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The power of the walkie-talkie

Getting straight to the point with structured communications.

Last night I attended a video meeting to coordinate travel for my teenage son’s rowing team. Around 20 well-intentioned parents gathered in a Google Meet meeting.

We had an agenda and an objective, but it was rough. Half the participants needed help finding the link to the planning spreadsheet, the background noise was constant from the handful of unmuted mics, and people talked over (and over) each other. So it took an excruciatingly long time.

It’s not the tech’s fault.

Google Meet, Zoom, and MS Teams do a great job furnishing the medium for virtual meetings. In our case, the video quality was decent, people could join from their phones, and I could even blur out the dirty dishes in the background.

But there is no cultural norm for conducting these things. So it got messy fast, despite the best intentions and doing all the things that would work for an in-person meeting, like coming up with an agenda, having a clear objective, and anchoring the discussion with a document.

The missing ingredient is a protocol for communicating in video calls and other collaboration touch points—rules of the proverbial road.

Here’s an example of a successful virtual meeting using less sophisticated tech:

  • Air traffic controller: “Delta 123, you’re clear to land, runway 26. Wind 210 at 10.”
  • Pilot: “Runway 26, cleared to land, Delta 123”

Of course, out of necessity and safety, a long-established protocol exists for two-way radio communications in aviation:

  • One person talks at a time.
  • The speaker adds the call sign of the aircraft in question to every message.
  • The pilot affirms understanding by repeating back the instruction.

If there’s interference, there’s a procedure for switching channels. And so on. It makes for very efficient meetings.

Modern companies, where people work across differing schedules and geographies, also need commonly understood communication protocols, or they will suffer from the issues I faced in the parent coordination meeting, multiplied by all the meetings and people they have. But instead of lost evening time, it’ll be giant piles of money in wasted labor hours, missed deadlines, and lost revenue.

So what can we learn from tower-to-pilot radio procedures when it comes to modern work? One big lesson, really: predetermine a set of protocols for how and when people communicate in service of collaboration at your company, and make them predictable and accessible to all.

You can start with a simple rule, like raising a virtual hand before speaking on a call. But I’d advocate for taking a closer look at your entire communication structure:

  • What status meetings could be emails instead?
  • How and when do people in your org communicate intent?
  • How are context and shared goals filtered through the org?

If you need help with that exercise, we wrote a manifesto for modern work based on decades of experience in remote and distributed environments. The manifesto has six proven principles you and your org can follow to untangle the communications knot (and free up calendar time). Of course, the Status Hero product itself facilitates the principles if you’re ready to instantly level up.

In the meantime, please keep your mic muted if you’ve got the TV on. Over and out.

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