If you lead (or are part of) a distributed team, effective communication is the most important ingredient to your team's success. The reality is that remote communication presents some challenges that require thoughtful solutions.
We've worked with and been a part of numerous distributed teams, so we've had a chance to see what works and what doesn't. In this guide, we'll share tips and strategies to help you master communication as a remote team.
P.S - this post is chapter five of my upcoming book on distributed work. You can learn more here or read the previous chapter on the office vs. remote).
Remote Work Communication Issues
There's a lot of debate on remote work vs. co-located work. The reality is that there's no right answer; it's about finding the right fit for you and your team. In-person work has issues. Remote work has issues. Therefore, it's important that you understand the gaps that exist when communicating remotely. We've listed them below:
Collaboration can be tougher
Unlike many co-located teams, you can't hold in-person meetings at the drop of the hat. These meetings are one of the best ways to collaborate on ambiguous projects. The fast feedback loop, the ability to interpret body language, and other activities like white-boarding make collaboration in the moment much easier.
Of course you can use Zoom or another video conferencing tool, but the reality is that this is a challenge you will need to learn how to navigate.
Staying connected takes work
When someone is in the office, a lot of passive information gathering happens. This could take the form of a water-cooler conversation, lunch with a coworker, or even visually observing meetings taking place.
This ambient awareness makes people feel more connected. In a remote team, you can still understand what's going on by observing a Slack chat room, but written text is very different than being in-person.
As a result, remote workers can frequently feel disconnected. This is a challenge you will need to actively work on. We'll discuss strategies shortly.
It can be more difficult to create accountability
When you are in the office, it's easy to learn about what's going on and what people are working on through observation. When remote, you have far fewer data points, which makes it difficult to create accountability.
We wrote an entire post on this topic if you'd like to unpack remote team accountability in a bit more detail.
Remote work requires communication redundancy
The final downside of remote work is that it requires leaders to create communication redundancy. Put simply, when a team works in the office, if you miscommunicate, there are more opportunities to cover your tracks, even if you don't realize you miscommunicated.
So let's say you say something in a meeting that may be ambiguous, but you mention another comment which helps clarify your position as you walk down the hallway with a colleague. This is an example of communication redundancy.
In the world of remote work, you have fewer chances to communicate effectively, so you need to make the most of the fewer conversations you have. We have some strategies for improving this that we'll talk about later in the post.
The good news
The reality is that these communication problems can be improved, but you need to know where to focus your attention. Now let's jump into ways you can work on these challenges.
Solving Remote Work Communication Challenges
Solving the collaboration challenge
In the first section, we discussed the issues related to collaboration. When working on ambiguous projects, in-person collaboration is ideal, so how can we solve this as a distributed team?
Meet up in real life.
I realize that you may be hoping to discover a silver bullet that unlocks the path to productivity, but there are times when you need to gather in a room. For example, many distributed companies will have remote team meetups a couple times a year.
I've worked for distributed companies and we'd try to meet up 1x/quarter (we were a small company so it was easier to schedule). These in-person sessions are great for defining goals and/or discussing thorny issues that require creative solutions.
Remote work is ideal when executing on an existing plan.
As an alternative, collaboration issues can be reduced by conversing in a "rich" environment where you can process additional communication signals like body language. In other words, use video conferencing. If you're curious to learn more about the reasoning behind this, check out media richness theory.
How to feel connected
The next communication challenge when working remotely is staying connected. How can you make sure people connected and feel like they are part of a team when working remotely?
I believe the key to solving this issue is to replicate the best parts of office life, but online instead.
- it's easy to grab lunch with a co-worker and learn more about them.
- it's easy to discover what people do outside of work (hobbies, etc)
- it's easier to onboard as a new employee when in-person
- you discover how people prefer to work when in the office
The reality is that these events listed above help people feel connected. The good news is that you can replicate many of these activities online, you just need to be intentional about it.
Remote team examples:
- Use an app like Donut to pair with someone in a non-awkward way.
- Run periodic remote AMAs "ask me anything" sessions with a specific employee.
- When hiring a new remote employee, pair them with a mentor or someone who can introduce them to others inside the company. Create a structured program with benchmarks over time.
- Have employees complete a document/wiki that shares a bit more about them and what they like to do outside of work. Share these with the rest of the team.
- Have employees take a personality test and share the results with the rest of the team.
Finally, when holding a remote team onsite, make sure to spend time on team-building activities where people can get to know each other. This is the most opportune time to develop stronger bonds.
Creating remote team communication redundancy
In the final section, we'll discuss how you can create communication redundancy and improve alignment, while decreasing miscommunication.
Write things down. Share them. Make it easy to reference them.
The idea is simple. When you speak, your words can be easily forgotten. You might ramble and say things that are unclear. Your words could also be misinterpreted at a later date.
Writing things down is the most important way to create communication redundancy. Steven Sinofsky wrote an amazing article on this topic that I highly recommend you read.
Not all writing is created equal though. Sinofsky tears apart the the powerpoint presentation below:
The biggest challenge with decks to communicate strategy is the ability for people, managers or individuals, to make up their own ground truth about what a bullet, lone graphic, or slide title implies. If you ever want to see this play out, watch something like a big org change roll out where the “tool” provided by exec management is deck with some moderate slide notes. The game of telephone would show how poor a transfer of information decks can be. Or another test is to consider the new employee just weeks later — how can they get up to speed looking at bullet points?
The structure and format is important, but the next thing you need to do is make the most important stuff visible and constantly reference it.
Specific ways to create communication redundancy:
- Meetings should have agendas & takeaways
- For any information sharing meeting (weekly staff meeting, all-hands, etc), a document should be shared beforehand, helping people prepare and digest the information. This also helps anyone who misses the meeting as they can be brought up to speed.
At Friday, we're working on this problem, as storing your most important conversations in Google Drive is just not working that well.
We've written more about communication redundancy if you'd like to learn more.
In conclusion, remote work communication takes some effort, but if you apply the strategies listed above, it will be much easier for you and your team.