On any given team, communication overheads increase as the number of people increases . In other words, as a team grows, the individual productivity of each member of the team is lower, as they must invest more and more time and neurons communicating with others. That’s why as CEO of Bunny Inc., I invest a significant amount of time experimenting with new communication tools that may help us reduce said overhead. The format of each conversation depends on the importance of the following factors for each: speed, thoughtfulness, structure, and humanity. We use four different tools, each focused on being the best at one (or more) of these four factors. Here’s a comparison of the tools we have recently experimented with and the winners and losers in each factor.
Note: I highly respect and admire the teams that built all the tools listed below. Please don’t take it personally if you didn’t win. The feedback below is purely anecdotal. What works for Bunny Inc. may not work for other teams.
Fast communication: Slack vs. HipChat vs. Skype
Unless you want your team to work from the same office space ALL the time so that they can communicate verbally, having a good real-time “chat” communication tool is key. By building a culture of fast communication performed electronically, we can seamlessly work from multiple offices (San Francisco and Bogota). More importantly, it allows us our team members to work from home, the beach, or anywhere else they want.
The winner: Slack. We like Slack because it allows us to have public, private, and one-on-one chats. It has a great mobile app that is smart enough to push you message notifications only when you’re away from your desktop. A big bonus is that it integrates with the other communication tools I list below. An added bonus is that it actually looks nice! This is very important, given that for many members of our team, they may be using Slack many hours per day. It’s their window to our team. Because Slack looks good, it helps our team members feel better. Oh, and we love Slackbot!
Here are some stats provided by Slack. During the past 24 hours 4,633 messages have been posted by people (plus another 1,012 messages from integrations) and 80 files have been uploaded. There are 37 people reading and 28 people posting on your team.
The first loser: HipChat. HipChat offers many of the same features that Slack offers, but it is not as good looking. Also, the mobile app is not as smart. Finally, HipChat doesn't allow independent notification settings for each conversation.
The second loser: Skype. Skype may be free, but it’s lack of admin controls is a significant drawback. Also, conversations and read/unread messages don’t sync well across multiple devices, plus Skype’s mobile app is a battery killer.
The human touch: Sqwiggle vs. Google Hangouts
Having remote team members comes at a cost: belongingness. Belongingness is the human emotional need to be an accepted member of a group . Having multiple offices and team members working remotely can negatively affect this front. We try to compensate for this by encouraging our team members to see each other via video conferencing tools.
The winner: Google Hangouts. We use Google Hangouts in multiple ways. First, for one-to-one conversations, we have integrated Google Hangout into Slack. By typing “/hangout” in a private chat on slack, our team members can instantly start a video conference. Second: for group meetings. We hate meetings (more on this below), but when we must meet, we use Google Hangouts. Third: we have a 24x7 google hangout between our two offices. It’s like having an additional window on each office that allows us to peek at the other office and feel like we’re working shoulder-to-shoulder. We like Google Hangouts because it offers good audio and video quality even with poor Internet conditions. Also, its mobile app allows our team members to join meetings while on the road.
The loser: Sqwiggle. We really wanted Sqwiggle to work for us, but after months of trying, we gave up. The most important issue is that most of our team members didn’t like the idea of having their laptop camera always on (especially the team members working from home). As such, some members of the team were self-excluding themselves from the app. This had the potential of worsening the sense of belongingness instead of improving it. Additionally, Sqwiggle had multiple bugs that made it painful to use. For example, it always wanted to use the computer microphone instead of the noise-cancelling headsets we like to use. We do miss catching other team members yawning, picking their nose, or making goofy faces though. ;)
Thoughtful conversations: Yammer vs. good ol’ meetings
The loser: meetings. I must talk about our loser here first because important decisions require thoughtful conversations and traditionally, those conversations were held in meetings. Meetings, unfortunately, have many drawbacks: meetings require all attendees to have the same availability, meetings force people to think fast and provide feedback before the meeting ends, and as meetings are oral in nature, members of the team that missed the meeting may never know what thoughts went back and forth. Not to mention, that even if you take good notes, there’s a chance you’ll forget what was talked about later on.
The winner: Yammer. Most of our informative and brainstorming conversations are now in Yammer. Yammer allows us to discuss important topics in an asynchronous (non real-time) way. It allows team members to be thoughtful about their comments. It allows ALL members of the team (no matter what department they’re in) to participate in the conversation if they wish to. Finally, it builds a knowledge base of conversations that can be referenced for eternity. Yammer is far from being perfect, i.e. the search functionality needs some work (improvements have stagnated since Microsoft bought it), but it works great for us in the meantime.
Structured communication: Google Sites vs. Confluence
Delegation is the key to success . I encourage all members of my team to learn to delegate. A key tool for delegation is documenting processes so that knowledge can be easily communicated to (and improved by) new team members. Teams that don’t document processes end up with a lot of oral tradition . Oral tradition was acceptable for companies created before the invention of writing, but not today.
The winner: Confluence. We like confluence because it allows multiple team members to collaborate on the same document. It has great user control mechanisms and it also integrates seamlessly with other tools, including Gliffy (the tool we use to create and manage flow charts). More importantly, it has a great way of visualizing the historical changes that have been made to a document. This is great for product specs (product specs are a way of documenting processes!).
The loser: Google Sites. Terrible visualization of historical changes. No smart linking between documents. Poor integration with other tools.
P.S. We <3 Trello!
For project management and to-do lists we use Trello. It’s so good that we haven’t experimented with other competing tools in a long time. Plus it’s integrated into almost every other tool we use, i.e. our ticketing platform, Zendesk.
What communication tools do you use? If you think I was unfair or you think there are other communications tools we should experiment with, please let us know.
P.S. Thanks to Tara Tyler for reading and commenting on drafts of this article.
 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brooks's_law  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belongingness  http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/a408b508-ce88-11e2-ae25-00144feab7de.html#axzz3CHBwAevy  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oral_tradition