Transparency: The Key to Effective Distributed Teamwork


On the Flowdock team, we’re huge advocates of transparency. We believe that making conversations and work activity transparent leads to better decisions, higher productivity, increased agility and happier people. This is doubly important for distributed teams, where staying up to date with what everyone else is doing is one of the main challenges.

Until now, email has been the de facto way to communicate with people online. A historic lack of transparency in work communication hasn’t (generally) been due to the sensitive nature of whatever’s being discussed. Rather, it’s been due to the limitations of email as a medium. To make your email conversation visible to a large audience, you were forced to disturb all the recipients by including everyone in the cc field. No one wants to be labelled a spammer.

Open and asynchronous communication

New communication tools are changing this. Instead of blasting a message out to recipients (who are notified), your message is simply made available for others, letting them decide if and when they want to read it. In other words, communication is becoming more pull rather than push. This allows for asynchronous communication, which is perfect for distributed teams.

In order for this to work, content should be made widely available by default. It’s also very important that the communication tool helps users find content that’s relevant to them, and hide content that isn’t. With Flowdock, we do this in multiple different ways:

  • Chat rooms – or flows, as we call them – are generally organized per team or theme. Each flow acts as a subject filter. When you see that there’s activity in a certain flow, you’ll know what it relates to.
  • Flows are open to everyone in your company by default. This opens up communication across an organization. Have a question for a team? Just jump into their flow and ask. Need help with a web development technology? Open up the web development flow and start a discussion.
  • Any content can be tagged. Along with search, tags help you find anything later on. Bug descriptions can be tagged with #bug, tasks with #todo and production deployments with #production.
  • Flows support threaded chat, which allows them to have multiple different conversations going on simultaneously. Threads also help you ignore the conversations that aren’t relevant to you.
  • If you want to make sure that someone sees some content, just @mention their name to notify them.

flowdock

In order to take advantage of this new type of communication, changing your communication tool isn’t enough – a change in communication practices is also needed. It takes some time getting used to having the conversations that used to be in private (sending an email to a limited group, having a meeting, starting a 1-to-1 chat) in public (flows).

Making work transparent

Tools such as version control, CI servers, testing, monitoring and customer support are an important part of every software development team’s toolbox. But having such a wide variety of tools poses a problem: you don’t want to spend your day jumping from one tool to the next to stay up to date.

team-inbox

With Flowdock, this is solved with the help of the team inbox, which combines activity from over 80 different tools. Each flow has its own team inbox, and each item in it can be commented on, creating a chat thread. This allows the team to have a discussion in context – there’s no need to clarify what you’re talking about.

When you make a team’s work transparent, you have the ability to stay up to date about everything that’s happening. There’s much less need to waste time in meetings whose sole purpose is to tell everyone else what is being worked on and what’s been accomplished. When you have something to share, just share it – you don’t have to wait for the next week’s meeting.

For distributed teams, the team inbox is a boon. When you start your day, you can see both what the team’s been discussing and what it’s been working on, letting you catch up asynchronously and get a running start into that day’s work.

If you want to try transparency with your team, sign up for Flowdock at www.flowdock.com for a free 30 day trial, or use the special Gopher Gala signup link for an extended 90 day trial. Flowdock is also free for teams of 5 or less.

For some best practice tips, read how the Flowdock team uses Flowdock.