You know how to communicate with your on-site team. How do you master communication with a remote team?
Basics of Team Communication
First, ensure you have basic team communication strategies in place.
SCORE recommends these 5 steps for good team communication:
- Be an active listener
- Ensure documents and information are available online in a central location
- Use integrated technology for communication
- Have a dedicated channel for internal communication
- Get feedback on team communication
What’s Different with Remote Team Communication?
With the foundation for team communication in place, it’s time to look at what needs added to the mix for remote team communication.
Recreate the Watercooler
Anyone in an office understands the “watercooler” effect. It’s the ability to get a sense of what is happening and feel bonded as a team via overheard conversations, shared gossip, common experiences, and nonverbal cues. The nonwork conversations that occur when coworkers take a coffee break together or go to happy hour after work tend to bond team members and create an internal support system.
Remote workers lose out on that subtle knowledge and may feel like they “aren’t part of the team.” This disconnect can make collaboration and team loyalty more challenging for remote workers.
To ensure remote team members get the water cooler effect, try to:
- Create a virtual coffee break or happy hour. For example, an IBM manager creates a weekly food-oriented experience for her team. Once a week, she has pastries delivered to her remote workers so they can feel included in the in-office “donut all-call.”
- Create a fun activity. While you can’t recreate the shared laughter when a coworker trips again on that invisible spot in the hallway, you can have the remote team involved in a shared fun activity. An NIH manager accomplishes this by sending out a trivia question once a week to engage team members with each other.
- Check in often. Do frequent check-ins with remote workers via video or phone to ask how they are doing. If a team member is in the office, you might notice if they are quiet and ask about it—that’s when you find out that their toddler hasn’t slept in 3 nights. Without visual cues, it’s important to ask remote workers about their personal lives to include them in the team bond.
Establish Communication Tools and Rules for Use
Decide what tools are available and ensure everyone knows how to access those tools.
Team communication, both on-site and remote, should include a central repository for storing documents and information. Remote workers also need collaboration tools to communicate. These tools include solutions for video conferencing, marking up documents in real time, screen sharing, and a way to chat electronically with coworkers.
But it’s not enough to just provide the tools. The team also needs to know the rules for these tools—when is it appropriate to use each one and what is the expectation for each tool.
Give guidance on when to use each communication channel. For example, a mass email might be appropriate for sharing extra project resources, while a group video call may better serve an announcement of budget cuts.
And layout the expectation of use for each tool. Some examples:
- Are workers expected to keep their calendar up-to-date with unavailable times?
- What is the timeframe for accepting or rejecting meeting invites—2 hours or 2 days?
- Do you require out-of-office responses to emails?
- When should chatter move from a chat tool to a thread inside a shared document?
- Do suggestions in a shared document have to be reviewed by the end of the day or within a week?
Doist, an all-remote company, suggests using asynchronous communication methods. Many companies default to synchronous communication and expect almost instantaneous responses. But with so many channels of input, this expectation might be unrealistic.
Remember that day when 10 coworkers stopped by your desk before lunch to gossip, ask a “quick” question, or give you a status update? By lunchtime, you were questioning where the morning went. Remote workers have that same feeling with synchronous communication channels but with the additional burden that no one “saw” their 10 interruptions.
Asynchronous communication, according to Doist, gives people the freedom to focus on projects, the ability to provide meaningful responses to requests, and even help to end the “always available” expectation that can overload remote workers in different time zones.
Define Individual Preferences
Even with a list of tools and guidelines, it’s important to establish individual preferences. These might include remote worker preferences such as:
- Text or a phone call for a quick question
- Video session or an instant messenger thread for collaboration
- Designated unavailable blocks of time for uninterrupted think time
Challenges With Remote Communication
OK, so now you have the tools and the guidelines. What are some of the additional challenges of remote communication?
Remote workers face a set of distractions that in-house workers may not have.
In-house or not, it’s common for team members to zone out during a meeting and respond with “Sorry, can you repeat the question?” when queried directly. To help eliminate this issue with remote workers, ensure they are included only in meetings that are relevant to their work, adhere to a meeting agenda, and consider a “Video ON” rule to minimize side work.
Have patience with third-party distractions. When a team is in the same room, they have shared distractions like the maintenance crew replacing light bulbs. Remotely, a worker may have interruptions during a group meeting that aren’t under their control, such as a dog barking or neighbor mowing the lawn. Accept that this might occur. Make light of it when appropriate.
Focus on deliverables and don’t micromanage remote workers. There could be distractions (picking up a child from school or time zone differences) that make a remote worker’s hours nonstandard compared to an in-office worker’s hours. If a task is completed by the deadline, does it matter if it was finished at 9 am versus 9 pm?
To Video or Not?
Several factors should help you decide when to use video for online meetings.
First, consider the bandwidth of the participants. Any collaborative meeting tool such as Skype or Zoom can include video feeds of all participants. Video feeds, especially high-definition video, can impact other aspects of the tool. If bandwidth is a constraint, decide in advance whether video is required for attendees.
Second, how important are nonverbal cues for the meeting? Video can convey facial expressions and body language. Sarcasm delivered in a dead-pan voice may be misinterpreted without the facial expression that provides tone. Or facial expressions may show that a remote worker is fed up with a project even if the verbal report indicates everything is on target.
But if many online meetings include video, consider asking participants to turn off video or switch to a phone conference to reduce Zoom fatigue. This phenomenon occurs when the brain gets overloaded from either:
- Processing too many nonverbal cues. This situation happens in gallery view where you see all the participants and are subconsciously trying to read everyone’s body language
- Focusing too hard on interpreting words and tones for meaning because the brain can’t reconcile the visual feedback with the voice
Lack of Context
Zappier, a remote company, offers advice on building strong relationships in a remote team. Never assume you are on the same page in a discussion. Remote communication often lacks context, so “assume ignorance before malice” when there is a misunderstanding.
Zappier also suggests you tell people what you need since nonverbal cues are missing. Your remote colleague can’t see your frenzied effort to finish a report in the next 15 minutes, so you have to be assertive about your needs. Tell them you will join a chat window conversation in 20 minutes after you complete the report.
By adding in the nuances of remote team communication to your baseline team communication strategy, you and your remote team can master the process.