WhatsApp, Bluejeans, Zoom and Skype Walked Into a Bar

Despite all the tools at our disposal, working across time zones and distances is still one of the hardest things to pull off in global organizations.

The new tools do help: video conferencing has finally arrived in the form of Bluejeans, Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp and other services. They are all stable and inexpensive enough that everyone with more than one office should be using them. There’s a quality to seeing people’s faces, surroundings and expressions that creates relational and contextual fabric, and it shouldn’t be missed.

On a technical note, of the options out there, I prefer Bluejeans and Zoom because they are better at mixing phones + internet calling, and have more build-in redundancy. Your mileage may vary.

That said, tools only get us so far. They aren’t the same thing as communications. And to get communications right, we need well-groomed behaviors, ones that build the sort of trust and easy back-and-forth that happens much more naturally when we see each other face to face.

If you’re trying to build these behaviors in your organization, think about communications norms at four levels:

Personal norms are the discipline each person has about how they communicate, how responsive they are, and what tools they use. Ideally everyone everywhere would have great personal communications norms. The challenge is, this is rarely the case, and even if it is, there’s enough variation in peoples’ behaviors and expectations that personal norms alone are rarely enough.

Interpersonal norms are routines that two people or more who need to communicate regularly establish (including teams). To operationalize this, you need to have both good tools in place AND make space for conversations about how you’re going to communicate. This boils down to the nitty gritty of things like: how are we going to handle the regular stuff and when something goes wrong. What’s ‘our normal’ for rate and pace of communication flow? Which tools will we use for which kinds of conversations? How do we escalate? And on and on. To avoid getting bogged down, I’d suggest having short conversations that drive to quick resolutions, try the new behavior for a week and then revisit. This is much higher yield than hour-long group conversations about norms, which tend to peter out and be more talk than action.

Organizational norms are often unspoken, but shouldn’t be. The people in your organization communicate in a certain way, with a certain tone, frequency, rate and quality. Often it feels productive to discuss organizational communication norms—“people like us communicate in this way”—but this conversations run the risk of lacking teeth if there isn’t ongoing and sustained work after the meeting about how to meet that agreed-upon common standard.

Note that this is the thorniest topic to tackle cross-border, since communications norms and tools are so different in different places (most obvious: email culture in the US, Europe; WhatsApp/Text/call culture most everywhere else.)

No Norms doesn’t seem like a category, but it is. It’s the assumption that in a global organization, neither pairs of people, teams or the whole organization needs to invest in how it communicates. This rarely yields optimal results.

I’ve generally found most success in moving the needle at the level of interpersonal norms, whether pairs of people (peers, with a boss, etc) or small teams. I’ve also noticed that there are lots of ways that good teams communicate successfully, but they all communicate successfully.

Similarly, I’ve never seen a high-performing team or organization that has low responsiveness and poor communications. Because without responsiveness and an open flow of communication, there can be no real trust.

To boil this all down, ask the question: when I throw the (communications/idea/issue/topic/need/question/request) ball to someone I work with, how confident am I that she’ll catch the ball and throw it back to me?

Top 10 Slack tips for new users

After a couple of failed attempts, I’ve finally migrated to Slack for all communication at work. It’s not perfect, but I’m confident that it’s an improvement on email.

The benefits are significant. I spend much less time in my inbox –  it’s no longer the center of my work life, no longer a weed I have to hack back to submission.This is the main shift I’ve experienced, and it’s a big one.

It’s also cleaner to have email be for external correspondence, separate from Slack, which is internal. This makes it easier to track things and easier to know why I’m going into my Inbox.

Plus, Slack, in addition to feeling lighter and more responsive, has huge benefits in terms of transparency (easy to ‘see’ what is going on in channels even if you’re not the recipient of a message) and for new team members (who can see and search history).

This is my second attempt at Slack. After failing the first time, I’d been intending to shift over for more than a year but couldn’t muster the courage. I ended up following some braver folks at Acumen, and I’m very happy with the results.

In case you’re about to jump in, or thinking about it but not sure if it will work, here are my suggestions about how to achieve Slack success.

  1. All or nothing: this is the most important one. On the day (after you’ve set up Slack, channels, etc.) move your entire team to Slack. You can start with one team, not with your whole organization. But it won’t work if half of your team is on Slack and the other half is on email.
  2. No more email for internal communication: this is connected to #1. You have to agree that, for a period of time, everyone is going to use Slack for everything. Here’s a cue: if you find yourself sending someone an email and a Slack message because you’re not sure which tool to use, something’s wrong.
  3. Three month trial period: when we started, I hoped a two week trial period would be long enough. I was told I actually needed to give it three months. That was good advice.
  4. Set up the channels right: Have someone on your team/in your organization set up the right channels at the outset, a person who is detail-oriented and likes that sort of thing.
  5. Create a Learn Slack channel: Create an #all-learn-slack channel where folks can ask questions and your super-users can answer them. This eases the onboarding and empowers your super-users to do an important job
  6. Use the Google Docs or Dropbox integration: Slack has a million add-on tools. If you’re using Google Docs or Dropbox for shared files, integrate them into Slack. This allows you to see GDocs comments directly in slack, upload links to Dropbox files instead of the whole files, and a bunch of other magical things.
  7. Download the app: Slack is good on desktop but feels optimized for iPhone/Android. You definitely want both the desktop app and the phone app for the best experience.
  8. Be ready to ‘tether’ your laptop more: Slack doesn’t work offline. This is a bummer and the one major drawback. If, like me, you have a chunk of time each day when you’re offline but on your laptop (say, on a train), you’ll want some way to get online. I’ve been using the Personal Hotspot on my iPhone through AT&T nearly every day. It’s intermittent, but workable, you just need a cellphone plan with this option. Same thing goes for flights – you will want to pay for wifi more often.
  9. Use the ‘star’ ‘reminder’ ‘mark unread’ or ‘pin’ tools: the biggest adjustment I’ve had in Slack is the (bad) email habit of reading emails when I don’t have time to respond to them. I find it a bit harder to re-find things after I’ve read them in Slack, and am using the Star a lot to keep a running list of things that I have to go back to. I’m guessing that a combination of all four of these tools will work for me once I master them.
  10. Use Slack help: one of the best things about Slack, which is completely counter-intuitive if you’ve been living in Windows land, is that (nearly) every question you might has an easy-to-find answer. Start with the Slack Help Center and go from there.

All of this has made for a smooth transition to Slack, better communication, and time and energy freed up for the important stuff.

As a bonus, here’s the Masters of Scale podcast about Slack: The big pivot – Stewart Butterfield, Co-founder & CEO of Slack. It’s a good one.


So much of how we experience each other bounces off everything that is left unsaid.

Expectations about how good the movie would be.

Expectations about what was meant when you were told “the meeting will start at 10:00.”

Expectations about how we will dress.

Expectations about what it means to do this job.

Expectations about what it means to work for you.

Expectations about who gets to have good ideas.

Expectations about who gets to say yes, and no.

Expectations about who gets to speak when.

Expectations about how, and how much, to agree and disagree.

Expectations about where we do our best work.

Expectations about whether showing up in person matters.

Expectations about how much care we put into saying “thank you.”

Expectations about what it means to listen, and the relative importance of listening and speaking.

Expectations about how a President is supposed to act.

Expectations about who can and cannot leave the office first.

Expectations about what silence means (in a meeting, when I don’t hear back from you).

Expectations about what you mean when you say “I’ll take it from here.”


It turns out that most of how we experience in the world comes from sense-making, and sense-making is a comparison between what happened and the sum total of everyone’s unspoken expectations.

Think for a moment about what this means if you’re working across…anything really: geography, culture, class, religion, age, gender, or even just two groups within the same organization.

More often than not, misunderstandings come from forgetting how different each of our expectations are, and from the mental shortcuts we all take as we fill in blanks (“what did that really mean?”) based all of our unconscious biases.



Last week, my wonderful four-year-old daughter had minor surgery to have her adenoids removed.  In the hospital she heard lots of encouraging words from Mommy and Daddy and from the doctors and nurses. The surgery went really well and she was a champion through it all.

The following morning, as I walked into the kitchen she looked up at me with a big smile and said, “Daddy, I was really brave when I went to the hospital.”

“Yes, sweetheart,” I said, smiling back,“you were.”

“Daddy,” she continued, looking me straight in the eyes. “What does brave mean?”

What a sweetheart, and how wonderful it is to be a child where the world is full of questions to be asked.

In this moment she reminded me how often grown-ups will listen to the words we say and keep quiet if they don’t understand what we really mean.

It’s our job, not theirs, to fix this.

And what this means is

Whether you are presenting slides or sending out a dashboard to your Board of Directors, every single time you share numbers or graphs or a table, it’s your job to start with simply explaining “this is what this means.”

Of course, in the best cases your slides and numbers will speak for themselves. And, in case they don’t, or they don’t do that job well enough, it’s your job to make sense of them for your audience.

When giving presentations, adhere to the discipline of “clearing a slide” each and every time: name each axis, or each column, or what that trendline represents. Actually say out loud, “on the vertical axis we have fourth grade test scores, and on the horizontal axis you’ll see January 2014 and 2015 – so we can see the effect of the new teachers’ aides who started in March 2014.”

Some goes for piles of data you send to folks: verbally, or in writing, communicate as if they aren’t going to read the attachment. Because in the worst cases, they won’t, and even if they do, they don’t have the context you have for understanding the story the data tell.

Minimally, this sets people on the right path towards looking at the numbers with your guidance and insight. But what you’re actually doing is framing what the numbers mean, guiding and controlling the story that they tell.

On the continuum of data, information, and meaning, you’re in the meaning-making business each and every time.

What you’re not

This sign is in the window of a great omakase sushi bar in New York.

Eight words and you know what you’re in for.

Saying what you’re against is a great shorthand way to describe yourself.  You tap into all the emotions that the thing you aren’t (whatever that is) created in the years before you arrived.

Of course, you’re limiting yourself to the people who don’t like the thing that you’re standing up against, but that’s probably enough for now.

I don’t love the negativity this approach implies, but at least you’re standing for something and people will grok you pretty quickly.  It’s a start.

Re: Question

Never let an email go out of your inbox with this subject line.  Instead, answer the question in the subject line.

Why?  Why bother being persnickety about such a trivial thing?

Maybe it’s not so trivial.  The subject line is of each email you send is your headline.  Can you imagine if the NY Post’s headline today had been “Re: IMF”  (instead of “French Whine” in reference to Dominique Strauss-Kahn not being given any special treatment by the NYPD.)  Re:IMF doesn’t sell newspapers, and it doesn’t help your email get to the top of the pile.

The subject of your email is a trigger for people to read your note (or not), to read it immediately (or not).  Tweaking this is one more way to avoid letting your message get lost in the shuffle.

A guy I know puts my name in the subject line of every email he sends to me.  It’s pretty weird, pretty far outside of regular email norms, but I absolutely know when an email is just to me and when it’s to a group, and it makes a difference in how I respond.

So, for kicks, a list of norm-breaking email suggestions:

  1. If you are the author of an email, make the subject Tweetable.  (NOT “Question” but instead “Should we move the launch date up a week?”).  Flex those 140-character-or-less authoring muscles for something more useful.
  2. Have as few people as possible receive every email
  3. Especially when you ignore #2, establish that you want replies from people in the To: line.  Cc: means “I’m just letting you know.”
  4. If someone has written a vague, general email subject line, change it.  Reply to “Question” with “Moving up launch date [Re: Question]”  This way the email is still searchable under the original subject plus it’s more clear to everyone what’s going on
  5. When an email thread veers off to a totally different topic, start a new thread or change the subject line.  Having a conversation about a potential promotion in a thread whose subject is “Re:Staff Retreat” is just plain inefficient.
  6. If threads are getting really long, pick up the phone instead (yes, that counts as an email tip)
  7. If a conversation has become irrelevant to some people, drop them off
  8. If #7 makes you/them uncomfortable, move the people who are being dropped off to Bcc: and say in the note: “I’m moving Pankaj and Sarah to Bcc: and the rest of us will continue the thread.”
  9. Make your emails shorter
  10. Write each email as if the time of each of the person reading it is valuable – because it is, even if being loose with these sorts of things feels like a hassle to you.

I wish all the popular email programs made it a default to have the cursor jump to the subject line when you hit “Reply.”  In the meantime, my answer to “Re: Question” is “No!”

Sign everything you send out

I was trading emails with a nonprofit CEO when the question of newsletters came up.  Specifically, who should his organization’s quarterly newsletter come from / be signed by since it’s not written by him?

We’re all busy, there’s a lot to get done, and really what people want is to hear what the organization is up to, right?

Well, no, actually.  That’s wrong.

The temptation not to sign and not to write your own communications is huge, but signing emails from “Us” instead of from “Me” is just a way of hiding from real work, real narrative, and real connection.  It’s an excuse to strip out all personality and tone and opinion and controversy, to iron out the bumps and smooth over the edges, because it feels safe to do so and you’ll offend no one.

How many times have you seen this one?

Dear Sasha,

Thank you so much for applying for this job/school/prize.  We received thousands of applications for this position, and while we were very impressed with your application and experiences, we will not be proceeding with your candidacy at this time.


The Place You Wanna Work / Go to school / Whatever

But a person rejected your application, right?  A person made the decision not to grant the interview.

Same story with your newsletter – written by a person, and received by a person (probably an important one to your organization).

You can pretend that it’s somehow OK to impersonalize it because you’re not willing to do the hard work of standing out and speaking in your own voice.  You can pretend that people have a box in their lives called “newsletter” or “updates” and somehow by sending this out you’re checking that off for them.  But I suspect you’re doing that because on some level you’re not convinced that this thing can be really valuable – for you or for them – or because you’re afraid that it will be worse to stand out and fall on your face than it will be to blend in.

It turns out that all that smoothing out and ironing out only guarantees that you’ll fade into the dull background noise in someone’s inbox, that you’ll never create something worth sharing.

So sign everything you write with your name, with a real return email address to which you will respond (or if that’s not practical, to which another human being will respond signing his name).

I bet that simple act of owning up force you to make a cascade of good decisions.

One thing

Most of the time when you send an email, that’s how many things you can get someone to do – if you’re lucky – so that’s all you should ask for.

One things are:

  • Watch this video
  • Read the attachment
  • Come to this event
  • Can you answer this question?
  • Can we meet?
  • Thank you

One things aren’t:

  • Can you give me some advice and can we meet?
  • Here’s an update and also would you read the attached
  • Thank you and could you do this other thing?

When you ask for two things, at best you’ll get one of them, and there’s the risk (thank you + would you please…) that by combining two you end up with none.

Medium is the message

When you’re talking to your top partners, your top customers, your top donors, how do you talk to them?

Not, “what do you say?” but “what medium and language do you use?”

You certainly don’t send the people closest to you formal letters or emails starting with“Dear So-and-so” and followed by “just thought I’d drop you a line…” with three full paragraphs of supposedly off-the-cuff exposition.

For those closest to you – friends, colleagues – there’s a way you talk, right?  There’s a rhythm and a cadence and a certain ease in the communications – direct and informal and personal, and a little humor is OK.  The people closest to you usually get short emails along with text messages and phone calls and voicemails, whatever’s easiest because that person is top of mind, their contact information is at your fingertips, and you’ve got an open channel of communication.

Formal and professional is fine too, it’s just not how you communicate with a partner in crime.  And we all need more partners in crime.

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