Documentation: Key to Successful Remote Work

Whether you work for a startup of 5-10 people or in a big remote company with 1000+ employees across continents, experts describe documentation to as one of the essential instruments of remote work organization. So why isn’t it ubiquitously implemented by remote teams? One of the main reasons is the old-fashioned approach to the workflow that requires meetings, emails, and Slack messages to communicate issues, decisions, and updates within the team. Documentation might be seen as boring, time-consuming, and simply useless by some. However, when done correctly, documentation can save the team a lot of time, prevent miscommunication, allow for more flexibility, and decrease the level of perceived chaos. In this article, we will discuss how to do documentation to improve your remote work processes.

What is Documentation and why does your team need it?

Different approaches to documentation present diverse methods, platforms, and levels of documentation. Simply put, documentation is the practice of putting the company’s rules, values, practices, and, importantly, decisions and actions, in writing. For remote teams, this means sharing a document or several documents with a detailed record of problems, implemented decisions, and other workflow processes. Some teams, like GitLab’s 1200+ employees all-remote workforce, have an approach that demands the remote worker to put an update into writing that is accessible to everyone (their famous “handbook“) before they share it with teammates via Slack, email, or another form of communication. Then, of course, some teams’ documentation strategy is writing down the decisions and actions after they already happened, e.g. right after the meeting. The exact method can be discussed and altered as the company grows. However, if you think that your company can go without documentation while working remotely because it isn’t that big and the current communication strategy suffices, we might have bad news for you. As GitLab’s Darren Murph and Jessica Reeder put it: “Implementing a documentation strategy becomes more difficult — yet more vital — as a company ages and matures.” Therefore, the earlier you establish a documentation practice the easier it will be for your company to scale.

So why is it key for a remote team’s success? First of all, even for teams that rely on synchronous communication, i.e. Zoom meetings and Slack messages, the structure and clarity that the documentation routine brings are invaluable. It teaches everyone discipline and respect by requiring each team member to share their actions without exception or delay. Furthermore, the opportunity to go back and review the decisions that the team took some time ago also allows for reverse engineering that is crucial if something goes wrong, and we all know that it inevitably will one day. Moreover, documentation requires an individual to sit down and write down the problem, the data given, and the possible solutions. Therefore, teammates can be more prepared for the meetings and spend less time discussing the issue and the solution because they will have worked on it beforehand. For some companies, the application of a detailed documentation approach can lead to adopting asynchronous communication which we talk about in the next section of the article.

Documentation for Asynchronous Communication

One of the most advantageous effects of implementing documentation is the chance to switch to an asynchronous communication model. To take advantage of working remotely, you might want to hire from the international talent pool. However, the fixation on meetings as the only way to communicate within the remote team limits hiring opportunities to a few time zones. Effective use of documentation can help you expand your team across countries and continents without decreasing productivity. It allows team members to work on flexible schedules without being chained to specific meetings or fearing to miss Slack messages. When everything is documented, the employees can easily check on the updates whenever their day starts.

How to start your documentation practice

First and foremost, choose a platform that is efficient and easy to use. It can be any document-sharing app, like Notion or Almanac. Such apps allow your whole team to create, share, edit, and comment on documents, tables, and databases. Then, you will need to spend some time writing down the rules, policies, and values. But once you’ve spent time on this you won’t have to go back, unless you need to make a couple of corrections. However, it will help immensely with helping your new employees understand and adapt to your company’s practices in the process of virtual onboarding.

Next, how exactly you document decisions will depend on your existing communication practices, as well as the size of the company, number of departments, etc. You might want to try different approaches and see what works best. One tip is assigning a “decision-maker” to each issue who will be responsible for documenting the decision. It doesn’t mean that person is solely responsible for making the decision but rather that they will be accountable for making sure the team achieves a clear, documentable solution. Additionally, everyone must understand the utmost importance of documentation because if some team members don’t pay attention to this practice, it becomes pointless. Imagine somebody sharing their decisions exclusively via Slack. This immediately makes the documentation insufficient and, therefore, unreliable. The whole point of keeping records in one place is to provide the employees with one source of information they can always come back to and check. All in all, although it might sound like a lot of work, as long as every decision is documented in one way or another within a single source, you’ve started your documentation routine. From there, you can continuously improve and refine it until you find it effective and easy to use.