At Quadrotech, I spend a lot of time working with people remotely. My team’s spread across 9 time zones and 8 countries. We use Microsoft Teams as our primary communications tool, but we also use WhatsApp, iMessage, email, and even an occasional mobile phone call to stay in touch and coordinate our work.
In a previous job, I worked with a team that did a ton of complex, fancy telepresence deployments, whereas now my coworkers all have webcams on their desktop or laptop systems.
No matter what type of voice or video conferencing tools you have, there are two important principles that I think always hold true when humans communicate:
- Each method of communication (or “modality”) can carry a specific amount of information, which I’ll refer to as bandwidth.
- Humans like to – and are good at – filling in missing details.
This combination is often the source of huge frustration because we try to fill in information that isn't there because the bandwidth of the channel doesn't allow it. I'll skip the long explanation of what “bandwidth” really means technically, and who Claude Shannon was, and a bunch of other stuff that no one wants to hear about here, and jump right into explaining what I’m talking about.
Pure text has the least bandwidth. All you see are letters on a screen; there's no nuance. If you've ever read an email or text and wondered about the true emotional state of the sender, or asked “I wonder what she meant by that?”, this is why– your brain is seeking to fill in missing data that can't be gotten from the text alone. Emoji, animated GIFs, and so on help this a little bit, but not as much as you might think (fun article on why this is true.)
A voice conversation adds more bandwidth: now you have tone of voice, intonation, speed, pitch, and a bunch of additional data on top of what words the speaker is actually using. More bandwidth means less uncertainty.
Now add video. Suddenly body language enters the picture, along with facial expression– and most humans are really good at interpreting those cues. Tons of new bandwidth now! Consider the difference between a text from your boss saying simply “you’re fired” and a video clip of her laughing and saying “you’re fired” with a smile. Big difference, yes?
Now think of in-person interactions. You can see the speaker's whole body. The bandwidth you get from video on a screen is good but this is way better because (say it with me now) there’s more bandwidth. That jiggling foot betrays anxiety or pent-up energy. Those tapping fingers show me that you’re impatient for me to get to the point. And so on.
If you put all these different modalities into a pyramid, with text at the bottom and in-person communication at the top, you can frame the issue neatly: the most commonly used, and usually fastest, means of communication have the least bandwidth. Think of how often you send text-only emails or IMs to people versus how often you get to sit down with them in person.
Choosing the right way to communicate
Now, obviously, we can't always have every conversation in person. Sometimes limited bandwidth is all we get. Assuming that you can't always escalate every time, what can you do instead? Here's what I teach people:
- Be more explicit when bandwidth is low. (no, not that kind of explicit!) I will sometimes catch myself giving nonverbal cues while on the phone and will, therefore, try to remember to say things like “You can't see it, but I'm shaking my head at how dumb that sounds.”
- Escalate early and often. If you feel like a conversation needs more bandwidth than is available in the channel you’re using, move up the pyramid: turn that IM into a voice call or walk down the hall (if you have that luxury) and do it in person. But sometimes it’s better to…
- Save it for later. For conversations where high bandwidth is important, be willing to defer until the right time. Don't try to have long, complex, or emotionally critical conversations with low bandwidth unless you truly must. Don't fire or break up with people over text, for example. When you must have these conversations with low bandwidth, remember that…
- The recipient will invent detail if it isn't present. If the recipient doesn't know what your intent or emotional state is, their brains will, more or less automatically, try to make up details to help figure it out: “he sounds mad” being an example reaction to an email that comes across, perhaps unintentionally, as pointed. That's generally not what you want.
- If you're not sure, ask. This is tricky because it can be embarrassing, but asking the speaker or sender to clarify or explain (“When you said ‘this is terrible,' I figured you were unhappy– is that right?”) helps work around low-bandwidth conditions. This is really difficult for lots of people. I empathize. But it's a super useful skill.
If you’re in charge of your organization’s Microsoft Teams environment, Quadrotech’s latest resource could be essential reading. Check out How to Manage Microsoft Teams: An Admin Guide.
Paul Robichaux, an Office Servers and Services MVP since 2002, is currently the chief technology officer at Quadrotech Solutions, where he leads the product development team for Quadrotech's family of Office 365 migration, automation, reporting, and security products. Paul's unique background includes stints writing Space Shuttle payload software in FORTRAN, developing cryptographic software for the US National Security Agency, helping giant companies deploy Office 365 to their worldwide users, and writing about and presenting on Microsoft’s software and server products. Paul’s an avid (but slow) triathlete, an instrument-rated private pilot, and an occasional blogger (at http://www.paulrobichaux.com) and Tweeter (@paulrobichaux).