How To Communicate Better With IT Colleagues
NOTE: This is the first post in a series of two posts on workplace communication. Next week we’ll publish part 2: “IT Teams: Communicate Better With Non-IT Colleagues.”
When StatusPage.io first started out, internal communication was simple. Steve could talk to Scott. Scott could talk to Steve.
They were both working on launching the company. They both have a web development background. They’re related.
For the most part, they knew how to talk to each other.
But companies grow. At least that’s the plan. And with almost no exception, communication gets harder. Now that StatusPage.io is at 11 people (and growing), communication is trickier.
There aren’t just more people to communicate with, there are different types of people to do the communicating. We’ve got people doing sales, operations, marketing. We’re working on hiring our first full-time customer advocate. In other words, it’s not just two brothers punching out code anymore.
It’s got us thinking a lot about how we can best keep in touch with one another, and how those of us with technical roles can be in harmony with the rest of the team. There’s been a lot of cyber-ink spilled about the communication gap between those who program and those who don’t. We don’t think that chasm is as infinite as it’s made out to be.
It’s definitely a challenge. But with a little practice, we think our non-technical employees can do a great job building communication and relationships with our programmers.
Here’s a little bit of what we’ve learned on how non-technical professionals can best communicate with their developer and engineer colleagues.
Understand Flow States
Spend some time with developers, and you’ll notice a rhythm to working that’s different than you might be familiar with.
Here’s a good explanation from famed investor and writer Paul Graham:
"[T]here's another way of using time that's common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can't write or program well in units of an hour. That's barely enough time to get started."
“In flow, concentration becomes so laser-focused that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge.”
It’s a state of mind optimal for the kind of work developers do. In one study, Australian researchers presented 40 test subjects with a complex brain teaser. Not one subject was able to solve the puzzle. After researchers artificially induced a flow state, 23 of the subjects solved the puzzle and did so in record time.
Unfortunately, a lot of us non-technical office workers inadvertantly send our colleagues valuable flow states toppling to the ground.
Or as Graham puts it: “It might take an hour just to load a problem into your head. So the cost of having someone from personnel call you about a form you forgot to fill out can be huge.”
So when is a good time to tap someone on the shoulder? How do you know if someone is genuinely too busy to be bothered?
It can be tricky. For a long time in traditional office culture, it was impolite to interrupt someone while they were in a conversation with another person. But someone sitting quietly at their desk was a signal of availability.
The rules have changed. Try considering these new ways of signaling “do not disturb” and “come on in.”
While everyone’s different, generally strapping on a big pair of oversized headphones is the new version of shutting the office door. Those noise canceling Bose are letting you — and the rest of the office — know that someone on the other side is concentrating.
Once there were office walls to provided needed isolation. Then cubicle walls. Now, with so many offices having done away with divisions altogether, a chunky pair of headphones is the only way of retreating to peace and quiet. Try to be respectful if you see a colleague working with headphones on. Consider if tapping them on the shoulder can wait until later.
Again, not every last person feels this way. Some people just really love music.
There are plenty of other creative solutions people have hacked together to indicate flow and concentration.
- Luxafor, for example, is an opensource LED device that connects to a USB port and changes color to signal availability. It even can be synced with productivity apps and change colors automatically.
- Tools like Boomerang let you schedule an email to be sent at a specific time in the future. It’s a helpful way to keep from pinging someone immediately if know the message can wait.
- Some use the strategy of pausing all notifications — even putting their phone in airplane mode — during concentration bursts.
The strategy behind all these tools is simple: give people the freedom to respond at a time that works for them. If you send them a message, and it’s not an emergency, don’t run over and tap them on the shoulder if they don’t respond immediately. Which brings up our next point.
Asynchronous Communication Tools
A lot of communication used to be asynchronous by default. Sending letters took time. Documents had to be signed and ferried around in the physical world. If you wanted to have a synchronous conversation (meaning the receiving party receives the message at the same moment the sending party sends the message) you had to be face-to-face, or eventually on the telephone. Then came the computer revolution, the internet and the universe of communication tools we have today.
It’s pretty easy to spend all day communicating — and consuming — and never actually doing anything. Smart workplaces are avoiding this by embracing the spirit of asynchronous communication. Just because you can read and respond to every email the second it arrives, doesn’t mean you should.
Asychronous communication tools are often the best way to start conversations with your IT colleagues. You can ping them with a message and they can get back an answer when time allows. There are a lot of tools you can do this on. Here at StatusPage.io, we use Slack for person-to-person messaging, Asana for managing projects and Quip for collaborating asynchronously over documents.
Asynchronous communicating can mean approaching communication differently. You have to provide enough information for people to respond to, but not so much that the point of the message becomes unclear.
Instead of this:
“Can you handle data entry during the conference? How much lead time will that take?”
“Let me know whenever you’re available. I've got some ideas about the upcoming conference I wanted to run by you before the end of the week. Here’s a link to my notes on the topic.”
The first example begs for an answer right away, and gives a question without much other information. The corrected version gives less up-front specifics, but includes a route to more information when the recipient has time.
Some organizations are tossing out the whole concept of meetings entirely. Sounds great. Who doesn’t hate meetings?
We’re taking a different approach here are StatusPage.io, and using daily and weekly gatherings as entry points for questions and communicating on set topics.
If someone in sales has a question about our technical capabilities, they know that they can raise the subject in tomorrow’s daily standup. Having this regular all-hands-on-deck gathering gives all the different roles on our team a chance to raise small questions and comments. Because of this, those little questions are less likely to clog up the rest of the day.
And we can spend our work breaks on the things that really matter, like eating lunch and playing ping pong.
Outside of the daily standup, we hold a weekly demo meeting where everyone on the dev team can show off something they’ve been working on and any cool info they’ve picked up along the way. For the dev team, it’s a great chance to explain how things are coming together. For the non-devs on the team, it’s a great way to see what’s going on behind the scenes and ask any questions.
By opening up scheduled open forums like this demo meeting, we minimize interruptions when people are hard at work. And everyone gets a forum to bring things up with one another.
There’s no magic bullet for workplace communication. What works for us might not work for you, and vice-versa. But if you’re feeling like you and the engineers in your office are speaking two different languages, try spending a little more time getting to know each other. Ask people questions about what they’re working on and what they’re struggling with. Make a sincere effort to get to know people — don’t wait until you need something from them.