The spectrum of synchronousness

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Remote working

This article is part of a series on remote working.

Consider this: what’s one of the most impactful skills that you can improve as an engineer? Is it your programming? Maybe it’s your debugging? I’d like to make the case that it’s your communication.

After all, software isn’t built in solitude. It is imagined, designed and implemented by teams of people. Being a better communicator will make you a better programmer. You write code for other humans. The compiler lets the computer understand it.

Communication skills will make you a better colleague, leader or manager. They will ensure that you are better able to find consensus around your ideas, designs and proposed architecture. Communication skills allow you to build rapport with your colleagues so you can develop your skills through constructive critique and feedback.

This has always been true, but it has never been truer in a remote world. Not only do you need strong communication skills that underpin your work, you also need to be able to pick the right tools and techniques to communicate the right way at the right times.

In the next few articles in our remote working series, we’ll explore some complimentary considerations for how and when to communicate. But we’ll start with looking at synchronous and asynchronous communication.

#define

Let’s start with some definitions.

  • Synchronous means “existing or occurring at the same time”. When you have a conversation with somebody face to face, the exchange of information is immediate.
  • Asynchronous is the opposite of synchronous. When you send somebody an email and they read and reply to it a few hours later, that communication is out of phase.

Typically, synchronous communication happens at the same:

  • Time. This means that for the communication to take place, all parties must be interacting at the exact same time. This may occur without planning if two people met in a corridor, or it may require scheduling a meeting.
  • Location. For communication to happen at the same time, it will often be in the same location. This could be a physical room, but it could also be a video call.
  • Format. In order to exchange information immediately, all parties will use the same format, such as their voice and body language.

Given that asynchronous communication is the opposite, we could imagine that it could therefore happen at a different:

  • Time. One person could send an email in the morning to another person on a different timezone, and they can then reply at their own convenience.
  • Location. A message could be written on a phone whilst on a bus in Berlin and replied to via an email client on a laptop in New York.
  • Format. That same email could generate some further thinking, which then generates a longer written proposal document to continue the discussion.

There’s another important distinction to be made first: it isn’t a binary choice between the two modes. It’s a continuum.

As you can see from the diagram, it’s rarely the case that something is purely synchronous or asynchronous. Often, it’s somewhere in between.

  • Video calls or face to face chats are completely synchronous. Everybody involved needs to be somewhere at a specific time, since the communication is typically happening via voice and body language in the moment.
  • Chat is written and is therefore less synchronous than a video call since it can be read later, however it has a short half-life because chats implicitly carry a temporal dependency. Are you catching up on a chat from a few hours ago? Sure, that makes sense. But are you reading through a chat from two months ago? It’s probably mostly irrelevant and noisy.
  • Recorded video can be viewed later and requires more preparation than a chat, however its relevance decays fairly quickly (it’s also not searchable). A recording of a meeting from a few weeks ago, or a video updating everyone on the progress of an initiative probably won’t be watched again once it has been used once.
  • Email is where we start producing more permanent asynchronous artifacts. Email by nature is archival and searchable, and is often used for important information such as delivering a confirmation of a raise, or confirming that a payment has been set up. Some people reply to emails quickly, but some take many days to reply, and that’s OK.
  • A written document requires some effort to produce and may be used as the cornerstone of a project or proposal. Theoretically, a well-written document can last almost indefinitely, assuming the reader knows the date and context of which it was created for. Most online document software also allows collaborative editing and commenting.
  • Wikis and READMEs are completely asynchronous, and typically have no interaction between the author and readers. If they are well-maintained, they can last, and be useful, forever.

The old world

When we primarily work together in an office, convenience and habit typically mean that we spend a lot of time on the left hand side of the spectrum. After all, when all of our colleagues are sitting across the room, it’s easy to go and have a conversation in the moment.

This is perfectly normal behavior, however it isn’t suitable for remote working. One could argue that it actually isn’t suitable for any company that has multiple offices, as this way of communicating severely limits the collaboration that can take place across multiple locations.

If you’ve worked in a large company, you’ve probably already seen the effects of synchronous communication being the default:

  • Individuals are typically seated with their teams physically in the same office.
  • Teams that collaborate frequently are often also located in the same physical location.
  • The weakest bonds between different parts of the organization often occur when there is a geographical divide between them.

This can have a tangible and inconvenient effect on the software being created. Conway’s Law states that any organization that designs a system will produce a design whose structure mirrors the organization’s communication structure. When companies expand into different locations, opening another office to hire engineers might be an implicit design choice in how they architect their software.

They just don’t know it yet.

Shifting right

In order to fully embrace remote working, we need to shift our mindset and habits to the right of the spectrum.

Instead of choosing the convenient option, we need to choose to communicate in a way that enables an equal level of contribution from anyone, regardless of where they are located in the world.

Shift right.

That’s the habit that you need to instill in both yourself and your colleagues. Every time you communicate, can you purposefully shift right so that you better serve the needs of remote work? For example, could you:

  • Turn a face-to-face conversation into an exchange in the team’s chat channel instead? This way, more people can have the opportunity to “overhear” what is being said and contribute to the conversation.
  • Record a video call so that those that were unable to make it, or those that didn’t know that it was happening, are able to watch it back later.
  • Decide to stop a long chat exchange so that it can be written up more thoughtfully and purposefully into an email?
  • Take an email thread that is proposing an idea and turn it into a more detailed written document so that it can be read more easily in its entirety and then circulated for comment and consensus?
  • Change an agreed upon idea in a written document and turn it into a more permanent wiki page that serves as the cornerstone of a whole project?

Shift right.

Every single interaction is an opportunity to shift right, and by doing so you are having much more of a dramatic impact than you may think. You are making your workplace more suitable for remote work. You are giving more people the opportunity to discover what is going on and then have a route to contributing to the conversation. You are breaking down geographical silos and fighting the tide against Conway’s Law.

Takeaways

So, all it takes is a shift right. Here’s your homework.

  • Looking at the diagram of the continuum above, work out what percentage of time you spend on each form of communication during a given week. Do you use specific methods for certain people or teams? Why?
  • What types of communication do you prefer? Has this preference changed over time?
  • Do you find any of these methods frustrating? Why is that? Is it the medium itself, or is it how that medium is being used?
  • Next week, apply the shift right mindset as much as you can. How does it affect your choice of communication medium and the responses that you get from those that you are communicating with?

That’s all for now. 

We’ll build upon this model next time by seeing how it correlates with permanence of the artifacts we create.

Treat everyone as remote

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Remote working

This article is part of a series on remote working.

Second-class citizens

In the past, a common challenge that remote workers have faced is feeling like they are several steps removed from the rest of the physically colocated company. This manifests repeatedly: day in, day out. It reveals itself in the nagging instinct that discussions and decisions are happening in person without giving remote workers the ability to have their input. It can come from the worryingly empty email inbox during challenging periods, or the strangely quiet chat rooms. It arises when joining a meeting via video call to see ten tiny figures sitting around a conference room table, sharing one microphone.

This is when remote working sucks. You feel like an other; unlike all of the other “normal” staff. Perhaps even like a lesser member of the company. This isn’t right. However, none of this should be attributed to malice. After all, for decades we have been used to working together in offices. Old habits die hard, especially if they aren’t being challenged.

I remember a long time ago when the magnetic hub of our company was our HQ in Brighton. The anecdote in mind happened when we were hiring rapidly after receiving a funding round. We had monthly induction sessions for new starters that walked them through what the company did, the software we built, how we marketed it and sold it — all of that good stuff. These inductions were organized well, planned and practiced, and generally speaking were a fun, informative experience.

That is, except for the month when we started onboarding some engineers in our smaller Stuttgart office. They would turn up to the meeting, join the video call, and wait for the person leading the session in Brighton to join. But they never did. Messages were sent that were unanswered. Everyone’s laptops were closed. No malice, just forgetfulness. But that forgetfulness, repeated daily, compounds into larger frustrations about “being remote” in comparison to other members of staff that are not.

Equality

We should be aiming to treat everyone equally.

What this needs is a mindset shift. The title of the article says it all really: treat everyone as remote. That’s how you solve the problem of any worker in your company feeling like they are “remote”. You simply act as if everyone is, thus cancelling out the prefix: if everyone is treated like a remote worker, then really, they’re all just workers. Equal. No longer do the remote workers need to continually put in additional effort in order to gather information that they have missed, or to remind people that they are still there, or that their timezone is different. Instead, they just do their work just like everyone else, and interact with others like everyone else.

Even though this is simple, it isn’t straightforward. It’s a little bit like if you’ve ever tried to meditate. It’s simple: just continually focus on your breathing. But it’s not straightforward: your mind wanders and you get caught up in thoughts. You bring your attention back to your breath, and guess what, your mind is generating thoughts again.

Treating everyone as remote requires a mindset shift in every individual in the entire company. It means that every action and interaction should be done in such a way that equally benefits somebody regardless of whether they are present in a physical office or not. This can best be explained by example, and at the time of writing we’re living through the largest remote working experiment in the technology industry: a global pandemic.

Below is a screenshot of the first remote cabinet meeting of the UK government from March 2020. At this point the country had been put under the first initial lockdown measures, indicating that everyone who was able to work from home should do so. In what should now be a familiar sight to most people, the meeting was being conducted via Zoom.

Most participants of this call are remote, and are therefore acting in the correct way to treat everyone as remote. However, there is one group of participants that are not abiding by this rule. On the top row, second from left, the Cabinet Room has joined the meeting via a traditional meeting room AV setup: one fixed camera and a microphone in the middle of a shared table.

Whereas all other participants have a microphone and camera each, allowing them to properly see and hear each other, being able to understand the facial expressions of the person sitting farthest away on the Cabinet Room table requires some serious CSI “enhance!” magic. Do you reckon that everyone else on this call got frustrated with not being able to see or hear them properly? Do you think that they may have experienced, perhaps for the first time, one of the frustrations of being a remote worker when others do not treat everyone as remote? Ah, yes. That.

So this is the first big thing when it comes to truly supporting remote workers. The entire company needs to adopt a mindset where they treat everyone as remote. Every action via code, written or spoken word should provide an equal interaction opportunity to anyone regardless of their location.

Actions and initiatives

This can be done by performing some of the following actions and initiatives.

  • Give your declaration of intent. You can’t expect anyone to begin changing if you don’t talk about your intention clearly. As explored in my initial post reflecting on a year spent remotely, there are plenty of reasons for beginning to act like a remote-first company, even if that may not be your final trajectory. Tell yourself, your team, and others that you know that you are going to be changing your working practices to better support remote workers. Like our meditation example above, this may be simple, but it isn’t straightforward. You may find yourself having to repeat this message, in combination with taking the actions below, for it to really sink in.
  • Shift to asynchronicity. Synchronous communication is essential, but maybe not always as essential as you think. Adopt a mindset where you question all of your synchronous communication — such as video calls and instant messages — and see whether you can move to more asynchronous alternatives such as email and writing documents. Not only will this reduce the time that you spend in meetings, which can be draining and interrupting for everyone’s flow, it will produce more artifacts that can be shared and read more widely at a later date.
  • Make your time and commitment expectations clear. Shifting to more asynchronous communication means that the time taken to close the loop may be longer. However, it’s more inclusive, and often better thought through. Working with your colleagues to help them understand that this is purposeful, and most importantly, perfectly normal, is something that you’ll need to do. State your intention that it’s OK to not read something if it’s not specifically important to an individual. Also say that it’s OK to take until the end of the week to read and comment on a proposal. The net effect is increased autonomy and flow.
  • Choose appropriate tools to support remote collaboration. I often take for granted that we are already avid users of Google’s office suite, which has excellent collaboration and commenting capabilities. The same is true for Github, Slack, Miro and Figma, and others. However, some companies still make it extremely hard to collaborate effectively, such as by emailing around local copies of documents which then require a copy to be made and so on, until you reach final_version_7_FINAL.doc. Champion better tools and demonstrate them to your colleagues to drive bottom-up change. Ask those with the power to make decisions and spend budget to help you.
  • Habitually produce artifacts. With everything that you do, ask the question as to whether you should be creating a useful artifact for the future. Whether that’s recording a meeting so that people can watch it asynchronously later, or writing up that design document to develop your thoughts with others, or creating that Architecture Design Record, create them. Artifacts are so useful so that you understand where you’ve come from, where you are currently going and where, eventually, you want to get to.
  • Instill meeting and video call etiquette. Don’t be like the Cabinet Room. Have each participant have their own camera and microphone, and mute when not talking. If useful, write up your agenda and thoughts beforehand so that the meeting can run efficiently. Use a spotter to check whether there are people on the call that aren’t being heard and invite them into the conversation.
  • Broadcast information to the widest possible group. Think about who is hearing, seeing and reading your communication. Could it be useful to a broader group of participants, even if it’s just optional information that they can read if they’re interested? If so, don’t repeat yourself in the future; broadcast it immediately at a wider level. A DM could become a message in the team’s chat room. A team chat room message could instead go out to the whole department. Remember that people can just not read something if they don’t want to. That’s fine.
  • Continually take visible action. Most importantly, just keep doing all of the above continually. Soon your habits will catch on and others will follow.

Homework

Now, on to the exercise. Pencils at the ready.

Spend some time thinking about your own workplace, department or team. How would you rate yourselves against the intention of treating everyone as remote when compared to the continual actions and habits that you are taking? Is there a void here? What needs to be done to change that? Also, assuming you’re reading this sometime around the time that it was written, how have these habits changed when you compare your workplace now to how it was before the Covid-19 pandemic?

Think about some changes that you can implement right away in order to close the gap between intention and action. Then do them.

In the articles to follow in the remote working series, we’ll unpack all of the rules and approaches in finer detail. If you want to follow along for the ride, sign up for my newsletter and I’ll let you know when there are new posts available.