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Written by Shane Neubauer


02/08/2021

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How To Communicate Productively With Your Remote Co-Founder

Two people working is as efficient as a team can get. There's only one communication path, so conversations are few, they are simple, and easy to schedule. There are only two opinions in the room, so reconciling any differences are relatively straight forward.

Being a fully remote team, there's a little more complexity, but not much. Still two people, with two opinions, and still one communication path.

But, there are some traps you can easily fall into, which we've been working through lately.

Being in a cofounder relationship can be trying in the best of times. You both have ideas and opinions. In a healthy relationship, you're both feeling confident to bring them to the table. It's natural — even healthy — for you to disagree on things.

The way you handle those conflicts is the important thing. Will you turn it into something productive, or something personal? Will it strengthen your team and your company, or will it tear you apart before you even get started?

Here are the top things we've learned about communicating well with a fully remote cofounding team.

Structure your communication

Without intentionally deciding how you'll communicate certain pieces of information, it's common to default to having a Slack conversation or scheduling a meeting for everything.

While not inherently bad, this default, without any consideration, can have multiple negative effects. It can result in:

  1. Information not captured for later
  2. Misaligned expectations
  3. Disagreements down the road
  4. Even lost productivity.

What type of information might you be communicating? Things like decision-making, planning, designs, collaboration, and more. Each of these types have different requirements and different nuance.

Instead of improvising each situation, consciously decide how you'd like to tackle them.

Here's a few examples of we approach a few types of communication:

  • Making decisions: First capture all the information into a written one-pager, share it in advance, and then follow up with a call to finalise. (and capture your decision too)
  • Planning: First draft a brief objective for what you want to achieve, and share it. Allow time for each person to research and gather their own thoughts. Schedule a call to discuss.
  • Brainstorming: Create a Figma/Miro board with a categories and written guidance. Allow each person to contribute asynchronously by adding sticky notes and their thoughts/questions.

These are examples that work well for us, but it should be designed around what works best for you. What matters most is that you put thought into what information needs to flow and how you'll each contribute most effectively. It doesn't need to be complex, it just needs to be designed.

Beware of tools and lazy communication

Sending short snippets of information quickly in Slack is convenient for the sender — just jump in, shoot over a few words, and get back to your work.

It's convenient for the sender, but not for the receiver who might need to decipher a partially formed message, and can easily result in miscommunication.

It's too easy to gloss over details, assuming your partner just "got it."

In the best case scenario, the receiver recognises they are missing some information, both parties are online at the same time and can clarify things in real time.

The worst case (and very probable) scenario, though, is that the receiver unknowingly doesn't fully understand all the detail that the sender wanted to get across, and begins to take action on it already. Later on, they realise there were details totally missing, or a misalignment in understanding.

They may have already spent time working, and need to backtrack, and it may result in a disagreement that you need to reconcile. A totally avoidable situation, which can impact your productivity.

We're both guilty of this one, and we learned the hard way, after having wasted time on a few occasions which could have easily been saved. Now we try to be much more mindful, organise our thoughts, and depend more and more on long-form written communication.

Disagree properly

Resolving disagreements can be a tricky thing. It's important that you can both confidently voice your opinion, and important to remember that they won't always match.

Be mindful of how you discuss and resolve these disagreements. Doing it in Slack, for example, is usually a bad idea. Instant messages are by nature quickly written, quickly sent, quickly read, and quickly interpreted (or misinterpreted). There is a lot of room for misinterpretation, and when any ambiguity is present, it's human nature to automatically assume the worst.

A better option is to have a call together when you see that you don't agree on something, in which you can take advantage of tone and body language.

If you're not working synchronously, or scheduling doesn't work, then recording a Loom video or writing long-form text is probably the next best thing. You can take time to organise your own thoughts, and express yourself more clearly, rather than letting anything unintended slip through.

We've fallen into this trap a few times, and had to get ourselves out of a disagreement where both sides were clearly frustrated. In hindsight, we could both look back and recognise where we could have communicated better.

Choose your style: async or sync?

For most professions we've been working synchronously for many years. You're in the office at the same time, and when you have a conversation, you can expect a response within a second of finishing your sentence.

If you've never worked remotely before (which is probably rare these days) it can be easy to default into working synchronously, but remotely. You're expecting the other person to be online while you are, and you're expecting they'll answer soon after you contact them. To discuss something you call a meeting, and talk as per usual.

But, with the rise of remote work, more and more companies are beginning to work asynchronously. Embracing the fact that colleagues may not be in the same time zone, or may simply work different hours to suit their lifestyle, new workflows have arisen.

With asynchronous work, you're designing your work with the assumption that the other person won't respond for a long time. You're designing your work to remove dependencies on other people as much as possible.

Both styles are perfectly fine, when you consciously adopt one. The danger is not choosing one, and falling into the middle ground, lovingly called asynchronish. In this treacherous middle ground, you've got the worst of both worlds. Watch your productivity die.

At Beyond we have begun very synchronous. In the early stages of our journey, we required so many touch points with each other, so we had a lot of video calls. As we're getting more established, developing into our respective roles, and onboarding our first team soon, we are transitioning into an asynchronous work mode.

As a small team of two, it's too easy to think that designing such structure is just overhead. It will slow you down, while you have more important things to do. But, the time spent creating some structure in the beginning will save you hours of lost productivity and many headaches.

These obstacles are things that you'll inevitably need to overcome at some point, and doing it early simply sets you up for success. Instead of trying to implement practices after hitting a totally avoidable communication brick wall.

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