Matt Mullenweg has mastered the art of virtual conversation. The founder of Automattic, the company behind WordPress, didn't really have a choice: Automattic employs 134 people in 105 cities. We talked to him about his strategies.
Be extra nice
Text-based chatting platforms like Gchat can be convenient, but words alone can distort messages. "Yeah, thanks" often becomes "That's fine, now buzz off." Since you don't have an audible tone of voice when chatting online, it's important to be extra sensitive and complimentary when giving feedback. Says Mullenweg: "If you're too short or curt, people generally assume the worst."
Make the call
A disagreement over, say, a new product design shouldn't be sorted out in a tiny message box. "If you've been chatting for 30 minutes and it hasn't gone anywhere, just click the call button," says Mullenweg, who hops on Skype for one-on-ones and Google Hangout for groups. To keep people from talking over one another, keep a text chat going during the call, so a participant can pop in with a simple "Hey, guys, can I jump in here?"
It's tempting when communicating virtually to do three or four things at once and leave the chat hanging. But if you were talking to a colleague face-to-face, you wouldn't just walk off while she was in midsentence, would you? Take the same attentive approach in the online realm. "Focus, just as if you were talking to the person sitting next to you," Mullenweg says.
Give up and meet up
Some conversations are just too heavy, or require too many people, to happen virtually, which is why individual teams of Automattic employees gather two or three times a year. The face time helps improve future online collaboration. "Once you've met coworkers in person, you're able to hear their voice and share their senses of humor," says Mullenweg. "It just makes the online stuff infinitely better."
A version of this article appeared in the February 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.