You’re working on a vital project. Jon’s just completed the edits on the ebook you’re supposed to publish tomorrow, but Mary has no idea. She’s working on an entirely different task no one knows exists.
So, there you are, waiting all afternoon for Mary to give you the final approval on the ebook layout, wasting time on reddit.
Her Slack’s set to away, and you can’t remember whose responsibility it is anyway, so you assume everything’s probably going to be alright. There are enough memes to keep you busy while you wait.
The morning comes. Your boss is fuming. You can feel his anger through Slack. “We’re supposed to be sending this book to our email lists right now — why isn’t it ready?”.
Jon thinks Mary was supposed to do it. You think it’s Jon’s fault. Mary’s gone silent. You all hate each other a little bit right now.
The reason this whole mess was allowed to happen is because of a poor feedback loop.
A feedback loop is the process of communication that happens around a shared task or project. If one person’s responsible for finalizing edits, they need to let the next person know their progress because the work all depends on a sequence of tasks completed in order.
If you’ve ever been part of a situation like that (I know I have), then it’s because your team’s feedback loop is broken. That’s ok. It’s easily done in remote teams. In this article, I’m going to go through a few measures we take at Process Street to stop this kind of thing happening.
The cure for no feedback loop: set expectations right now
In an office, you might mention to someone on your way to the keyboard vending machine that you’ve just got done with whatever they were waiting on you for. Remotely, there aren’t too many opportunities for natural conversation. That means you should make sure your team is keeping records updated. Whether that’s commenting in Trello or another project management app, the team needs to know that task updates go in one concrete place that everyone can see.
If you’re using Trello, comment on the card then drop a link to the card in Slack — your team’s group channel, not direct — and then whoever’s up next on the task can get the information they need and know where they should update you. This is the sort of information that should go in your employee onboarding process so there’s no chance for confusion.
The cure for a slow feedback loop: daily standup meetings
They’re not just a developer thing. A daily standup meeting gets everybody in the habit of communicating properly. It works like this; you get on a group call in the morning, and the team leader addresses each member one-by-one. They ask:
- What did you get done yesterday?
- What are you working on today?
- What do you need help with?
Standup meetings are a key part of Agile methodology, a set of project management guidelines that aims to abolish radio silence, long sessions of unchecked work and slow feedback loops. Usually, it’s used by developers but we adapt it into our marketing process because developers always get all the fun.
A tool like appear.in or Google Hangouts is ideal for standup meetings because you get a fixed link for the team, and you can pop in or out at any time. Get everyone to add the link as a calendar event timed for 9am, so when the notification goes off, your team can hop onto the call and get going as quickly as possible.
By putting what everyone has accomplished into context, the team knows what their next task will be and the gap between iterations will be 1 day at most. This isn’t a substitute for centralizing your updates in Trello or another project management app, but it does make damn well certain that everyone is one the same page because notifications are easy to ignore.
The systems you need to put into place
You can’t expect your whole team to become master communicators overnight. You’ll need to lay the foundations, first.
At a bare minimum, you need all to be using the same shared task list that allows for comments and @mentions. On top of this, agree on a fixed chat app and a fixed video chat room for notifications and standup meetings. The chat app should have a group for your team where all team project work is discussed, so members are passively updated as work happens. Your choice of team tools will have a big impact on whether anything gets done.
A fluffier, harder to grasp system you need in place is teamwork and rapport. It’s hard to grasp because there’s a difference between professional communication and being friends at work. It really helps to try and make friends, and usually contributes to a more relaxed and productive environment. The content creation team at Process Street gets on nicely. We have custom emojis. We sometimes Photoshop each other’s faces onto inanimate objects. This sort of thing helps free communication.
Another thing you could try to get everybody talking is recognizing achievements in company channels. When the group chat is filled with positive messages, people want to contribute to the conversation and it feels natural to keep your team in the loop and look out for each other.
Celebrating achievements also inadvertently announces progress on a project, even though its main purpose is to give a great employee the recognition they deserve.
Final thoughts on solving feedback loop problems
Not all remote teams are created equal. You’ll have members with all kinds of different experience, personalities and habits.
Understanding this is important when solving communication problems, but it’s key to remember that it’s all about encouraging the development of productive habits in your team.
Implement these guidelines, and you’ll never have to deal with awkward ‘I thought you were supposed to do it’ moments again.