organisations I was part of, from Facebook to Snyk. The best companies rely heavily on writing. Why is this?
- Matt Mochary makes a great case in his superb book “The Great CEO within” (Amazon link - no affiliation - https://www.amazon.com/Great-CEO-Within-Tactical-Building-ebook/dp/B07ZLGQZYC ):
- Writing takes more time for the person writing than just speaking about the topic out loud. But-
- We read faster than it takes that person to speak it out loud. Try reading out the transcript of a 1-hour podcast: It would usually take you between 15-30 minutes, or x2-x4 faster than listening to the person speak.
- This means the total time across the organisation is saved by having more people write, so long as they have more than two-three eventual consumers of what they wrote.
- We are able to organize our thinking better when we write, so the content comes through more effectively.
- Brian Chesky speaks about “Playing the game of leverage” on the Masters of Scale podcast: https://mastersofscale.com/brian-chesky-handcrafted/ . With the amount of work we all have, we could all use practices that make every action we take scale. Realtime, unrecorded communication doesn’t scale. But writing is something you can send over and over to different teams. People can also find it and get back to it when they need it.
- Writing is also more inclusive of people who may be better at responding in written form than off-the-cuff in a live discussion, for whatever reasons (introverts, worrying about English-as-a-second-language or how clear their accent is - something I’ve often struggled with myself).
If we’ve established written communication is better for remote teams, what should you consider to make written comms work well?
- By far the most important is throw away the decorum. We are taught from young age writing should be long and use fancy words and turns-of-phrase. This is reinforced by blogs and online media that, for SEO and ad-serving reasons, contains a lot of boilerplate, long intros and keyword stuffing. But business writing that tries to get the point across should be just that - succinct, clear, use minimal jargon and start with the main points rather than a long exposition. I would’ve written this very post differently if it was addressed to my company (in addition to being a remote work enthusiast I’m the founder of getradical.co) rather than an unknown reader online. This video from Stephen Pinker https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OV5J6BfToSw is really instructive on these points.
- Other aspects include keeping the writing where it’s easily accessible to other people - using some kind of indexing system for general notes (it’s not enough to have notion.so - you should also have some kind of agreed upon directory structure or it all becomes a tangle of pages). Can’t help but mentioning Radical is trying to be one way to solve that for a particular kind of conversation - one that revolves around a document in another SaaS product.
- Finally, you need a written format that can easily take comments and editing from your team mates. Email is particularly bad at that and most modern team writing systems (again, notion coming to mind) have a form of document-level collaboration that really helps here.