5 golden rules for productive digital collaboration


Communication and productivity are interdependent, and in a distributed team, their relationship is abundantly clear. While a cozy, in-person meeting might easily segue into a waffly chat, the nature of distributed collaboration tends to highlight time-wasting more starkly.

Communication has evolved with technology, but many of those now IMing colleagues cut their teeth writing internal memos on typewriters. Cultural and generational clashes are both common in distributed collaboration, and more damaging than they might be if the working relationships had a face-to-face component.

Many have discussed email etiquette, but for the average web worker, the notion of politesse can seem archaic — or even counterproductive in some circumstances. Here, then, are five golden rules for respectful, productive digital communication, whether you’re using email, IM, video chat, phone, or other communications tools like document sharing and time tracking systems.

1. Have an agenda, and meet it

To keep digital exchanges functional, set an agenda. Whether it’s a one-line email, or a one-hour video conference, your interaction will be more productive if you stay on track. Your colleagues will appreciate it, because it shows respect for their time. And it’ll let you identify any part of the exchange that’s off-topic, and end it — perhaps suggesting an alternative time to address it — before it gets out of hand.

Having an agenda helps cut down on time-wasting, but it also encourages responsiveness, since your collaborators know what you need, and don’t need to wade through the waffle to give it to you.

2. Don’t spam

In this context, spam is any form of unwanted or unnecessary communication. It doesn’t need to involve multiple recipients: leaving your colleague a phone message, then sending a text, and following up with an email, is example of spam. Sharing your new document with a colleague who’s on your team, but doesn’t need to use it, is an example of spam.

Spam overwhelms us. It makes us stressed and cranky, and it makes maintaining focus difficult. Be astute in working out what to share with which team members, and learn to differentiate between information for information’s sake, and necessary communication.

3. Respect time constraints

Having respect for the time constraints of your colleagues governs a range of collaborative behaviors.

Give collaborators time to receive your communication, digest it and formulate a reply around the other work they’re doing before you bug them for their response. Prioritize your communications points so that colleagues know what’s most important, and tell them if something’s urgent. Conversely, don’t earmark a task or communication as urgent if it’s not. As well as indicating the reason for your communication, identify your expectations of a response timeframe, so your colleague can prioritize your request.

Remember: while digital communications tools may seem immediate, we’re only human, and none of us can be in two places at once.

4. Be clear

Clarity and directness underpin digital collaboration. But, particularly in written or very short communications, choose your words carefully. Short can very easily come across as terse. Speak in a way that’s appropriate to your colleague, and your relationship with them, as well as the communications medium your using.

Choosing the right tool for the job can influence your ability to communicate what’s needed. Limits on length, or attachments and other inclusions, can hobble communications, so make sure you choose the medium that suits your needs best. Don’t try to wedge a phone conversation into a voicemail, for example — your garbled, rushed message will just add to the “noise” to your colleague’s day. Instead, just explain why you’re calling and ask them to call you back. Explain the details in person when they do.

Being clear is particularly important in shared, multi-party systems like document sharing and contact management systems. Stick to the guidelines your team has set for aspects like naming and storage conventions — it’ll reduce confusion and communications noise, and generally make life easier for your colleagues.

5. Be open

Digital workers can end up hiding behind a smokescreen of task managers, email autoresponders, and voicemail all too easily if they feel overwhelmed. Lead by example. If you’re asking a team member for something, be available to answer their questions about your request. Be diligent about responding to colleagues in an appropriate way using the foundations outlined here.

Accept that good digital collaboration takes time and mutual understanding — it is, after all, communication between people. Relegating a colleague whose communications approach annoys you to the back of the queue is rarely productive; the best way to encourage others to collaborate with you in the way you want is to take the time to explain your preferences to them.

That conversation could eradicate the kind of uncertainty that undermines good distributed working relationships, and cement the foundations for ongoing productive collaboration.

Image courtesy stock.xchng user JR3.


Ron Burns

I would also like to add that making sure you have all of the tools necessary to collaborate effectively and efficiently is of the utmost importance. As a provider of virtual collaboration software, we often speak with businesses that aren’t as productive as they could be, because the tools they are using aren’t the correct ones or they aren’t being utilized effectively. So I would add to number three, don’t just respect time constraints, but rather respect people’s time in general by maximizing efficiency with the right tools.

Ron Burns

W. Terry

I find this statement to be very true in my digital communications.

“Speak in a way that’s appropriate to your colleague, and your relationship with them, as well as the communications medium your using.”

I also find that there are many people who do not know how to “adjust” their communications based on their relationship with the recipient.

Craig Arnoff

Great article! I’d also add that attempts at humor, particularly with people you don’t know well, should be avoided. The reason: Humor can often be misinterpreted when in writing since there are no vocal or body cues that accompany the written text.

Georgina Laidlaw

Agreed! You’ve got to be great with written communication — or have a firmly-established rapport with the recipient — to make humour work.

Michael Allen

These are solid tips to keep in mind, another noteworthy aspect of collaboration is the software being used. I’ve found this aspect to have the largest effect on how collaboration works, as some project management systems (or other types of software) can be ultimately limiting to collaboration in nature due to how they’re made.

Most will focus on one aspect of business management; projects, CRM, or something else, and this single-focus results in businesses being forced to pick up additional software to cover other aspects of business they need managed, when in reality it’s much better to be able to collaborate on every aspect of your business in one system. That’s why taking up WORKetc has made such a significant impact, as it puts CRM, project management, time tracking, billing, and other business management tools into one, while bringing collaboration to every aspect of the system.

galeal zino

Good list and I’ve read many as have managed remote global teams for most of past six years. Would add that being respectful of people’s time also includes scheduling enough time to not shortcut the job at hand and therefore cost them more time later. For example working level collaboration meetings often need to be scheduled to be *longer* to accomplish the goals of the agenda. Lately folks are so conscious of limiting meeting time that we can cost ourselves more time later.

Georgina Laidlaw

You’re right Galeal: respecting time also means giving tasks the time they require. Trying to race through everything is often a fast-track (haha!) to undermining quality.


Nice collection. I absolutely agree… especially with rule #1. Agenda and Preparation is everything. It allows you to move forward quickly and keeps everybody’s attention where it should be…

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