Communication Frameworks For Virtual Teams Inspired From Nature

I previously wrote about the most effective communication methodology using pheromone messaging inspired from Nature to identify and augment a robust, team focused unified collaboration system here. In a followup article, I write about how online collaboration tools such as Slack and Microsoft Teams embody the tenets of the pheromone messaging system that Nature has employed to foster effective collaboration and teamwork within their environment. The integration of these virtual collaboration tools leads to the incubation of high performing virtual teams. Through simple changes in mindset and a reconfiguration of existing protocols, organisations can benefit from increased productivity, communication efficiency and trigger serendipitous collaboration within, across and beyond enterprises.

There are in essence thirteen elements to this framework that have been identified through research in the field of Biomimicry and extended into Bioteaming by Ken Thompson (The Bumble Bee). Collectively, these can prove to be powerful amplifiers and catalysts to inducing organisational change.

To recollect its essence, Pheromone messaging has been studied in the Bioteaming context and delineated further to constitute its modus operandi. These are re-listed below and are rooted on the oldest and most evolved form of biological signalling, using chemicals to communicate. As confirmed scientifically, pheromones are a subclass of semiochemicals, used for communication within species (intraspecific chemical signals). They were originally defined as ‘substances’ secreted to the outside by an individual and received by a second individual of the same species in which they release a specific reaction, for instance a definite behavior (releaser pheromones) or developmental process (primer pheromone). The study of Nature’s teams and Biomimicry has identified the following thirteen principals that form the very essence of any robust and effective communication platform. These are:

The 13 Principals – Reiterated

  1. Broadcast and Individual
  2. 1-way
  3. Whole species
  4. Simple vocabulary
  5. Intraspecies and Interspecies
  6. Robust Delivery
  7. Low energy
  8. Longevity potential
  9. Message Range
  10. Multichannel
  11. Quick and Slow Responses
  12. Anonymity of sender
  13. Location Information

I will now dig into teach of these and relate them to either Slack or Microsoft Teams so as to provide insight into how the vendors have embodied these tenets and also where enterprises can use these tools to implement one of the most evolved form of communications on this planet. These tools embody many facets of the pheromone messaging system and is important especially for virtual teams wanting to implement an end to end communication methodology to supercharge effective collaboration.

1:Broadcast and Individual – Sending to many but also looking at broadcasting between individuals (and between species in Nature’s teams). In trusted groups such as project teams, departments or even organisations; we can employ one to many broadcast messaging) or communicating on a one to one basis (see traits of communication)

Creating group chats (Microsoft Teams) or channels (with participants in SLACK) enables you to employ broadcasting and one to one individual conversations in any enterprise. Here, you can also identify a way to automate Roger (I have received your message but I may or may not action it) and Wilco (I have received your message and will comply with it). Effective Bioteams minimise communication requiring a Wilco – hence broadcast may be suitable to induce self organisation via group chats, channels and private chats.

2: One Way – This is a natural progression from broadcast messaging but in essence implies that two way messaging can really slow a team down. Effective teams should use 1-way messaging as a default, and 2-way as an exception!

The use of urgent and important notifications within Microsoft Teams acts as a reminder signal and ensures that members of the group chat are effectively ‘notified’ or ‘constantly reminded’ until they embrace the message. This ensures the one way message is not lost or attenuated.

3:Whole Species – Pheromone messaging is available to all the members of the species, however, different castes within a species may have different messages they send and “listen for”. Therefore, all members should have full, equal and unbiased messaging rights. With this comes the potential for abuse, however, that can be handled by a reputation management system within social systems.

In Microsoft Teams, everyone in the team effectively have visibility to all channel interactions (with the exception of private channels) and this means that conversations are visible (as well as files, integrations, wikis and other collaboration tools). This nurtures team and distributed intelligence as departments and project mandates can be segregated into channels with supporting notification schemes for mentions or activity in general.

4: Simple Vocabulary – Encapsulating the essence of the message in short, stimulus response templates (even perhaps using internalised acronyms) will ensure self organisation and autonomous behaviour. Birds that swarm for example follow three simple rulesĀ and this is important to exhibit ORGANIC behaviours.

Apart from using a set of abbreviated message types, e.g., Feedback, Vote, Opportunity; various short links to more detailed information (primers for example) can be included in the short message burst which not only a) provides supporting background but also b) inspires context and the art of thin slicing – which is described here. The use of emoticons, stickers, GIFs and mentions also facilitates the use of simple vocabulary. These features are evident in both Slack and Microsoft Teams.

5: Intraspecies and Interspecies – The main contention here is that pheromone messaging, whilst being used predominately within a species, is also employed between species (deliberately or inadvertently). Honest messages (Synomones) can be relied on and benefits both sender and receiver. Dishonest messages (ones that attempt to mislead) are called “Allomones” can manifest through a form of chemical propoganda. In Nature, messages can also be eavesdropped by other species (typically prey) that are known as Kairomones.

The ability to organise messaging tools that enable collaboration between multiple self contained groups whilst not inhibiting communication between other groups is core to nurturing collaborative prowess. Both Microsoft Teams and Slack offer this through forward to another channel function, using urgent handlers (that continually ping recipients until they acknowledge the message) as well as private channels to keep messages effectively between species (or core team members).

6:Robust Delivery – In any effective communication platform, communication need to achieve “Flow Round:” which is essentially where messages can traverse obstacles and its transmission not be interrupted due to objects or roadblocks. In addition, “Darkness Transmission” – where messages can be transmitted and received at night is important (especially for those teams that follow a sunset to sunrise model) to keep collaborative cohesiveness.

Implementing multi channel capability where notifications and messages arrive on desktop and mobile devices across all times is paramount. Both Microsoft Teams and Slack have the ability (even if the recipient is in DND mode) to guarantee ping. Manging multiple channels with smart notifications to ensure deliverability is also possible through the use of banner notifications or mentions; depending on channel purposes.

7: Low Energy – Through the study of Natures team and the associated science, it is found that the main energy requirement in messaging is for the sender to generate the message. Because of the minuscule amounts of chemical compounds that need to be created, pheromones are much cheaper to send, than say, acoustic messages, such as a cricket chirruping. They are also very low in energy costs, to receive.

The ability to transmit messages economically, without consuming too much internet bandwidth is important and having the ability to reply easily (without clicks) is core to any unified communication strategy. This is important for mobile, distributed and geographically dispersed teams operating in multiple timezones. Keeping trails of information available in a single channel is very powerful, as well as the stickiness factor where the essence of the message is preserved and encapsulates all elements discussed so far

8: Longevity Potential – Unlike the acoustic or visual messages that are prevalent in Nature, chemically based pheromones have a potential for persistence, as the chemical can be available in the environment for an extended period. This reinforces territorial boundaries, such as urine tracks left by wolves and ensures boundaries are defined.

The ability to store all group communication is important not only for historical and contextual preservation but also facilitating onboarding of new members to a team. Meta search, tagging, attributing and categorising capabilities in Teams and Slack (pinned messages in channels and threads) is a powerful tool to ensure that they are not lost (like SMS or IM). The multiple set of integrations and apps available in both Slack and Teams for external services such as email, Trello, Jira, OneNote etc also keep things in once place and are archived and available to all users to inspect.

9: Message Range – Pheromone messages have a natural range as the scent is stronger the closer the receiver is to the transmission point.

Creating private channels, teams, public channels and specialised group chats (one to some) are important and central to the Teams and Slack operating framework. Most groups can be divided into a number of concentric rings-inner, middle and outer-each of which has different levels of engagement and notification requirements. For more on group and team rings see this article: “The three rings of member commitment in a bioteam.”

10. Multichannel – Pheromones can be used in conjunction with other messages for two main reasons. The first reason is redundancy, where over-communication via more than one channel is used to ensure the messages gets through. The second reason is, when the pheromone only contains part of the message and the other part is transmitted over another channel. To fully understand the message the receiver needs to read both channels. This enables context and also gives purpose to the message which can be elaborated through peripheral channels.

Practical Application: Like point 6, Robust Delivery, you should be able to specify a number of channels for messages including email, SMS, and IM and to allow redundancy, if required, by having messages simultaneously transmitted over more than one channel. This is something that is baked in within Slack and Teams where rules can be configured to have notifications delivered to multiple devices and instances (email, desktop, mobile push notifications and streams).

11. Quick and Slow Responses – There are two types of pheromone messages-Releaser messages that release an immediate effect in the receiver and Primer messages that prime the receiver to commence a longer-term response, such as the production of sperm or to initiate caste transformation.

You need a way to indicate what type of message you have just sent, immediate action or not, and a ‘reminder system’ to ensure the longer-term messages are not forgotten about.

12. Anonymity of sender – If a pheromone message is broadcast rather than individually transmitted then it is not possible to identify the sender of a message. This has benefits (anonymity) and disadvantages (location of sender).

Anonymous message senders create all sorts of issues around authenticity and SPAM. I would not recommend it. However, you should allow the sender to be able to request anonymous replies where this is appropriate, such as a vote or a group feedback session. Anonymity of reply is needed where the question is such that identification of the replier would destroy their ability to offer an authentic reply, e.g., “Do you think I am leading this team into trouble?” Empirically, the ability to use various polling integrations

13. Location Information: Pheromone messaging can be used to lay trails and can therefore be used to convey location information-for example of a new food source or a prey. The rapid submission of opportunity and threat information is important in enterprise roles such as boundary scanners whom constantly evaluate the environment and look for the signals that point to industry change. Being able to transmit this in a meaningful way to the relevant response teams is important to not only achieve ‘requisite variety’ but distributed authority and employing the Bioteam principal of One Knows – All Knows.

The explosion of near field communication technologies as well as presence aware systems in the myriad of tools ensures that you can always call on your broader network where required. Whilst this was previously not prevalent, it is in tools like Slack and Microsoft teams via status driven notification schemes and intelligent routing rules that are either built in or available via integrations.


I have gone over the thirteen elements of the most effective messaging system that is used in Nature. By incorporating these elements into your enterprise unified communication and collaboration strategy, you will augment and deliver high performing behaviours between teams that lead to not only distributed leadership but collective intelligence. They say that future roles such as Collective Intelligence Officer and Chief Communication Architect will rise, and so will methodologies that support their purpose!

  • Thompson, K. (2008). Bioteams. 1st ed. Tampa, Fla.: Meghan-Kiffer Press, part 3.