Some remote-first organizations and teams have uncovered a simple but impactful axiom about the new way of working: those who coordinate best are in the best position to succeed. And while digital communication is important, sound coordination requires more than just good, clean comms—it demands that employees are making decisions from consistent information.
Without the ability to settle a data or information discrepancy with a casual walk down the corridor or coffee run among employees, the ability to centralize and disseminate reliable information while making it easily accessible to employees has become paramount to some organizations. This may have been complicated for some companies during the rushed transition to overnight remote work at the start of the pandemic, where information may have ended up scattered across various platforms, databases, and email threads, giving teams outdated data or conflicting versions of the same data.
To avoid complications from disparate data, stakeholders may want to consider adopting the single source of truth (SSOT) principle. SSOT is a concept that started in IT systems design that ensures data from various systems is centralized in one location from which everyone draws. The single source becomes the information that everyone trusts as being accurate and reliable.
How Can Your Company Apply the SSOT Principle?
Dr. Terri Griffith, author and professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Simon Fraser University's Beedie School of Business, provides several tips for an organization to practice SSOT effectively:
"First," says Griffith, "companies need to have an-agreed upon platform, that is, someplace for that single source to exist."
It's essential, adds Griffith, that the organization's senior leadership use the platform, and everyone has to be disciplined and committed to using it. "If an employee sends a question by email, for example," explains Griffith, "you can say: ‘Great question—I’ll be able to answer the question via the platform, please ask me there so all can benefit from the answer.’" Email is "the antithesis of an SSOT," says Griffith.
Griffith also emphasizes that the platform has to be easy to use. Otherwise, employees will not be encouraged to use it faithfully, and, of course, it needs to be easily searchable so that employees can track down the information they need.
"Finally," adds Griffth, "reward people who share valuable information. Every Friday afternoon, for example, there can be a post or other acknowledgment on the platform to celebrate an employee who effectively used or shared information on the platform."
Korn Ferry: An SSOT Principle Case Study
Korn Ferry, a global organizational consulting firm, is an example of a company applying the SSOT principle effectively. “A central repository for our documents,” says senior client partner David Gibbons, “ensures that we maintain the integrity of a single source of information."
"We use two systems for two types of company documents,” he says. The first, explains Gibbons, houses the entire company’s content, from marketing material to intellectual property, and is used as a launching point for HR and financial reporting applications. The second houses all client projects and work.
The results of implementing an SSOT practice were very positive. Workflows are more streamlined, and projects get done faster. “Having everything in one location on SharePoint definitely does make us more efficient,” says Gibbons. For example, people are more productive, not wasting time checking for emails, looking for files or dealing with repetitive communication.
As well, an SSOT has resulted in a better customer experience. “Using [one platform],” adds Gibbons, “and being able to give some client access also increases client engagement and satisfaction, particularly as many of them are using the same systems.”
“When setting up an SSOT practice, Gibbons advises, “it’s important that everybody has a clear understanding of the architecture of how you’re storing and sharing content.” Having people at the outset of each project understand how you are planning on using your system to maintain a single source of information is a critical factor in ensuring the success of your SSOT practice.
Developing Clear Policies for Remote Work Communications
In addition to applying the SSOT principle in your company, it may also be vital for success to create a comprehensive communication policy that clarifies other aspects of communication to help eliminate confusion.
As leaders implement their overall communication strategy, Dr. Jack Zenger, best-selling author, CEO of leadership development firm Zenger Folkman and former professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, recommends that employers consider two supporting guidelines:
"First is variety. Nearly everyone wants variety in the food they eat. The same holds true for the communication they receive. Mix it up with memos, phone calls and [virtual-video] meetings. Second, make your communication warm rather than cold and formal. Remote colleagues especially want to know you care about them—that they are not out-of-sight, out-of-mind."
It's essential to set expectations for synchronous and asynchronous communication and develop policies for each company's tool. Synchronous communication happens in real-time, while asynchronous information is not immediately received, nor replied to, by the recipient.
Examples of synchronous tools are:
- Phone calls
- Video calls
- Virtual meetings
- Text messages
Examples of asynchronous tools are:
- Messaging platforms
- Project management tools
- Collaboration tools
Here are some examples to inspire you as you create your communication plan:
- If the issue is critical, use email, not your chat or messaging platform.
- If you need a reply within minutes, text or call.
- If a response is required within a few hours, use your chat or messaging platform.
- If you're sending important information, place the documents on your intranet and send a summary by email or messenger.
In other words, help employees understand your policy regarding each tool so that, if they see an email, for example, they know that it is a priority item.
A sign of being a considerate colleague is asking yourself what your teammate needs to know and providing clear, comprehensive information to them so they don't have to email you back three times for clarifying details. Empathy goes a long way.
—Dorie Clark, communication coach
In a recent American Express Office Hours video interview, Hassan Osman, project management office director at Cisco Systems and remote work expert, provides several tips on emails and remote meetings. Email, he says, is one of the biggest time wasters in a remote work environment: "If you absolutely need to write the long email," he emphasizes, "do a quick summary and a detailed section where the quick summary is five sentences or less."
Creating a Culture That Encourages Active Communication
Policies and guidelines are essential but not enough. It's critical to create a culture that makes employees feel comfortable communicating remotely.
Dorie Clark, communication coach, best-selling author and executive education professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, says that it's essential for a leader to stress to the team that clear, open communication is a sign of respect for one's colleagues. "If you don't respond to questions in a timely manner," explains Clark, "that's a form of disrespect because you're holding up other people's work. A sign of being a considerate colleague is asking yourself what your teammate needs to know and providing clear, comprehensive information to them so they don't have to email you back three times for clarifying details. Empathy goes a long way."
Deborah Grayson Riegel, communication coach, author and leadership communication instructor at Wharton School of Business and Columbia School of Business, advises sharing behavioral expectations frequently. "Use the 7x7 rule," she explains, "which means sharing your communication expectation seven times in seven different ways. This may include verbally in 1:1 meetings, over email, by instant message [or] in a video." Repetition matters to keep reinforcing communication practices.
"We are social beings. We connect with people, says Osman. “Nothing,” he says, “can replace the face-to-face interactions that we have. That's something people ache for, and you want to try and mimic as much as possible." In the video clip, Osman lists a 15-minute virtual coffee break to catch up with your team and chat as one example of an activity to help foster that social connection for remote employees and encourage communication. "Do not make it about work," adds Osman.
Similarly, at Ologie, a branding and marketing agency, Dawn Marinacci, executive marketing director, says that the company has several messaging channels “that encourage not only project communication, but fun ones, too such as Ologie Pets, Ologie Music, Work from Home Confessions and Inspirational Innovation.” The company also created a popular Micro-Greens channel “where our in-house editorial director, who has used a green pen to make edits for years, initiates grammar quizzes for everyone to participate in and ultimately get smarter.”
Helping Employees Overcome Remote Work Challenges
Virtual communication presents some challenges. Without seeing a person's expression and body language, it is not easy to gauge the feelings behind a person's feedback. To overcome some of these challenges, you can make a few adjustments. For example, make better eye contact by looking directly into your webcam. Sit further away from your computer, so more of your body is visible on camera. This allows your listeners to get more non-verbal cues.
To overcome the shortcomings of a lack of physical body language in remote communication, Erica Dhawan, author of Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance focuses on “the importance of prioritizing thoughtfulness over speed.” Don’t reward the first person to respond to every message or comment in a video meeting. Instead, Dhawan advises leaders to give everyone a moment to reflect and then share. “This avoids,” she explains, “groupthink behavior and fosters inclusion. The collective interest, including [the leader’s interest], is far better served when we slow down, become strategic and prioritize substance over speed.”
Clark recommends not having difficult conversations asynchronously. Employees should avoid sharing upsetting information with someone in a format where they can't see their reaction and respond accordingly. "If you need to criticize their work in a substantive way, for instance," explains Clark, "it's best to do it on a video call.”
Dr. Nick Morgan, communications coach, theorist and author of Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World, recommends that companies encourage their employees to communicate through multiple virtual channels. "Using more than one channel can reduce the misunderstandings that arise from single communications," says Morgan. He also stresses that "most importantly, companies can tell a great story about their purpose and why they value remote work employees. If there's a clear purpose, humans can work well together."
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