Establishing team communication defaults for better focus


Engineers need uninterrupted blocks of time to deeply focus and solve problems. However, as systems we deal with become more complex, there is an increasing level of specialization and combined with increasing number of XFN partners and stakeholders, resulting in a complex communication web. Without a structure, this easily results in unmanageable number of meetings, and a high unread badge count on email/slack that ends up taking considerable amount of time from engineers, impacting overall productivity.

Thus, engineering managers need to protect their team’s time as much as possible. This is usually easier said than done. After all, acting as a pass-through router of information request and response is the path of least resistance. It is especially difficult to do so when the world seems to be on fire, there are a dozen (seemingly urgent) things happening, and everyone is getting bombarded with messages, meeting invites and slack threads. But this is where So how can you, the engineering manager, help your team?

One tactic that works is to bring some structure to this entropy by setting communication defaults for your team. I am specifically refraining from creating a “process” that dictate one-and-only-one way of doing things. Which, in my opinion, results in a process-first and slow moving ecosystem over time. Instead, having default ways of doing things with an understanding that exceptions will happen creates a baseline expectation while still providing the autonomy and empowerment to make judgement calls as needed.

Here are some defaults that work for communication tools like email, Slack, and meeting invites.

💬 Establish an expectation that a direct message doesn’t require an immediate response and it is okay to respond to within an acceptable time-frame (for me, within a given working day). This mindset shift in a team will remove the burden of having to “multi-task” even when focusing on how to solve a problem. Also, make use of and respect the status messages. It will help signal “reasonable timeframe” to get an answer to a message.

📆 - Try to create established team-wide no-meeting days as a default 🚫👥. This allows engineers to have a dedicated block of time for deep work without the distraction of meetings. If no meeting days are impractical at least resort to morning or afternoons being meeting free. When you do set up a meeting, make sure there is a clear goal, agenda and expectations from each participant.

📧 - Do not fire off emails with action items and expected return on the same day. This behavior is highly disruptive and requires an “always on” mindset for ICs to check their inbox and potentially break their focus time. And never ever send emails that require action after-hours, default to scheduled delivery for the next day 🕘

By establishing defaults for communication tools like email, Slack, and calendar, managers can create a team culture that values focus, productivity, and deep work. It’s important to communicate these defaults explicitly to the team, so everyone is on the same page and can work together to achieve our shared goals 🤝 and hold each other accountable if needed.