Out of your Inbox, Into Trello: More Effective Whole-Team Communication

Nobody wants to be the bottleneck. Email is often the logjam that holds up the flow of progress while everyone waits for a team member to painfully extract a pivotal piece of information from an unfiled, untagged, unfindable email that nobody else has. For teams to work effectively and productively, all team members need access to necessary information without relying on a gatekeeper. Even when email is used with the best intentions and communications are shared widely, the inbox often becomes a barrier to information access simply due to its individualized nature and conversation-centric structure. Only recipients of the email in question can find it and access the information within. Email intends for conversations to remain threaded together, and for information to be shared in the form of letter-like messages. This means that a huge portion of the words included in your email archive are unrelated to the email content, causing searching to be slow and ineffective. Since emails are archived, filed, or saved as conversations we often find ourselves trying to remember who the information came from when searching based on what it was about proves insufficient.

So we got this type of communication out of our inboxes and into Trello, eliminating the silo-ization inherent to email systems.

Why Trello for Team Communication?

There are lots of awesome tools you can use to liberate your team's conversations from the email inbox: Slack, Asana, BaseCamp, Jira/Confluence/Agile, Google Hangouts, Google Docs. Some of them are just for chatting and archiving the chat, and some integrate project management or collaboration with conversations.

We use Trello for organizing our team communication because:

  1. It's free (#thankgoodness)
  2. It's searchable
  3. It organizes our conversations around tasks and projects

Tools for instant messaging and conversation-based collaboration (Slack, Google Hangouts, Yammer) are crucial for keeping a team (especially one with a remote-first mentality) on the same page. We use Google Hangouts for instant contact amongst our team. But we don't want to keep all of our conversation and collaboration there because it's disconnected from the work we're doing. That's why we need a project management-type tool that still allows us all to communicate quickly and transparently. Trello is our place for that.

Trello lets us create cards for tasks and projects, populate them with detailed information, and either assign them to a team member for action to be taken or leave them there for someone to find later when they need them. As a supervisor, I can create a card with project specifics for one of my team members - instructions, a checklist of sub-tasks, a deadline, and attached documentation. I can assign it, or tag the team to let them know the card is up for grabs. Questions and answers about the project occur on the card, too. The conversation can include just me and the assignee, or we can pull in others. All of the project's progress and communication about it are tracked on the card, openly transparent for the team to see. If I get sick before we give the presentation we've been planning, somebody else can jump in and easily scroll back through the card to see where we're at and how we got there. And I don't have to forward them tons of emails from my sickbed. (Gross and gross - the emails and the sickness.)

With a project-focused organizational scheme, we boost the power of searching by keyword and decentralize the importance of remembering who said or did what. Trello also remembers who was assigned to a card and even who completed every task and made every change, so we also have a detailed archive of responsibilities and workflow completion. But because Trello is built around its search capability (auto-filled results populate fast) we never have the same difficulty digging up info that we do when searching within email.

Building a Knowledge Base

We also use Trello like a knowledge base. Completed tasks and past projects are archived in Trello (archiving cards, columns, or boards just removes them from view, keeping them in the background forever retrievable) so that all information recorded can be searched and referred back to. We have three additional methods of recording information that enters it into our Trello knowledge base: Remember, FYI, and Templates.

Remember cards contain information we need to regularly or sporadically access. They're in a Remember column that's like a little Rolodex for tidbits of shared knowledge. Contact information, account information, standards or style guides...that kind of thing.

FYI cards communicate information to our team members in the tradition of the memo. They're like a sticky note on a bulletin board. Individuals read the card, take any required action, and then check themselves off the list. The last person to the card participates and then moves the card to the archive, entering it into the knowledge base.

Template boards, cards, and checklists are standard structures that we implement for new team members (our re-usable, customizable Onboarding board), for periodic tasks (cards for projects that occur annually), and for repeat workflows (detailed checklists that are attached to each instance of a task). We deploy Template items again and again, tweaking the Template as necessary. They contribute to our knowledge base in that they teach new team members established processes.

Shows a sample search for "template" on the "instruction scheduling" board in Trello

Tailored to Your Team

Teams, like families, all look different. Whether your team works in the same building, the same office, is distributed across the globe, or has members who work from home occasionally, all teams need to share information, manage knowledge, and build transactive memory. Our team is embracing a remote-first mentality to ensure transparency and democratization of information. Even when nobody is working remotely we all still have unfettered access to team information, and combining our communication tool with workflow management allows anyone to pick up where someone else has left off.

Over the past five years we've experimented and iterated and hacked until Trello works exactly the way we want it to. (And we're working on a workshop all about it! Coming to a website near you March 2017.) Sticking to the same tool has allowed us to generate an information archive, but Trello's flexibility means that we've been able to keep changing and upgrading our own experience. The better we make Trello work for us, the easier communicating with our team becomes.

We've woven together a little suite of tools that serves the needs of our team to get work out of email and into places that make it easier.

  • Google Hangouts for communicating super fast in real time
  • Zotero Groups for organizing all research-related tasks and projects
  • Trello for managing all projects and tasks
  • Google Drive for collaborative editing in real time

The common denominators in all of those? Transparency and searchability. Because we realized early in our existence as a team the power of getting information out of the dark and into the sunlight. It's nice out here, everybody.