One of the most uncomfortable realities of remote work is the feeling of speaking to thin air. You send an email and then wonder, is there an echo in here? Two days pass and still no response. And you’re not sure why – is your team member off work and did they forget to put on their out-of-office? Is this a new normal – they take two days to reply to emails now? Are they just incredibly distracted? Do they have a family situation you don’t know about? Are they ignoring you? Or is this just an email they don’t want to respond to?
Questions like these can get in the way of easy interactions. Like the whirring wheel of a computer program that won’t load, these confusions take up headspace and slow you down. Lack of trust can start to creep in. And over time, communication becomes disrupted.
Communication is as important to remote teams as location is to a property developer. Where a property developer would say “Location, location, location”, you want to think “Communication, communication, communication”. Without great communication as your most prized asset, your remote team has no value.
In fact, in a recent academic study of remote and distributed teams across the world, every single respondent ranked communication as the competency most critical for success.
So how can you avoid degrading your most critical remote team asset?
Firstly, identify the key moments when communication counts, to invest in improving this asset on a daily basis:
Convey key developments
Every team needs a clear idea of the context they’re working within – your changing environment. Are you developing new products and services? Do you have fresh insights into your customer profile? Conveying these in written form creates room for misinterpretations. Instead leaders will want to address these verbally – if you can’t meet in person together all at once, consider two meetings across the day, a video meeting or a recorded video.
Day-to-day exchanges to get the work done
When remote teams depend heavily on messaging and emails, it can be difficult to know what is being said, especially when the topic is complex or nuanced. You can easily find yourself down a rabbit hole where you’re trying to find this email that relates to that topic. Important details can become confused, overlooked or misinterpreted, which makes it difficult to know where problems begin and how to fix them.
Your team can excel by choosing the right platform for the communication task at hand – video for teamwork and important conversations, phone calls less often than video, turn-taking chat platforms like Slack, Teams and even Skype, for quick exchanges and text-based communication like email or text messages for work that is simple.
Keep track of work - managing accountability and responsibility
Remember those times when you all worked in the one place all the time, and you used a project board to track who was doing what, by when? Working flexibly, some teams lose this discipline. Ironically, it is even more important to track work and create transparency around it in remote work than in co-located teams, but teams new to remote work can sometimes take a while to realise this.
Personally, I think this is one of the reasons why remote teams are often more productive than their collocated counterparts – the remote teams that get this become better at measuring productivity than they would be if co-located. Team-wide systems support accountability and responsibility through a transparent view that can be accessed by anyone.
Gauge each other’s availability
Remote teams that lack shared calendars or the ability to check on another team member’s schedule may spend more time deciding on when to meet than actually meeting. The back and forth of scheduling when to chat is a waste of time that’s easily avoidable. Set up shared calendars through Office365 or G-Suite and use scheduling tools like Calendly. Personally I use G-Suite calendars with my team and Calendly with my contacts.
Build team connection
When team members are spread across different locations or time zones, there can be a ‘certain something’ that is missing from your team culture – something linked to not being able to sit down to a meal together, do a physical workshop or give each other a high five with sanitised hands. Remote teams, and flexible teams with remote workers, successfully build connection through rituals, structured catch-ups and deliberately setting up virtual water coolers.
Secondly, make sure your communication around ways of working are clear and effective.
In our next blog post we look at a trusted model to help you eliminate confusion in these key moments.