How We Solved Our Biggest Remote Communication Problem
Before COVID-19 turned business operations on their head, addressing remote communication barriers was low on the list of concerns for most organizations. Investment was usually put toward more pressing priorities as they appeared — the urgency just wasn’t there.
In our new world, however, communication concerns have probably been dominating your discussions.
At Myplanet, we’ve been having these discussions for years. Our large, globally distributed team has always needed to be able to connect, to share ideas, and to work together at scale. Furthermore, we pride ourselves on a collaborative work style that depends on every voice in the room being heard — not just the loudest one.
Over the years, we’ve employed a number of techniques to facilitate better organizational communication, and our teams regularly share tips, tools, and ideas to keep the conversation going around how to communicate more effectively.
It’s such an ingrained part of how we think that, over five years ago, three of our team members — Katie McCoy, Amit Jakhu, and Jerry Low — took it upon themselves to design and develop a web app that solved a communication problem we’d all been experiencing. Working on their own time, they designed, prototyped, and built a remote communication tool, Askaway. It was an immediate game-changer for us, and we’ve been using it consistently ever since. Now we’re sharing it with everyone.
Askaway facilitates question-and-answer sessions for remote or distributed teams. Here’s how Askaway works:
- The host of the meeting creates a virtual meeting room using Askaway. Meeting attendees — both in-room and remote — join that room.
- All audience questions (again, both in-room and remote) are submitted through the app and put in a queue with a default first-asked, first-answered priority sequence, though attendees can “upvote” questions to move them ahead in the queue.
- Presenters answer the questions, in sequence, when they’re ready.
It’s a simple-sounding solution that belies how complex (and how crucial) it is to find meaningful ways of solving remote communication challenges, so that each member of a team can be heard equally.
Telepresence has been an incredible resource during COVID-19, but businesses have never had to rely on it to the extent they do at present — and it has its limits. Chief among them is that it can leave people feeling disconnected from discussions. That issue is especially noticeable during question-and-answer periods, when lag times, lack of easy visual cues, and a loss of the conversational ebb and flow can erode a meeting’s effectiveness.
Creating the Solution
When our trio first developed Askaway, they did so with a timeline of just three weeks. Intending to test it at a company-wide strategic update, they treated Askaway the same as any project: ideate, build, and iterate.
Getting to the heart of the remote communication problem was essential to coming up with the right solution. After interviewing remote colleagues and understanding their biggest pain points, Katie, Amit, and Jerry landed on the project-defining question of how we could give our out-of-office teammates the option to raise their hands remotely.
With that focus, the team got to work mapping out the problem, and then ideating potential solutions. They explored ideas like light or noise cues, but, after working through the logistics, landed on a more straightforward concept and a pivotal insight: What if everyone — in-office or not — used the tool? With that, they began their build.
Knowing that remote staff are typically on desktops during all-hands meetings, but that in-office staff are likely to be on mobile phones, a fully responsive build was the only way to ensure all parties could access the app. They developed the prototype on MEAN stack.
Outcomes and Next Steps
Three weeks later, the team stood in front of the company explaining Askaway and how it worked. Then the whole company logged-in and began using it, right then and there. Anyone with a question during the meeting simply typed it into the app. No hands raised, no interruptions — just ask and wait for the answer.
It was a resounding success. Not only did we immediately see greater remote staff engagement, but our in-office participants felt empowered by it too.
We saw more thoughtful questions being asked — typing out questions makes people consider what they’re going to say more carefully. There’s less lag and drag in our meetings — with a queue of questions waiting at the end of a presentation, we’re not waiting for responses to the “Any questions?” prompt. Askaway also gave us an easy solution for capturing questions, so they could be answered or referenced later on. But most importantly, it put the whole team on equal footing. Not only do remote staff get a stronger voice, but more introverted or shy employees have a format that works better for them, ensuring that a greater diversity of voices is heard.
Since launching, the team has added edit and trash functions that allow users to withdraw or alter questions as needed. They also added a user-inspired upvote feature, which allows other meeting attendees to push questions ahead in the queue, ensuring the most relevant issues get covered first.
An idea that started out as a side project — paired with the right tools and innovation — has helped solve our own communication barriers. We’re certain it can do the same for you.