The Value of Face Time in a Remote Company
Essay published on January 9, 2019
Note: this was originally posted on the Help Scout blog.
Asynchronous communication is a skill that all high-functioning remote companies master over time. Email, chat, comment threads, recorded videos, wiki posts … it’s all in a format that can be consumed, replied to, and revisited on-demand, at your convenience.
When your teammates are remote, async is the default way to get things done, and it’s one of the things I love most about my daily workflow. It offers a lot of schedule flexibility, creates an environment that’s conducive for doing deep, focused work, and accommodates my introverted sensibilities.
After several years of thoughtful practice, we’ve async-ed All The Things at Help Scout. But several months ago, I looked around and wasn’t happy with the monster I’d helped create.
Upon closer look at our async process, it became apparent that miscommunications happened often, projects moved too slowly, and I was too quick to get angry or frustrated. I didn’t know it was possible, but our team, which was around 75 folks at the time, had become too async to be doing our best work.
I had to make an adjustment. While async has many benefits, there’s magic and extraordinary value in grabbing some face time. And since co-located teams are good at face time, I asked a bunch of people about it. What is it that’s so great about being in the same room hashing out a problem? And how could I simulate that sort of magic in a remote company?
I ended up making a small adjustment in roughly 20% of my interactions at work. Instead of communicating async about 90% of the time, my goal was to dial it back to 70% and see how it felt. Instead of a Slack chat, I’d suggest a Zoom video call. Instead of a comment thread, I’d ask for a 10-minute meeting with people involved. When a spec or post was finished, I’d insist on a video chat to sync and make sure everyone was aligned.
I know, I know. What I’m talking about is considered heresy in many remote circles. But I’ve heard it time and time again over the years — the best thing about “on premise” working is the real-time collaboration, the seamless sharing of information as though it’s happening by osmosis. Maybe there’s room for us to be a little less dogmatic about remote work, and recognize that some aspects of being in the same room, so to speak, can be valuable. We should at least be open to the possibility.
After four months, I’ve observed a huge improvement since I started leaning into more face time. Sure, it means more meetings — but efficient, well-coordinated meetings are incredibly productive. As a result I’ve noticed that miscommunications are less frequent, projects get stuck less often, and I’m less likely to get frustrated. Below are a few scenarios in which I’ve found the most value by connecting face-to-face.
Delivering critical feedback
I’ve always defaulted to having difficult conversations face-to-face, but it’s helpful to extend this to almost any form of critical feedback. Instead of leaving critical feedback in a comment or another async channel, I’ve started to write it down (but not send it) and schedule a video chat with the person or people involved to talk through it.
There are a couple of benefits to this approach. First is getting across all the non-verbal cues (facial expression, tone of voice, etc.) that aren’t available to you in a comment thread. I tend to come across as harsh with feedback unless I’m able to communicate the non-verbal cues as well. The second benefit is the fluid conversation and additional context both sides can share in real time.
Whereas a comment thread can go on for days and end up getting contentious in some cases, a face-to-face chat can move a project forward and strengthen a relationship in the span of 10 minutes.
Pairing on challenging problems
At our last company retreat, I witnessed what must be rather commonplace in co-located companies: I saw four engineers huddle for an afternoon and solve a problem that we’d been spinning our wheels on for weeks. In a matter of hours, sitting around a table, they solved it.
Since then, I’ve asked other teams to pair up on problems more often. Pairing is common on engineering teams, but even outside of engineering, I’ve been encouraging folks to pair on problems or ideas together.
I’ll be the first to admit that pairing flies in the face of what makes me comfortable socially, but the more I’ve practiced it, the more comfortable I’ve become. And I’ve experienced several moments like the retreat, where a hard problem was solved or a project moved forward that otherwise may have taken weeks.
Project kick-offs and sync-ups
This one sounds silly in retrospect, but we’d become so async as a company that we’d start and execute on large projects without gathering everyone in the room to review the plan. Because our projects lacked a true kick-off with all of the participants, we’d experience miscommunications throughout. These miscommunications would continue because the team had no regular cadence of reviewing progress and changes along the way.
The fix was easy. Every time we start work on a project, there’s a kick-off meeting including all of the participants. On projects that include more than a few people, we also conduct a weekly sync meeting for everyone. Maybe it only lasts 10 minutes, but it keeps everyone rowing in the same direction.
Changing the venue for long chats
One other trigger I’ve been working on is any conversation that starts to draw out or get into debate territory. Maybe it’s a chat that escalates, or maybe you spend more than 10 minutes drafting an email or comment. It’s not the answer in every case, but when in doubt, I’ve learned to stop myself and ask to chat with the person face-to-face instead of continuing things asynchronously.
This technique is especially effective (yet hard to do) when conversations get tense. In a remote company it’s even more critical that they are dealt with face-to-face so there are no lingering ill effects. Imposter syndrome is common on remote teams, and leaders have to be especially sensitive to what their teammates are thinking and feeling.
There are two important things to keep in mind if you are thinking about making an adjustment like this. The first is that it’s hard to systemize something like more face time. Since there’s no system or process that makes this possible — the right venue is always a judgement call — it takes practice and experimentation to find a balance that works for you. Four months after I started practicing more face time, we’re just now starting to coach all teams to lean into pairing or video chats when it makes sense.
Secondly, I suspect that this post will resonate more with folks in leadership or management roles. For people spending most or all of their time doing deep work, I wouldn’t dare suggest that there be much of a shift, except when you need help with a problem. Folks that spend most of their day communicating and collaborating with other people will get the most value from these tactics.
Balancing the ratio
I still love how wonderful it is to communicate asynchronously on a remote team. But we should be honest with ourselves — by default, co-located teams do the face-to-face thing much better. A more synchronous approach is instructive and a heck of a lot more efficient in a number of cases.
In my experience, a 70/30 asynch-to-sync ratio is a bit more healthy than something like 90/10, but it’s nowhere close to an exact science. The important thing is that changing my approach has made a positive impact on our team, and it’s enabled me to strengthen relationships with several people. Thanks to tools like Zoom, I can leverage the magic of co-located collaboration in a matter of seconds. Even if it means a few more meetings, I’m leaning in.