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It’s been said that communication is the “oxygen of a distributed company.” And that’s a good analogy, because remote teams must have good communication strategies to survive and thrive.
Just think about all the ways that office-based teams interact with each other: there’s traditional meetings, brainstorming around a whiteboard, popping into someone’s office to ask a quick question, hashing out a tricky problem one-on-one over lunch, catching up in the break room, and many other small ways co-workers bond and interact with each other.
The question is, how do you create opportunities for all these types of communication when your team might be spread across multiple cities, if not countries?
Until you’re part of or leading a remote team, it’s easy to take for granted how important these types of interactions are in team-building and creating a sense of togetherness and purpose.
Jared Ponchot, the creative director at Lullabot (a fully distributed company), suggests three types of communication that all remote teams need to incorporate into their workflows:
This is the backbone of many distributed teams, especially those spread across multiple timezones. As the name suggests, asynchronous communication isn’t synchronized. Instead of a live conversation happening in real time, it’s a back-and-forth exchange, in writing, that happens as each person’s schedule allows.
For remote teams where most collaboration happens online, this would most likely look like one person leaving a note in a messaging app—say, Slack or Skype—where the other person can read and reply at their convenience. For that reason, this method is best used for issues or conversations that aren’t time-sensitive.
Examples: email, direct messaging, posting updates or issues on project management platforms (GitHub, Trello, Basecamp, etc.)
This type of communication, on the other hand, is synchronized—two or more people agree to communicate using the same method at the same time. This type of communication can be in writing, but doesn’t have to be. Good, old-fashioned phone calls are the original synchronous communication method, but modern technology has given us plenty of other options.
Synchronous communication is a good option when things need to happen more quickly, or when it’s important to ask questions and get immediate answers or enable participants to bounce ideas off each other and get active feedback.
Examples: live chat, video calls or meetings, online voice calls, phone calls
Many fully remote companies plan semi-yearly meetups for individual teams and/or the whole workforce. Whether retreats, just-for-fun activities, workshops, conferences, or something else, face-to-face events like these help teams “recharge the intangibles that technology can’t capture,” as Scott Berkun puts it in his book, The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work.
Ponchot points out that some things are really difficult to achieve without people being together in the same room, such as:
- building relationships
- strategizing and vision-casting
- resolving complex problems or conflicts
But how can you make room for all these types of communication in your team’s daily interactions? With a plan in place, effective remote team communication isn't hard. Here are six tips based on the experiences of successful distributed teams:
6 Tips for Effective Communication with Your Remote Team
1. Give each communication method a designated purpose
With all the communication tools and apps out there, it can be easy to add a bunch of them to your team’s workflow to encourage plentiful communication. But sometimes more isn’t better, and having too many communication methods can become chaotic.
When communication is a free-for-all rather than strategic, tools that are supposed to be time-savers and efficiency-boosters can turn “every minute into an opportunity for conversation, essentially ‘meeting-izing’ the entire workday, to borrow a phrase from Samuel Hulick’s essay on the potential pitfalls of an always-on approach to workplace communication.
This kind of constant distraction can take a serious bite out of team members’ workday, and put a damper on their focus and productivity. But the antidote to communication overwhelm is simply giving each tool or platform a specific purpose. Instead of leaving it up to team members to check in with co-workers on Skype, Slack, or Hipchat, maybe designate Skype for live chatting or urgent conversations, and Slack for messages that aren’t pressing, with a designated channel for fun or informal conversations.
When employees have a game plan for how to best get in touch with teammates for each situation, everyone can avoid wasted time, frustration, and missed connections.
2. Use calendaring and task management tools
When team members aren’t all in the same location—and may be working very different hours—special care needs to be taken to keep track of when people are available and what’s getting done, especially for projects that require contributions from multiple people.
Sharing online calendars or schedules, posting updates about availability and time off, and using references like Every Time Zone or World Time Buddy when planning meetings or other team activities can all be good practices.
Or opt for a multifunctional tool like WorkSmart to keep your team on track: managers and their reports can sync their calendars, see who’s working at any given time, track time and productivity, and more.
3. Set up a virtual "water cooler"
In an office, getting to know your co-workers is automatically built into the environment. You spend most of your week together: working side by side, eating lunch together, commiserating over tough projects, chatting around the proverbial water cooler (or the vending machine, or the ping-pong table, or whatever it is most offices have these days). Teammates are bound to get to know each other personally to some extent.
But for distributed teams, that’s not necessarily the case, and you have to be intentional about creating opportunities for camaraderie. How do you do that for a virtual team?
By creating an online space (a chat room, blog, Facebook group, etc.) for sharing non-work-related and just-for-fun content. In addition to keeping those distracting cat GIFs and weekend recaps out of work collaboration channels, it also helps reduce the feeling of distance between team members and create a sense of community.
For example, Buffer has a room on Hipchat just for sharing music and Automattic maintains themed microblogs where teammates can discuss shared interests.
4. Make use of check-ins and milestones
Managers are often understandably concerned about knowing whether their remote reports are really working. When you can’t stop by someone’s desk for a quick update, how will you keep track of important projects?
Making a progress-tracking or to-do list app part of your team’s workflow can give you some peace of mind. Not only can it serve as a motivational and accountability tool, but it can also function as an asynchronous way for team members to stay updated on tasks and projects.
5. Celebrate successes
When employees are working alone from a home office, they may not be aware of what’s going on with the rest of the team. Or they might even feel like their work goes unacknowledged.
This feeling of disconnect is preventable. Keep up team morale and reward good work by publicly recognizing accomplishments—both at the individual and group level. There’s nothing that energizes a team more than feeling that they worked together to accomplish something.
6. Watch your tone
One of the biggest pitfalls of written communication is its susceptibility to being misinterpreted or misunderstood. Without visual and verbal cues like facial expression, body language, intonation, and other signals we use to determine meaning, messages can sometimes come across as terse, angry, or rude when they weren’t meant to be.
That’s why it’s worth going the extra mile to review each message before sending it off, maybe writing a little more than you might be inclined to—overcommunicating—just to make sure your meaning is as clear as possible.
Many remote teams find that using emojis can sometimes help humanize, clarify, or lighten up the tone of a message, but of course this will depend on your company’s culture and what is or isn’t considered professional.
Did we miss anything? Share your best remote team communication advice with the hashtag #remotecommtip