Sometimes we Need Video Calls

On a distributed team, it's generally best to default to written communication when discussing matters of business value for a few reasons:

  • Most forms of written communication (even chat!) externalize information. If you aren't able to attend at the time a video meeting is held, you're out of luck. Your voice won't be heard, and you won't be able to find what was discussed after the fact.
  • Many decisions require information which isn't available at the time of a video meeting. Asynchronous communication empowers individuals to learn and contribute on their schedule and at their own pace, rather than worrying about holding everyone else up.
  • Meetings have an outsized cost to software engineers and other people on the maker schedule.

Of course, there are exceptions. A public 1:1 meeting conducted on your company's internal wiki would be an interesting experiment, but probably not the most comfortable or productive experience for anyone. Design thinking workshops with stakeholders provide opportunities for iterating and clearing up misunderstandings rapidly when conducted over a video call. Interviews with external candidates should probably be conducted over video calls, and the same thing for recurring team meetings. There are many scenarios where a video call truly does make the most sense.

Also, useful written communication is a skill like any other. Especially if you're new to the industry, or have recently made the switch to a distributed team, you might be more comfortable with the face to face conversations which are more typical of in-person jobs. If a new member of your team asks for a video call, it makes sense to meet them where they are, and worry about best practices later on.

More Productive Video Calls

So, you're going to have some meetings. With that in mind, you should:

  1. Try to embrace written, public communication as a default where possible.
    1. Most conversations shouldn't take place in direct messages, as they prevent others from providing feedback or finding the information in the future.
  2. When a video call is necessary, schedule it ahead of time.
    1. An anticipated interruption is better and more respectful than an unanticipated interruption.
  3. Never send a bare meeting link without context, or initiate a video call without a heads up.
    1. Sometimes you really do need an unscheduled, immediate meeting. These situations are very rare, and the dollar cost of delaying the meeting should have at least an extra zero in it compared to scheduling the meeting an hour in advance.
    2. If an immediate meeting is necessary, provide context to avoid "ambushing" the person you're inviting. By not providing context, you're implicitly stating that your time is significantly more valuable than theirs. This may or may not be true, but even if it is, it's best not to give that impression.
    3. On a distributed team, not everyone works on your schedule. You might not be doing anything at 3PM in your local time zone, but they might be eating lunch, putting their kids to bed, working heads down on a time-sensitive project, etc