Engineers love asynchronous written communication - Slack is so popular for a reason. It lets us decide when we break out of the uninterrupted flow and sync with the rest of the world. Also, everyone knows the ground rules of such communication, e.g.:

  • don't notify the whole channel w/o reasonable justification
  • avoid empty statements (like "hello"), especially in high-importance, highly populated channels
  • make sure each communication channel (room, space, etc.) has a clear, non-overlapping purpose (so targeting the message doesn't feel like solving a riddle ...)
  • archive channels that are not needed anymore

But is (sticking to these rules) enough to make the asynchronous written communication effective and non-frustrating? IMHO it isn't, and here's why:

Imagine a hypothetical situation like this - someone is asking a question on his team's channel (~15 people):

"Does anyone know how many are two plus two?"

Unfortunately, after an hour, there was no answer. Neither there was any after half a day. A full day has passed - nada, zip, null. But what does it really mean? No one knows, maybe? Or no one of the very few people who have read this message (until now)? How many channel members have actually read it? Does it make sense to wait any longer (until more of them read it)? Or maybe THEY ARE IGNORING ME ON PURPOSE?! (muffled sounds of cry, sob, lament)

Disclaimer: yes, I know that some tools do actually show who has "seen" the message (e.g., Element does), but even if you know X has seen it - why didn't (s)he respond? Too busy? Confused because the question is unclear? Not sure, and waits until someone else speaks first?

So, what should the questioner do? Ask again? Paste the same question in more channels (to extend the range and try their luck)? Ask people in DMs? (one by one)

Does it sound familiar? Did such a situation happen to you? I bet it did - this is a common problem in nearly every (seriously!) remote organization I've seen from the inside. Well, maybe I was unlucky.

The essence of the problem is evident: everything you see is the text and positive interactions (someone answers/volunteers/confirms/etc.). All the other cues (that may not give you an answer to your problem but are also informative) are typically NOT present (as we intuitively find them non-helpful). That makes communication far less "rich" (/meaty/substantial) - you're getting less content in the given volume. In fact, to regain the "richness", you have to be very explicit, and unfortunately, it typically causes unnecessary verbosity.

So, where's the golden mean? Is there any? Of course, there is - build your own (team's, organization's) custom "communication protocol" (collection of signals and conventions) tuned for communication effectiveness. It's nothing new - some professions (like soldiers) have been doing it for centuries. And you have a powerful tool to make it even more concise - emoticons/graphic reactions, hashtags/tags, and such.

Each organization may have a different set (as it's supposed to be fine-tuned for the most frequent interactions within your team specifically), but here are some examples I find quite universal:

  1. Make it clear: what kind of reaction do you expect - by marking your message "category" properly (e.g., with tags or icons): FYI, question, obligatory action, help needed, volunteer needed, urgent issue, etc.
  2. If someone else's message is marked as to get (someone's) reaction - always react - even if it's after some time and the answer is negative (e.g., you don't know the answer to the question, but at least no one will wait for your response).
  3. Have a set of icons agreed for the most common answers/reactions, e.g., "yes/agree/accept", "no/disagree/reject", "I don't know", "acknowledged", "good job", "thank you", "it is unclear", "I'll answer later (but I've seen it)", "awesome/gratulations", "neither of options presented".
  4. If you're asking more than 1 question (not the best idea) or you're providing more than 1 statement (within a single message), tag them or use the numbering (makes referring to them easier).
  5. Explicitly close open topics/inquiries (e.g., questions, calls for help or action), when you don't expect a reaction anymore.
  6. I even know a team whose members use emoticons with digits (1 to 5) to provide impromptu feedback on nearly everything (a shared memo, an idea, proposed adjustment of agenda, meme/dry joke shared on the channel).

The value gained with such conventions is tremendous - it saves time (and frustration ...), provides better (& faster) feedback when it comes to the clarity of communication, and helps in preserving the atmosphere of collaboration ("we may not be able to help or answer your question, but yes - we're here and we've seen your call bro/sis").