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?