Eight Tips for Writing in Distributed Work Groups
Posted by AaronF
Let’s face it: Work life is dispersed. On any given day, we might find ourselves connecting with colleagues at their homes, in another city, or across the world.
If I stop to think about it, in the last two weeks, I’ve had meetings with people in Perth, Beijing, London, and remote parts of the Canadian North. These meetings led to collaboration on documents, document templates, training resources, and technical reports. That collaboration took place by phone, email, social media, video chat, and online meeting software.
I’ve had similar collaborations with colleagues from my office who happen to be working from home. I could also say I’ve had video chats or instant messaging sessions with coworkers down the hall or on another floor in my same building. (I could say that but I’m not going to. While efficient, it’s shameful.)
Stacey Pigg in Coordinating Constant Invention: Social Media’s Role in Distributed Work (p. 70) put it this way:
“Social media offer a means through which individuals can aggregate people and knowledge or, at the least, learn how existing webs of participation are held together.”
This is a thoughtful insight. On one hand she’s stating that social media (and I would add to this a number of online tools), provide means for group collaboration and knowledge sharing. On the other, she’s stating social media (and the other tools), when understood, provide a view to group dynamics.
You can call it distributed work groups with a focus on social media, as Pigg does, or remote collaboration, parallel work-sharing, or something else. But, whatever you call it, these group work tools and scenarios “offer unique affordances for overcoming fragmentation” (p. 73), if you have the right protocols in place.
Here are eight tips you can use to get the most out of distributed work groups…err…online group collaboration.
- Hold a kickoff meeting. This may be the only time everyone in the work group is “together” at the same time. It’s a critical meeting where you can set goals and lay the ground rules. Don’t skip it!
- Define roles and responsibilities. Who are the writers, the editors, the reviewers, the coders, the designers, and so forth? I like to make a contact list with roles and post it in a shared resource (e.g. an online file share).
- Designate a document custodian. All documents from actual documents to web content should have a custodian. This person creates and manages the initial artifact. This person–and only this person–is allowed to up the revision number, which saves having to unnecessarily compile multiple versions.
- Centralize assets. Graphics, sounds, fonts, video, and so on. They all go in a central repository. This is for three reasons: (1) you only need to go to one place to up upgrade or change them, (2) everyone can access them without bottlenecks, and (3) when the project is over it’s easy to archive them.
- Create a style sheet. From terminology to capitalization to colors to handling bullet lists, insist on a one-page style sheet for every project. It’s one page. Everyone can stick to information on one page. (Not really. It boggles my mind, but that’s why we have technical writers and editors.)
- Capture key communication. Put someone in charge of capturing key online discussions where ideas or decisions are made. This makes it easy for newcomers to get up to speed quickly. Using tags in social media is great for this.
- Leverage time zones. For years, I’ve strategically hired contract editors in various time zones. When I’m done for the day, they pick up and vice versa. It’s almost as if there are two of me (a thought that frightens children and coworkers alike).
- Manage Privacy. In Yammer, where I do most of my group collaboration, I close the group to only those working on a project, whenever it makes sense to do so. Despite our increasing ability to work simultaneously on single files and the like, no one likes the feeling of being watched.
These eight tips are a good starting point. Many others, especially for specific circumstances, could be noted. Feel free to add to the list by commenting.
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