When should you pick up the phone?

June 17, 2021

I’m a big advocate of distributed teams, and work-from-home policies for those who want it. But this always raises the question: How do we handle meetings and other forms of communication?

I’ve talked about my take on this in a video. But I was recently involved in a conversation on a specific aspect of this:

How do you decide when to take a conversation off of Google Docs or Jira and move it to a more real-time channel?

My basic rule for something like this is to use something like Google Docs/Jira/GitHub/whatever as a system of record. Make sure all important decisions are stored there.

If the discussion ever becomes emotional, repetitive, or otherwise unproductive, that’s a great time to take it to a more (virtually) face-to-face medium. Just make sure that any conclusions from that meeting are then recorded back into the system of record. And if possible, even record the face-to-face call for future reference.

A simple heursistic you might use is what I’ve heard called the upshift reply threshold. The idea is to make an agreement with your team about how many replies are needed before a more real-time communication medium is triggered. For example, with an upshift reply threshold of three, a third reply on GitHub might trigger a Slack conversation. A third reply on Slack might trigger a Zoom call. Choose a threshold that works for your team and situation.