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The importance of osmotic communication at work

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November 18, 2022
min read

Remote work may have become the new normal, but that doesn’t mean everyone is suited to it. Aside from developing remote-first policy and investing in virtual tech, developing effective remote communication will continue to be a top priority for businesses considering long-term hybrid and remote set-ups.

Many of us are now aware of asynchronous communication and are continually learning what we can do to become a better remote communicator. Yet, there are some forms of communication that teams may also stand to lose. One of these is osmotic communication—here’s why it’s so important for collaboration and how we can help it survive in a virtual workplace.

What is osmotic communication?

So, first things first—what actually is osmotic communication? The clue is in the name, especially if you know your biology! Osmosis essentially has two meanings and the first is related to science; it’s the spontaneous process that causes a liquid to pass through the wall of a living cell. Osmosis is crucial for the human body to function properly.

The second definition is the one we’re interested in here, which relates to learning and understanding—in particular being able to learn and understand without much effort; in this form of osmosis, there’s also a spontaneous process, but rather than liquid passing through cells, it’s information passing unconsciously into our brains.

As Alistair Cockburn, a pioneers of Agile software development, explains it, osmotic communication means that “information flows into the background hearing of members of the team, so that they pick up relevant information as though by osmosis.”

How osmotic communication works in practice

In a professional capacity, osmotic communication usually occurs when people are working together in the same room. Effectively, it’s the act of overhearing snippets of conversation in the background while you work. A colleague might ask a question out loud; if their question is relevant to you or you’re interested in the answer, you might unconsciously tune into the dialogue that follows—or take the opportunity to step in and help them. This osmotic communication happens in other public spaces too: in a café, for instance, you may find yourself absorbing information from the conversations taking place around you, even if you don’t want to!

The benefits of osmotic communication

There are a few clear benefits to this form of communication: the first is that it allows team members to decide whether they want to tune in or out without any sense of obligation, and the second is that it involves very little disturbance.

It’s an effortless, passive form of communication—yet the information it reveals can be illuminating. Common examples of osmotic communication often inform project priorities, and let people know who knows what. It’s also a good way to pick up on small mistakes before they escalate and become serious. For this reason, osmotic communication is especially helpful for larger projects.

Can osmotic communication exist in the virtual workplace?

When a team is dispersed, achieving successful osmotic communication is extremely difficult. As such, some fear that remote and hybrid work models deny teams the opportunity for osmotic communication, and in turn harm knowledge sharing, creative sparring, and staying in the loop with your teammates. Video calls and check-ins tend to be transactional and singular—everyone participates in one conversation, and there is no room for asides or tangential discussion.

Yet osmotic communication in the virtual space is not impossible. Instead of treating osmotic communication as inherently passive, remote teams simply need to actively build opportunities for it to occur. That starts with being mindful about how we structure asynchronous communication to keep it accessible to others.

Strategies for virtual osmotic communication

In an async environment, synchronous chats and video calls still take place, and these are the only real opportunities for osmotic communication to occur. Since you can no longer stroll over to a colleague’s desk to chat, you need to adjust how you communicate, and be more intentional with your interactions. You also need to think about what type of information is usually conveyed via osmotic communication and how you can ensure that knowledge is still passed on.

For example, if it’s about keeping people in the loop with priorities or who knows what, think about how you can encourage this to occur in a virtual workplace. You could establish informal discussion channels where people can easily find information and answers. Reserving the last ten minutes of video calls or group chats for more general or casual conversations is a really good way for osmotic communication to occur remotely too —plus, it helps strengthen relationships and build trust.

You could also get people together who don’t normally collaborate, and give them a chance to share knowledge and ideas. Ultimately, because most osmotic communication occurs face-to-face, you might also want to think about providing opportunities for hybrid or remote employees to work in co-working spaces. Aside from allowing people to take advantage of the benefits of osmotic communication, it also helps the working experience feel more human and less sterile.

The original version of this article was published in
January 2022
It was most recently updated in
November 2022
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