October 25, 2007 spout

Working Remotely for Microsoft: Can You Communicate Effectively From Home?

Assuming you can focus on work and you can find someone to hire you, effective communication is the next issue you’ll run into. When I was working for DM, practically everyone was remote, so our communication was based on email conversations that would be long and involved, sometimes lasting for days. However, that’s not the case at Microsoft, where brevity in email is valued and meetings are called for the tough issues. How do you fit into this culture? I use several techniques:

  • Over-communicate: I like to check and double check the things I heard and read vs. the things I’ve seeing done. I did X. Can you check it and make sure it’s what we agreed on?” We agree that you were going to do Y. How’s that coming? I looked at that last check-in you made and you seem to be doing Z. Why?”
  • Pick good email subjects: Lots of times, people have so much email, if the subject isn’t relevant, they don’t bother.
  • Keep emails short: At Microsoft, we have literally thousands of mailing lists and it’s not unusual for a single employee to belong to tens of them, generating 200-500 emails/day. If you want to be heard in that ruckus, you have to be succinct. If you get a reputation for long, rambling emails, especially without a summary, your missives will be ignored.
  • Summarize long emails at the top: When I need my email to go over a page, I summarize it at the top with a single sentence or two. That saves folks from having to dig through an email to get the gist.
  • Resend emails: I know Raymond Chen says not to, but if you don’t get an answer to an email, send it again. I can’t tell you how many times the first email was ignored, but the second email was answered.
  • Reply to yourself: If you’re asking a question that doesn’t get answered, follow up with the answer when you get it. I’ve had threads of conversation that were 80% me. At least they’ll see you’re there so they’ll remember to keep sending the paycheck. : )
  • Follow up on hints: Sometimes you’ll see something go by in an email that implies a different understanding than you had when last you talked to folks. For example, you’re expecting to participate in a design review on Wednesday, but someone sends an email including the sentence like, We’ll have to have this question answered by Tuesday’s design review anyway.” In the hallway/meeting/face-to-face communication culture of Microsoft, decisions are made and changed all the time without a written follow-up, but most of the time you’ll see the new data referenced in some kind of way. When that happens, follow up, e.g. I thought the design review was on Wednesday. Has it been changed?”
  • Read those status mails: You’re saving all kinds of time and being more productive by skipping those random conversations in the hallway, so you can afford to actual read your colleagues’ status emails. I also like to follow up on them, asking questions about the stuff I’m curious about. Often it helps me get my own work done and it almost always means I can integrate my work with that of my team’s better.
  • Own the efforts you’re involved in: It’s very easy to get focused on your own work and get out of sync with the team. If you’re dependent on other folks to get their work done so that the thing you’re doing gets done correctly and on time, you’ve got yourself a powerful motivator to communicate.
  • Get everyone on your team to use IM: IM is a wonderful simulation for hallway conversations that works even when the target of your question/comment is in a meeting (it’s common for Microsofties to have their laptops open during meetings). At Microsoft, even if folks don’t have a personal IM account via Yahoo or Live Messenger, they do have one with Office Communicator. If you’re trying to get someone that’s never online with it, instead of sending them an email with your question, send them a link to the Office Communicator installation and a request for them to log in. If that doesn’t work, start calling them and asking them the same thing. They’ll get the hint. : )
  • Pick up the phone: A ringing desktop phone is a novelty at Microsoft that few folks will ignore. Use it to startle them into submission! : )
  • Schedule a meeting for a phone call: If you can’t get your team on the phone for a quick discussion, schedule a 15-minute phone call.

Tomorrow I’ll focus on remote communication during meetings.