Hierarchy of Communication

Hierarchy of Communication: A simple and highly effective strategy for guiding internal remote business communication


Running a remote business is a balancing act that is fulfilling and energizing, but is also full of potential  challenges. One of the most consistent struggles I face is the prioritization of time in a non-traditional work schedule. On any given day I receive upwards of 500 work related messages through various channels (i.e. email, text, etc). The bombardment creates a symphony of dings, pings and vibrations that light up my phone all day (and sometimes all night). For a long time I tried my best to respond to them all, but eventually responding and even browsing through them became a total disaster of time management. After several years of evolution, it became clear that I needed a simple and clear communication strategy that would help me attend to the most essential items first.

To battle this barrage and to keep myself and our entire remote team from being overwhelmed by communication, my Executive Assistant and I created something we now call the  Hierarchy of Communication. This strategy has increased our productivity (and my sanity) while decreasing our response time both internally and with our clients. Our system is fairly simple and intuitive, but it did take some getting used to and some tweaking to get right. 

To establish this hierarchy, we started by identifying all the possible channels that we were using to communicate both internally and externally: 

  1. Email
  2. Text
  3. Phone
  4. Slack (internal messaging)
  5. Shouting really loudly

We surveyed our teams for their communication preferences and, using this input, I assigned each channel a relative degree of importance. The hierarchy we eventually established was informed by how the majority of our teams preferred to be contacted with messages of varying urgency. Of course each team has talent that are outliers who operate differently (darn creatives!), but for most this is how it shook out: 

Email (Least Urgent): Email is the biggest time suck with the least immediate response rate. We therefore have relegated email to the lowest level of urgency. Our emails are almost entirely client facing or for review purposes only: summary of meetings, formal introductions, sharing of contracts or invoices or long form project briefs. My Executive Assistant created a marvelous secondary email-centric hierarchy so that my inbox is optimized by degrees of urgency as follows: important urgent, important non-urgent, unimportant urgent, unimportant non-urgent. This is called the Eisenhower Matrix and is a perfect system for knowing my priorities when I sit down to tackle my inbox. To get this set up, she and I discussed my personal parameters for each category. This allows her to review my incoming email and assign the items to the appropriate category. Of course, this requires a high degree of trust and insight, so we communicate often to check on priorities.

Slack (Medium Urgency):  Our primary form of internal communication is the messaging app called Slack. Like Microsoft Teams, it is our virtual office – where we discuss business and gather at the virtual watercooler. Slack transformed both the process and culture of our company by bringing an otherwise diffuse team together in one digital space.  It not only helped us to develop a true “corporate culture” and sense of connection to each other, but it also cut out 30-40% of time-intensive internal email traffic. Using Slack facilitates direct and conversational communication whereby collaboration becomes more fluid and our team leads are better able to help talent manage their priorities. The platform is also secure and has many features (like sharing files, screen shares) that have made it indispensable.

SMS / Text  (Highest Urgency): Understandably, texting to a personal cell phone can seem like an invasive crossing of work/life boundaries. However, as more people work remotely, the luxury of an office phone has become a rarity, and cell phones, more often than not, work double duty for personal and professional life. We respect the private nature of our colleagues’ phones, and have relegated reaching out via this channel to the highest level of urgency. Only issues or questions which require immediate attention are addressed via direct text message. When I get a text from a team member, no matter what time of day or day of the week, I know that they have deemed it urgent and so I give it urgent attention. This has cut down on unnecessary disruptive phone time and has helped me to create clear boundaries which work for me, for team members, and more importantly, for my family. 

Cell Phone Calls (N/A): Interestingly, direct phone calls are not necessarily given a priority in terms of communicating urgency unless, of course, it is a direct call from a client. We have found that phone calls are essentially replacing meetings and therefore are often pre-scheduled. It is extremely rare that a phone call is not preceded by an email, Slack message or text, and therefore their level of urgency in the hierarchy is based on the method through which the call was scheduled. 

These days it is easy to be overwhelmed by the volume of messages and the diversity of channels through which they are passed. By establishing a company-wide Hierarchy of Communication, we have eliminated most of the communication clutter and become more productive as a team. Now, as new team members are onboarded, they are educated about this essential Hierarchy of Communication, which helps them better merge into our overall culture. They quickly learn which channels to use and when – so that the selection of medium (channel) becomes a reflection of the urgency of the message. 

With my peripatetic life, these guidelines have helped to organize my own priorities so that the dream of attaining the perfect work/life balance feels ever closer to achieving. I believe our teammates have also found value through these overt guidelines. Now if we could only encourage our clients to honor the same communication guidelines,  we’d really be able to take it to the next level.

Townsend Belisle
Founder and CEO at Haystack Needle

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