Being good at writing is important in any job. This is crucial in a distributed team. Founders who are building a distributed team should focus on this skill, and those who feel attracted to starting a remote career should make sure that they are able to embrace such a strange path.
You may think that your ability to chat on WhatsApp and to send a few emails per day is enough to make you a good remote worker. Picture yourself relying mostly on written communication - that’s what happens to every remote team. You don’t have frequent face-time with your team. You won’t bump into each other. You just rely on writing, so being a good writer makes these strange workdays more enjoyable.
Importance of Communication in Remote Work
The reason communication has to be central is that remote workers can’t afford not being on the same page. When something bad happens, their ability to recover from it depends on how well they communicate. Sharing feedback and feelings as well as putting yourself in your colleagues’ shoes are the minimum required to solve any problem.
When your team is distributed in different time zones, misunderstandings have an enormous impact on your productivity. If you don’t understand the last messages a team member sent before his day ended, how can you get the work done before he starts his next day. At best, you wasted a bit of your time working on the wrong task. At worst, a misunderstanding can have serious negative consequences. That’s why remote teams choose to make communication a central element of their company.
Matt Mullenweg, founder of Automattic - the company behind WordPress.com - has built one of the most famous distributed teams. The Automattic Creed - their mantra - insists clearly on the topic of communication: “I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company.”
Automattic is not alone. Buffer, a social media tool built by another remote team, insists on clarity as being one of its ten Company Values. That’s why Buffer recommends its team to “over-communicate, repeating things more times than you would intuitively”.
Indeed, “the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”. Having spent 12+ years communicating with remote teams, I cannot agree more. I have found that most friction is caused by someone misunderstanding something or lacking context.
In Remote Teams, Most Communication Is Written
In a distributed team, most of the communication happens in a written format. The main reason we don’t spend hours communicating by phone or video-conference is that writing is so much more efficient.
Written communication is very helpful as it makes communication searchable. You never miss a thing. At Contriber, the team makes every discussion accessible to anyone from strategic decisions to salary. So everyone can search for the information they are looking for.
Writing also forces us to formulate our ideas in a better way. Speaking allows to share your thoughts in a linear way, while writing allows a more dynamic construction because you can always edit the beginning of your thought process.
Adopting an almost exclusive written communication sounds unnatural to many organisations. This heritage from the open source community and the video game players has not yet spread everywhere. That’s the reason why remote workers are somewhat unique. Traditional businesses are still transitioning to a world that requires more written communication.
Many people still need a direct daily contact with their colleagues. Not hearing their voice for days sounds surreal. Remote workers are different from anybody who works in a traditional office.. They have special backgrounds. I’ve been involved in online communities for years. I spent hours organising video game competitions and chatting with people I never met. This past is an incredible asset. Since the age of 11, I have been trained to work remotely with people. What seemed odd to my friends and family is now the future of work.
Having started early in the video game community, I quickly realised how good written communication is essential, especially when you never meet your team. That’s why, when I used to play online at Rainbow Six - a shooting game similar to Counter Strike, I developed a tool to organise our team.
During the game we used microphones to communicate— similar to a meeting in the corporate world. The rest of our communication happened asynchronously. We planned our techniques and our events on a forum that I had customised to fit our needs. Without knowing it, we developed a tool that was pretty similar to what teams like Automattic use or what Contriber offers. At the time, the solution was not the most optimal, but it existed.
Effective Communication Is Not The Only Benefit of Good Writing
Yes. Written communication is central when you don’t work in the same building that the rest of your team. But beyond that, remote workers also need to be good writers for several other reasons.
Great Writing = Clear Thinking
“Ce que l'on conçoit bien s'énonce clairement,
Et les mots pour le dire arrivent aisément.”
— Nicolas Boileau, French poet
These two lines of verse, written by Nicolas Boileau, are very famous among French people to highlight the correlation between the ability to think and the ability to communicate. Translating that into English, it means:
“Whatever is well conceived is clearly said,
And the words to say it flow with ease.”
Making what you write easy to digest requires being able to clearly think about it before. Communication has two layers. The first layer is how you formulate your ideas. The second one is how people understand it. In other words, what you write does not always mean the same to you as they do to others.
Clear thoughts on a particular topic reduce the friction between the first and the second layer. In a presentation called How to Write More Clearly, Think More Clearly, and Learn Complex Material More Easily, Michael A. Covington, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Georgia, highlights that writing down your thoughts is also a good test to make sure that they are clear enough.
“Clear writing leads to clear thinking. You don’t know what you know until you try to express it. If your writing is nonsense, maybe your thoughts are nonsense too!” The abilities to write well and think clearly are definitely intertwined. This helps you be better at your craft.
Great Writing = Being Good at Your Craft
Writing is the essence of most of what remote workers do. From programmers to marketers to designers to customers support teams, everyone writes in their daily job.
An extract of the book Getting Real summarises this well:
“Copywriting is interface design. Great interfaces are written. If you think every pixel, every icon, every typeface matters, then you also need to believe every letter matters. […] Good writing is good design. It's a rare exception where words don't accompany design.” Someone who writes well is likely to develop effective code, create good design, and manager customer-facing activities in a more suitable way.
Great Writing = More Diplomatic Skills
Even in the coolest organisations, meeting deadlines and talking about KPIs can create some tensions. Conflicts are a normal part of any human relationship. In these situation writing well helps to avoid a huge breakdown and encourages a quicker recovery.
Being a good writer means that you are clear enough to be rarely misunderstood. Many conflicts arise because of someone misinterpreting what they read. Being able to pick the right words and communicate your tone makes a huge difference.
As G. Richard Shell wrote in Bargaining for Advantage: “The art of being a good email negotiator is more complicated than many people think. A lot of damage to relationships is being done by people who underestimate that complexity.”
You want to be aware of the difficulty of written communication. Insist on your tone and compensate the lack of body language, making sure that you are clear enough and explain your actions and decisions.
Great Writing = Ability to Lead Innovation
In any organisation - even the most agile ones - you constantly need to sell new ideas and new projects. You have to be able to convince that what you have in mind is the best choice for the company. You need to take into account your colleagues’ point of you.
Knowing how to write means three things. You know:
- How to tell the story of your idea - the why;
- How to balance between logic and emotions you need, and;
- How to use your credibility to make sure that what you want to say resonate with your colleagues.
You also know your limit. When you should switch from writing about an idea to creating something visual - mock up, video, if not the feature/product itself. I believe that someone who writes well is more innovative - the ability to come up with unexpected ideas and make everyone embrace it.
You become a good writer because you are curious. Good writers are proficient readers. They observe. They ask questions. They love learning. Every proficient writer I know is like that.
Generating new ideas come from linking existing information together. The more you know from different sources the more likely you will come up with new ideas. People who are like sponges and absorb lots of information will come up with more ideas.
On top of that, you just need to be a bit playful.
Make Sure You Are Ready for Working Remotely
Before you decide to embrace a remote career, make sure that you are able to manage most of your communication using only words. I realised that most of the people who are comfortable working remotely have a somewhat past of interacting remotely with other people via forums, IRC, Facebook…
Working with team members who are spread all around the world is challenging. It might sound weird to some. But this is definitely one of the major shifts that many types of organisations are going to experience. I believe that in a decade we won’t be talking about remote working anymore. This will be totally normal to anyone.
That’s also why we are all called to become better writers. Our own personal communication is already shifting to text rather than voice.
One more thing. Written communication is awesome, but limited. A good writer knows when to use writing and when not to. You know what you say with written words and what you cannot. You know when you need to switch from asynchronous communication to Skype or face-to-face.
Guerric de Ternay started the designer brand GoudronBlanc. He teaches tech entrepreneurship at University College London and helps tech ventures develop products that users love. He currently drives growth and content marketing at Contriber. Find more about Guerric: He writes about product marketing and leadership at BoostCompanies.com. You can also find him on Twitter: @GuerricdeTernay.