Updated: Jul 25
With the sudden societal shift to working from home, many of us who have never had to figure out remote work flows now have to do so on short notice. This leads to a lot of rushed decisions that don’t necessarily reflect the needs of each organization or team. You need to know how to evaluate what each system or platform can do for you and your team before committing to them for the long term. I will walk you through the ways that I differentiate elements of communication platforms so that you can make informed and deliberate decisions for how you communicate in this new era of remote work.
· The basics – what are we trying to get across?
· The purpose – Why bother?
· Formats – How are we talking?
· Scope – Who are we talking to?
· Timeliness – Do I need a response now?
· Records – How do we train new members?
· Participation – Who holds the talking stick?
· Security – Who’s listening in?
· What culture are we making?
The Basics –
What are we trying to get across when we communicate?
We might be trying to share an idea, come to a consensus, convince another person, ask questions, express our needs and wants, or to connect socially.
All of those efforts depend on how effectively we are able to communicate. In order to understand everything that follows in this article you need to understand a little bit of communication theory: The encoding and decoding of messages, distortion, and how rich our communication is.
When talking about encoding and decoding, let’s start with an example. Imagine Alice wants to tell Bob about her birthday party. She knows when and where it’s happening, but Bob does not. Alice can send a card to Bob with all of the details. To do this, she has to write down or encode the information on a card in such a way that it can be understood. In this case we’ll assume that she has written the details in a way Bob expects and understands.
Then Alice will mail the card to Bob. He will receive it, open it up, read (decode) the message and understand the details of the party contained on the card. In this situation, the medium of using a paper card has facilitated the transfer of information. The same encode-decode process happens when you send an email, post pictures on facebook, whenever you communicate.
If the card had been accidentally dropped in a puddle by the postal worker while it was on the way to Bob’s mailbox, that would make the words Alice wrote blurry, and add some medium distortion. That blurriness, that distortion makes the communication less rich.
When I say we’ve got rich communication I’m not talking about how much money someone has. I’m actually talking about how deep and effective the communication is.
If you’ve every tried learn a new language, you understand that initially, the conversations will start out being shallow and ineffective. A similar thing happens when you lose key elements of how we traditionally communicate. One on one, face to face communication tends to be the richest, in both understanding and depth. We can imagine being able to get by without a shared language if we’re able to mime and use the context around us for cues. If you were trying to have the same conversation with someone over the phone, it would be a futile effort.
Every time you remove a sense from the conversation (sight, sound, touch, context, etc) the communication loses some of its richness. Every communication platform also has it’s own bias, and will make certain kinds of communication less rich.
Most of us were used to having important meetings in person, with the ability to see and hear everyone around a table. We had the ability to create a space dedicated to the conversation without distraction. We were able to get a sense of the emotions of the people involved because of our physical proximity, and hearing their reactions in real time.
If you’re working from home, I’m sure you’ve felt a lack of some of those social cues while having similar meetings through tele-conferencing or in video chats. If people try to give the usual audible responses in a video call, then it actually disrupts the flow of the conversation, instead of giving valuable feedback. The conversation has become less rich for the lack of feedback.
This is the same reason why it’s bad taste to break up with someone over a text message, or to be fired by an email.
Generally, in person is the richest form of communication, then video, then audio, then still images, then static text. There are exceptions and I will cover some of them in the section on formats.
Society has been forced to shift down to less rich forms of communication due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but we have the chance to learn how to do this well. This article on choosing the platform that’s right for your goals is my contribution, but there are also extensive accessibility standards that already exist. I’ve included a link to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disibilities Act Information and Communications Standards for some basic guidelines. The contributions of those who are disabled will be valuable for everyone as we adjust to this new way of working and living. I’ve included a couple other links on accessibility at the end of this article.
Why bother communicating?
When we communicate with people, we tend to do it for a reason. Whether it’s to socialize and deepen a relationship, or to debate and figure out the solution to a problem. There are other reasons that are less healthy, but I will focus primarily on constructive reasons in this article.
Let’s go through and list some of the possible purposes to our communication:
· Sharing ideas
· Socializing and building relationships
· Signaling shared values
· Coming together for consensus
· Convincing someone of a healthy behaviour (Wash your hands!)
· Asking questions
· Expressing needs and wants
· Giving feedback
· Clarifying after miscommunicating
I will continue coming back to these sample goals to ground the examples in this article, but when you’re evaluating what kind of tool you need, make sure you define your goal clearly first.
How are we talking?
When we communicate, we are always using at least one of three methods. We communicate verbally, non-verbally, and through writing and drawing.
There are different benefits to each of these methods, and they can be combined to enhance some of their benefits.
Typically, verbal elements are what we are most familiar using to convey information quickly, and to grow relationally. To recognize someone’s voice is to feel like you know them. This is why phone calls often help you feel closer to a person than texting, and why it is better to call your co-worker when there is a difficult situation, then follow up with an email to ensure everything was understood appropriately.
Non-verbal elements are pieces such as hand gestures, tone of voice (apart from the words being used,) the way we dress, and more. Non-verbal elements help you understand the emotions that are going on underneath the message that is shared. Non-verbal elements are often misunderstood, especially if the people involved don’t know each other well, or share a common background. It is also one of the first pieces of communication to suffer when we transition to digital formats.
Finally, we get to the written and drawn communication, the purely visual methods. These are most often used to express complicated ideas and topics, as well as ways to preserve conversations across time. Because writing and drawing is a static format, people who are trying to understand can go at their own pace, and review sections they don’t understand. You wouldn’t expect the engineer’s manual for a nuclear reactor to be only passed on in spoken word.
These methods are combined to create various digital communication formats. Video calls preserve verbal and non-verbal communication, and some include the option to have written communication on the side. Podcasts are purely verbal. Instagram is a primarily visual media, with text included to flesh out the images, and allow for people to respond.
When you’re looking at what formats you need to include within your platform, consider what your goals are for the communication you are hoping to have.
Looking at our example list they each have some natural leanings, although the preference will rest with the individual:
· Sharing ideas – written for depth, video (verbal & non-verbal) for basics and to show passion
· Socializing and building relationships – either verbal only, or video to allow for engaging back and forth.
· Signaling shared values – visual is best
· Coming together for consensus – Verbal and written is best, as it would allow for the Q&A that leads to understanding and consensus, then written has it recorded.
· Convincing someone of a healthy behaviour (Wash your hands!) – All methods can be used depending on the complexity of the message.
· Asking questions – Verbal and written
· Expressing needs and wants – verbal and non-verbal allows for some of the nuance that can be difficult to express in writing.
· Giving feedback – verbal and written
· Clarifying after mis-communicating – verbal and non-verbal is best for this, because clarifying miscommunications often means dealing with emotions of blame and guilt, allowing for verbal and non-verbal helps to navigate those emotions.
Who are we talking to?
When looking at various digital communications platforms, there are options for settings that are completely open, and those that have strict security. Defining if your platform needs to handle internal or external communication, and whether the platform is open or closed is an important step.
Internal communication platforms are used for members of your team. It could include your board members, your staff, volunteers, social impact partners, ect. External communication platforms allow for you to communication with people outside of your team. People such as your customers, journalists, activists, and the general public.
Open platforms enable anyone to make an account and join in. Twitter is an especially open platform, where anyone can make an account and join in on any conversation that is being tweeted. Closed platforms involve more selective screening of accounts and often have moderation guiding the conversations. This might mean that everyone who signs up an account has to pass an interview with a moderator, or a different close platform might restrict access to staff on payroll from a single organization.
Whether the platform you use should be internal or external and whether it should be open or closed should be obvious if you have a clear goal in mind.
For example, the platform that I am using for facilitating conversation around social enterprise and other social business is an example of an external, semi-open platform. It is external because it is inviting people from outside Strategy Made Simple to join in on the conversation. It is semi-open because people signing up from the main page are screened, but any existing member can invite new members without screening.
Do I need a response now?
When you’re considering what your platform should have, you need to consider whether the messages that are send on the platform will need immediate responses.
In communications theory, there are two modes of communicating across time. First, there are synchronous conversations, when it is happening in real time. These are video calls, phone calls, in person conversations, ect. There is also Asynchronous communication, when messages are sent and responses will come later. This includes texting, publishing a book, writing forum posts, and releasing a recorded video.
When thinking about the goals you have for the platform, knowing whether you will expect immediate responses and synchronous conversations or not will influence what you use.
The benefits of synchronous methods are that conversations happen in real time. You can respond to emotions as they are happening. You can bring up points of confusion and clear them up right away.
In asynchronous communication, there is the chance to go in depth. You don’t need to ask people to let you finish before asking questions, the assumption is already there. Another benefit is that there is time to consider how best to respond to messages, and there is time to find the answers to questions even if you don’t have them on hand. It also allows people to edit their responses to messages.
Even on asynchronous platforms, there are times when things sync up and the conversation flows as if it is in real time, although at any point people can back out and take some time if they need to. If you’ve ever been in a group chat on slack or Facebook, this has probably happened to you. Another benefit of asynchronous conversations is that there’s usually a record so that people who haven’t checked for a while can catch up.
Make sure that you know whether synchronous or asynchronous elements would help you best achieve your goals.
Can I refer to past conversations?
When looking at a digital communication platform, some are built to hold records forever. Others are made to immediately delete the messages after they’ve been received.
It’s important to know what kind of recordkeeping you expect from your digital platform.
In this I would also include how the information is being organized. Can you separate out all of the information relating to a specific product or program? Can you search through the messages that have been posted? When you search, does it search through all existing conversations, or does it only search through one conversation at a time?
It will probably be important at some point to be able to look back and see who contributed what ideas to a project. This can help you go ask them for more detail if needed, or sort out potential abuse before it becomes a problem.
If you’re intending for a digital platform to facilitate the development of anything more complicated than relationships, I would recommend ensuring that there is a functional sorting and/or search function within your platform. If you are looking for something to handle sensitive data, then you may want a more limited in-platform records system. Although, when thinking about sensitive data, there is always the opportunity for leaks, and anything that is posted online has the possibility of being downloaded or save in a screenshot.
Who holds the talking stick?
When evaluating previous communications media, there were only a couple options for who was involved in the conversation. There were channels such as the telephone or post letters, which was relatively unmoderated communication from one person to one other person. There were also mass media formats, where one person with capital could send a message to many receivers. This was the book, newspaper, radio and television form.
The telephone is an example of one-to-one communication. Radio and broadcast TV are examples of one-to-many channels. The internet has enabled a different form to arise, many-to-many communication. This is where anyone who is part of hearing the conversation can also contribute to the conversation. Imagine Twitter if you could only post if your tweet was approved by an editor.
There is a great TEDx talk by Clay Shirky on the fundamental shift that the internet brings into communication and how many-to-many systems disrupted society.
When you are looking for a digital communication platform, you need to decide who will be able to send message and to whom. If your goals are to have precise and controlled messages, you will want to avoid using a many-to-many system. If you are looking to have an idea bullpen where the ideas of your staff are opened up for anyone to critique, review, and improve, then many-to-many becomes essential.
There will be some that have mixed modes of participation. Imagine if you had a site that functioned like Facebook, but for your workplace. Anyone who wants to be a part of someone else’s conversations can add them as a friend, but the organization as a whole could have the opportunity to include main posts or announcements that appear for everyone. In that way, the individual staff could have many-to-many conversations, and the administration still has the opportunity to send a message to all staff in a 1-to-many style.
One of the main things to be aware of, is that on a many-to-many platform, every decision and message can be openly criticized. It is much harder to have complete control over the narrative and to direct away from unhelpful conversation. We will talk more about this in the section on culture.
The key takeaway from this section is to ensure that the way in which people can interact is beneficial and helps to work towards your goals.
Who’s listening in?
When you’re thinking about the security of a digital platform, you need to think about how access to the platform is secured, and whether the individual messages are secure.
If you’re working in confidential or otherwise restricted information, you should know what security your digital platforms need better than I do.
For everyone else who’s just looking for a secure space to discuss product ideas and have customer interactions, there are a few things you should know.
The first thing is if the platform is hosted on a website that it is an SSL secured website. This means that when you go to log into your account the URL in the address bar should show “https://” not just “http://”. For shorthand, the s in https stands for secure. It’s the standard baseline for online security at the time this is written.
The next thing to look for is if the platform you are planning on using has any documentation on their encryption. Usually you can find this near the bottom of the feature list when you’re comparing options and plans. A red flag in this area is if there is no mention of security or encryption. End to end encryption is the term that you should look up if you’d like to learn more.
Finally, the most likely point at which your security is likely to fail, is with your users. Make sure that they know they should not share their passwords or security codes. Make sure that everyone uses two-factor authentication when possible (login confirmation through a phone or other secondary device) and to report whenever they see a suspicious message. Most low-level hacking is done by social engineering, not malicious software.
What culture are we making?
This is the most important part of building a digital communications platform for a team or group. It doesn’t matter what tools you have or who has an account if nobody uses it.
One of the biggest parts of building the culture of an online communication platform is to find someone who can embody the culture you are trying to make and give them the authority to host the conversation. If you can give someone the freedom to initiate conversation and model the culture of the space for everyone else, then it gives everyone else a baseline of how to act and how to respond.
The people who are present will create the conversation, and over time the conversations will define the culture. Towards that goal of nurturing a specific kind of culture, you have to make sure that the right kind of people are involved. Seth Godin says to find your tribe.
For example: if you’re trying to make a platform where people can gather and share tips for how to use active transportation in your city, you will need a certain number of dedicated pathfinders. Experts – people who love to share their paths through the city. You will also need to have some people who are newer to active transportation. These people will be initially helped by the experts and are given an invitation to dive deeper into the active transport culture. Others that should be involved to ensure broad discussion and impact include city planners, architects, students, politicians and advocates. Who you try to appeal to should depend on the goal for the platform.
Moderation is another big part of defining the culture of your digital platforms. Without good moderation, discussions have the distinct chance to devolve into either irrelevant and unhelpful conversation, or fall into harmful and destructive patterns. Good moderation will ensure everyone feels heard and understood, even if their conversation is removed from the platform.
Moderation is difficult and requires a careful balance. It requires the constant eye for the line between beneficial and harmful content while looking out for the culture that is being co-created. If you’re too heavy handed with moderation, then people will use the platform less. If you’re too lenient, then some users will abuse the platform.
Most resources that are freely available for new moderators is directed towards volunteer moderators, but the principles that they outline can be very helpful. I’ve included a link to Mozilla’s support forum moderation guidelines. This gives a starting point from an internet first organization.
One of the keys for users to feel like there is fair moderation requires the explicit definition of what is expected from each user. If you define the rules for the space, then people understand what is socially expected of them.
One of the best examples of this is in video calls with more than 4 people. I’ve been in webinars where the expectations are not clearly laid out, and there have been people who leave their microphone on with background noise for the entire webinar. If you have even 3+ people on a call producing background noise, it gets very hard to hear anyone else.
On the other hand, there are some webinars where the expectations are clearly defined at the beginning: Please keep yourself muted until it is time for questions, and you have been given the floor. Please keep questions for the end, or type them out in chat and we will address them later. With rules like this, the flow of the webinar is maintained and everyone can hear clearly.
Just like you have to define the expectations, you also have to define your terms. Use a shared language. When I set out to create a group of people to discuss issues around the social economy, I can assume that people have a basic knowledge of what the social economy is. I can’t assume that the people who work in social enterprise understand everything that the people who work in co-ops say.
Working towards a shared language across the various segments of your users is a big part of creating a shared culture.
I hope this article is helpful as you transition to digital communications platforms. As leaders in our businesses, organizations and in our teams, it is our responsibility to make sure that the tools that we use help us get closer to our goals. Communications platforms are just a part of the solution, but if communication breaks down then things start to fall apart.
Most of this article is about the way that we communicate. It’s up to you to build the culture that shows us why we communicate.
Good luck, and keep it simple.
The Basics –
Media Richness Theory: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_richness_theory
Accessibility Guidelines (Thank you to Kaye Grant and the Manitoba League for Persons with Disabilities for these links) –
Ideas for Digital Accessibility: https://uxplanet.org/ideas-for-digital-accessibility-6349652db23d
About the Author:
Matthew Rempel is a social enterprise development coach with a focus on marketing. He helps social enterprises focus in on the core values of their business, and present them in clear language for their customers and clients. He has connected and interviewed many social enterprise leaders in his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba. He is also a lifelong nerd, and will gladly use analogies from games and movies to explain complex topics.