Illustration by Justin Tran

Virtual First

Recreating information osmosis in a remote-first world


Published on March 05, 2021

If you were to summarize life during the pandemic in one word, it probably wouldn’t be a polite one. Consider this answer though: adaptation.

We’ve adapted to distributed work, the stacking of our home and work lives, and adjusting our expectations for … basically everything. Adaptation allows us to change and helps us to identify and develop the tools we need to change. But what’s equally notable are the things we forget, leave behind, or simply haven’t figured out a way to make COVID-friendly. Many of our workplaces have moved online, but an underrated-yet-key part of in-person work hasn’t followed.=

Background office chatter and water cooler conversations blend together over time to create an effect called Osmotic Communication, where we learn things without even realizing we did it, especially when it comes to tiny details and milestones in the lives of our colleagues. It’s a strangely fundamental part of keeping up to date with the rest of your team, and we have yet to figure out how to adapt it to our remote work lifestyles. Here’s why it’s worth it.

Background learning

The term “Osmotic Communication” was coined by Alistair Cockburn, one of the leading figures behind the Agile Software movement, in his 2004 book Crystal Clear: A Human-Powered Methodology for Small Teams. He put words to a phenomenon that we’ve all experienced at one point or another: the moment where you’re not sure how you learned something.

From classrooms to open-concept offices, we’ve taken for granted how much of our learning and information-sharing has taken place in shared physical spaces. Osmotic communication, true to its name, suggests that humans can passively absorb info as they do tasks, just like plants absorb water through soil.

What does this look like in practice? Let’s say four workers are in an office together, and two are having a disagreement about a due date for an upcoming task. A third corrects them by providing credible sources, and the fourth essentially absorbs all of this without directly taking part in this interaction.

Everyone in that group now knows a few things without explicitly being told in a meeting: They know the exact due date of the project in question. They also know which worker is most likely to have information like that going forward. Apply this same approach to everything else people discuss at work, and it’s easy to see how we can all become unintentional information sponges just by sharing space with the same people every day.

This phenomenon isn’t just limited to open-concept and cubicle offices; it’s even hit Wall Street. It was only once many traders worked remotely that they realized the value of overhearing colleagues on the trading floor.

From trivia about sports and music, to updates on pop culture and even personal details like your coworker’s life milestones and family events, a great deal of useful information can find its way inside our head without us being its intended recipient. And now, many distributed teams have found themselves with no replacement for that passive information funnel.

Information fishing

The main benefit of osmotic communication is that it doesn’t require that much effort. Since knowledge flows freely and rapidly when people are in the same space, crucial info will likely find its way to the people who need it at one point or another. Think of it like trawling a giant net through the ocean; most people will eventually get caught in the net of information.

Like so many hallmarks of office life, the concept of putting everyone in a room and letting them sort things out has been tested during the pandemic. Generality has been replaced with intentionality because no two workers will be having the same day or even communicating in the same way. A wide net won’t work anymore; we’re too spread out.

Many of us have watched in real-time as our teams essentially learned to walk again. We’ve moved meetings and workflows from one medium to a constellation of internet-connected tools and programs. But we’ve also experienced the unique joy of reinventing the wheel and finding things that work even better (like sweatpants).

Osmotic communication, true to its name, suggests that humans can passively absorb info as they do tasks, just like plants absorb water through soil.

Furthermore, proponents of osmotic learning often fail to account for the flipside of being in a space full of talking people: massive distraction. It’s been well established that open-office plans are the enemy of worker productivity. In a study for The Economist Intelligence Unit, 34% of respondents listed discussions among co-workers as their greatest source of distraction when they worked from an office.

In the same way certain working hours are better for certain people’s sleep patterns sleep equity, the passive benefits of osmotic communication could be another aspect of office culture that unintentionally favor one group (people who aren’t distracted by background noise and don’t need headphones to work) over another. 

How do we make sure everyone gets access to active and passive information in a way that suits them best? We do what we did all throughout 2020: We adapt.

Creating need-to-know places

Communication is the core of the human experience, yet we often don’t think about just how important it is until we can’t do it. If you’ve ever struggled to get directions to a bathroom in a foreign country, you know how quickly our most basic needs can go unaddressed if we can’t communicate.

If a shared office space was our common language, anyone working at a remote company is now speaking in different dialects. Every workplace operates differently but knowing your team’s preferred method(s) of communication is the first step to knowing how to adapt. What’s equally important is understanding the strengths and weaknesses of common remote communication styles.

For instance: Emails are great for disseminating targeted blasts of information to an individual or a group, but they quickly become a nightmare of CCs and nested threads if you’re trying to find one piece of info in an email chain that’s been circulating for weeks.

Likewise, many teams adopted video conferencing software as a replacement for in-person meetings — only to quickly learn that their established habits of last-minute team huddles and brainstorming sessions were much harder to pull off when everyone is at home surrounded by family, partners, pets, and children.

On the other hand, some teams can find themselves essentially missing entire threads of communication because no one could agree on a single standard process. If you leave comments on a project directly in a document, but another worker addresses those comments in your project management software, it can lead to frustration at best and completely missed tasks at worst.

The solution is, unsurprisingly, communication itself. One shared meeting where a team either codifies or clarifies everyone’s existing preferred ways of sharing and collaborating can save you hundreds of hours of missed connections going forward. Everyone has a different picture of remote work in their head, and it’s never a waste of time to make sure everyone imagines the same thing when they go to work.

But producing an efficiently itemized list of programs, documents, and software is only half the battle. If you’ve sorted that out, you’ll have an agreed-upon system for sharing active information. But where does passive information thrive?

Well, that’s the fun part.

Planning inefficient meetings

Work isn’t just a mix of highly efficient meetings and water cooler breaks. There’s a space between, and that’s where the magic happens. Some people call it workshopping, others call it brainstorming. At its heart, though, it really just represents a time when everyone works together to solve the same problem without a strict timeline or laser-focused agenda.

In those moments, we often learn new things about colleagues or come to see them in a new light. And in our collective haste to stamp out what we perceive as “wasteful” or “pointless” meetings, we may have also thrown out the thing that makes work special: those moments of communal inefficiency in service of a greater goal.

Just like before, you can adapt the concept of a communal, unguided space to your communication methods of choice. Group chats? Dedicated channels? A long-running email thread full of funny memes? Dedicated video chat slots for tangent-prone discussions or free-flowing brainstorming? The sky’s the limit, and all of them serve to adapt an important part of in-person office life to a distributed work environment. When people are encouraged to be themselves while working together, it’s hard not to learn a few things on the other side.

Osmotic communication is an accidental byproduct of office work culture, but its benefits are worth seeking out and replicating in a remote setting. Not only that, we can improve upon them by ensuring that everyone’s needs are acknowledged and met as workers find the best ways to share information, be productive, and (most importantly) be intentionally inefficient as well.

People share information and bits of themselves when they feel comfortable and accommodated. If everyone on your team is at home in their sweatpants, surrounded by their favorite things, that environment should be even easier to foster and cultivate. Adapting a multi-tiered communication structure from scratch isn’t effortless, but it’s absolutely worth the labor. As we prepare to emerge from pandemic lockdowns, we can add that to the list of unexpected things we’ve taught ourselves. And it’s sure to come in handy, because distributed work is here to stay.

Who knows what we’ll learn next?