Eight Tips for Writing in Distributed Work Groups

3d character Working on computer connectet to globe. Conceptual 3d illustration

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.

Posted on November 14, 2015, in Digital, Social Media, Technology, Workplace. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Hi Aaron, thank you for the tips on group collaboration. I will build on your text by adding a couple more.

    Have a contact sheet in one place that is easy to find. Not only include the person’s name, but their title and their preferred method of contact. It would be helpful to list the time zone that they are in or the times that they are available online.

    Set both soft and hard deadlines, but only tell them of the soft ones first. Some people like to wait until the last moment, but sometimes you need to take that information and have it passed on somebody else. By having a soft deadline, you can still stay on track to the true, hard deadline.

    • Thanks. I like your additions to the contact sheet. Yes, it’s true what you say about human nature and deadlines. One way I’ve mitigated this is to set realistic deadlines. I’ve found most deadlines are set arbitrarily. People have gotten used to the idea that deadlines are fluid (aka false deadlines). So, setting deadlines based on solid information, in my opinion is best. Then, stick to them. People quickly realize that you will and will respect them.

  2. Hi Aaron,

    I’m interested in the “fragmented” part. Before social media, communication, collaboration, decision-making etc. used to take place via phone calls, mail, visits, meetings etc. and the work was still cohesive and complete. Templates and documents were created, groups formed and dynamics were easily identifiable, and you could still say the use of those tools provided collaboration and great results. Certainly, social media provides more tools to get the same things done, and yes, it can provide more opportunities to meet people. but personally, I Pigg’s assertion that they help overcome “fragmentation” off-base. Are we really saying that prior to social media we had a deficit in how to engage in business with our workers? And you tips make sense, whether applied to social media, or the “good ole days.”

    • I’m with you. I don’t believe social media is the answer. Take what any piece of software (app) does and there was once an analog way of doing that thing. All things being equal, we humans make or break processes. Thanks for the input!

  3. Great advice here. Last week I mentioned https://slack.com/is and I strongly encourage you to at least watch the video tour. Prof Schneider-Bateman brought it to our faculty and we’re loving it! Google Drive was working ok but we’ve had some leadership changes, with a few faculty leaving academia all together, and it became difficult to manage who owned certain folders, etc. But using Slack will let anyone new to join the conversation and see the archives whenever they like.

    • Thanks for the tip, Professor Pignetti. Coincidentally, we have a new editor in our China office who recommended Slack. He and I are testing it out a bit to see how it might fit into our workflow. Will give the video a look.

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