Cross-functional teams often struggle with resource management and effective communication. This article gives insight into communication-focused solutions for this complex problem.
At Journey Foods, we solve food science and supply chain inefficiencies with software in order to help companies feed 8 billion people. Given the complexity of the data and efficacy needed to deliver optimal customer success, I decided to pair dev teams with one food scientist, one backend developer, and one data engineer. Other teams consisted of a food scientist and a frontend engineer for customer success and design output.
We had asynchronous meetings to streamline this merging of departments, but that’s not to suggest that synchronous meetings are worthless. Some meeting topics are too complex to cover via email, and it’s often necessary to discuss matters as a group. Asynchronous meetings allow presenters to communicate messages through the same means of a live, in-person meeting without the need to coordinate across time zones and overflowing schedules.
For meetings that take a one-to-many approach — as is often the case with All Hands meetings and other presentations — asynchronous meetings give teams the freedom and flexibility to address the audience in a more engaging manner than a dry block of text, without forcing team members to a big table or conference room (or, these days, Zoom) all at the same time.
The problems with scaling a small, global impact team
If you’ve ever been in a synchronous, remote, All Hands meeting with a global team, you know that means it’s early in the morning for some, the middle of the day for HQ, and into the small hours of the night for others. A few folks from the leadership team provide updates to the rest of the company while most of the team is counting down the minutes until they can go grab a coffee, make lunch, or put their child to bed. The idea of having everyone in a company meet up at the same time to listen to a few speakers, with little interaction from the rest of the audience, sounds like a poor use of time. The problem is exacerbated as you add team members across time zones, considering that joining a company All Hands at 11pm doesn’t let you bring your best and most-engaged self to the meeting.
The asynchronous meeting sits in the middle ground between Slack messages and in-person meetings. What are they exactly?
If a meeting is an assembly of people for the purpose of discussion, then an asynchronous meeting is also an assembly of people for the purpose of discussion — just not at the exact same time. The same people receive the same message; they just interpret and react to it on their own time, versus synchronously in the same (real or virtual) room.
Communication occurs via:
- Modern, asynchronous chat tools with subject-based channels;
- Project management tools to track timelines and dependencies across teams;
- Regularly scheduled real-time video calls to address issues that can’t be resolved through other channels.
As a remote-first company focused on building an efficiency tool for food industry workers, we knew that All Hands was a broken process, and that we needed to explore the best tools that make our teamwork easy so our customers can work easily.
Thinking long-term vs. short-term
When working in synchronous environments, objectives and questions can get lost. For an example in our space, the food industry is particularly poisoned by this short-term vision of their business as leadership has traditionally focused on social trends and finding the cheapest way to make us feel satiated.
Disruptions in the data and utility of our product can really frustrate a company and cause delays in a very competitive market – so our team planning needs to move fast. When we communicate asynchronously, however, we need to think three to four steps ahead to divert from downstream frustrations. Some of our team members have a six to twelve hour time difference, and so this is the time a question can take to be answered. The following key communication habits are important to include when sharing a question:
- Background. Each question comes from a process, and needs to be accompanied by what has happened before that issue came up.
- Direction. What is the outcome to solving that problem and how does it lead to the bigger picture?
- Feedback. Include any previous communication from other team members.
- Questions. Ask the question.
Although it might take more time to communicate a question at deferred times of the day, it often takes a well-framed question to find the answer. After using that system for a couple of months, we have found that team members kept better track of the milestones and company goals.
Adjusting to global differences in COVID-19 working
For us, asynchronous working is part of our DNA. Our current teams are on three continents; we have come up with creative solutions to relay the information but we have also grown those skills for the sake of our partners. Indeed, Journey Foods is the Slack of food innovation. Hence, an important feature that we propose is the software integration customers are already using or want to integrate in their system. Software in the food industry is limited and lives in different parts of the world. Having created a strong international workflow, it allows us to choose the best partners no matter their geolocation or time zone.
The fundamental reason why we work at different times is because we are in different cities, countries and continents. And this has allowed us to scale faster with global enterprise companies, and prepare our team for growth and solving big problems. But, at the same time, we also have different lifestyles and demands outside of work. The nature of our industry allows us to be pragmatic about the subject and to collectively bring constructive feedback. Food is one of our basic needs but so is health. In the past few months, there has not been one meeting where we didn’t check in with the rest of our team. Whether one was experiencing a second lockdown, curfews or even presidential elections, it is a time in our life that will always be remembered. With our team, this moment will not only be remembered as an individual memory but as an international collective event when we supported each other. For us, this is a real strength.
Ensuring group engagement
We decided it was important to free up time to allow for better content delivery and more engaging conversations.
We still schedule synchronous meetings after everyone has had a chance to review the content, but that time is solely focused on Q&A. This way, we take advantage of when everyone is together to have real-time discussions and bounce ideas off of each other. This practice has strengthened our belief that meetings should be used for conversation — not information dissemination.
In the past nine months, the team and I have built our own team identity through a combination of organic, and intentional, traditions and initiatives. Activity favorites include the following:
- Monday brunch hour. Everyone in the office can meet new hires, partners or investors, learn from other teams and hear customer stories;
- Late night/early morning Spotify jam session. We build out our company Spotify stations and discuss ideas and inspiration;
- Doordash hour. On random days throughout the month I send team members their local delivery gift card and we all talk about food and product plans while stuffing our faces.
Including every person from every team is so important to ensuring that everyone feels part of the Journey family.
Tools for better asynchronous working
Our team includes data scientists, frontend developers, and backend developers. Although we are using the same tools – namely Jira and Slack – we recognize that we are all different when it comes to information processing and have selected multiple tools to fit with each team member.
Considering your organization and the people it comprises is essential, and what works for other companies might differ but here is what is working for us.
- To support strong data acquisition, our data science team heavily use Google Docs. We found that our team is particularly comfortable with the tool – even with the deferred back and forth that can happen on the data and data types.
- For UI/UX we have been using Zeplin: a strong design platform to collaborate on product features and easily bring design and the frontend team together with a system of tagging comments.
- To implement the skeleton of our platform, we use Miro and Google Slides to share the flow and outcome needs with our backend team.
- For all of our teams, feedback is crucial and is conducted through Zoom, Loom, and calls as we prefer personalized and direct communication .
- To avoid information overload, we hold special meetings with a few slides from Google Sheets to pitch ideas to the rest of the team.
Use of tools
There are several tools and applications that make the work easier to manage and continuously work on, but it is important to avoid making this common mistake: micromanaging. If managers need to micromanage, the recruitment system is to blame. Each team member should feel comfortable asking questions, at any point. In order to keep teams focused and occupied, a combination of longer and shorter projects is necessary. This is where tasks are continuously discussed, and teams are brought in in smaller groups if something needs to be discussed or cleared. Feedback has significant results on productivity and creativity in an electronic brainstorming task. We found it more productive to schedule consistent and optional times to discuss questions in order to prevent constant interruption and back-and-forth on Slack.
Remember what makes great, scaling, global startup teams
Make sure your team is keeping wires open, and finding fun in the ways you communicate ideas and solve problems together. You don’t know just how productive a Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning global jam session can be.
Michelle Cleary, Catherine Hungerford, Violeta Lopez & John R. Cutcliffe (2015) Towards Effective Management in Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing: The Dangers and Consequences of Micromanagement, Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 36:6, 424-429.
Michinov, N., & Primois, C. (2005). Improving productivity and creativity in online groups through social comparison process: New evidence for asynchronous electronic brainstorming. Computers in Human Behavior, 21(1), 11–28.