Remote work is the new norm, and that won’t change anytime soon.
Research from Gallup found that 51% of employees would switch companies to work for one with more flexible work arrangements and that the most engaged employees spend 60 to 80% of their time working remotely (an increase from 20% in 2012).
Remote workers report feeling shunned and left out caused by a lack of in-person time with their teams, and one-third of such workers say they get no time to meet in person with their teams at all.
As a result, remote colleagues say they’re more likely to feel like colleagues gang up on them, don’t fight for their priorities, and change projects without warning them.
4 tips to boost remote teams’ communication
All of those problems stem from poor remote team communication. If your own team is becoming more dispersed, you must proactively look for the areas where communication and engagement will most likely suffer because of the distance.
The following four steps can set the tone for a remote team that’s warm, inclusive, and productive.
1. Write and share user manuals with your team
A user manual is a written guide that helps others (e.g., your colleagues) learn more about you: when you are most productive, what motivates you, why you get irritated, and how to contact you when they urgently need something.
If this seems too personal for work, that’s the point. Most employees spend more time with their colleagues than with their friends and families. Despite this, many of us are left to infer things about our colleagues, from communication preferences to what they really mean when they say “That’s fine” when addressing a request.
Remote teams can’t afford to guess how their colleagues think, feel, and work. When there is no chance to read body language and other social cues through shared personal space, leaders must encourage proactive communication within their teams. User manuals achieve that by offering insight into each employee’s personal values, working styles, and preferences.
A few years ago, my own dispersed team wrote and shared our user manuals. The exercise worked best when we structured our manuals into six sections:
- My style
- What I value
- What I don’t have patience for
- How to best communicate with me
- What people misunderstand about me
- How to help me
User manuals are most effective when everyone on a team writes their own, then shares them in a stored drive where they’re easily accessible. Once you’ve collected everyone’s manuals, use web conferencing software to hold team-specific meetings where everyone shares their manuals.
2. Adopt asynchronous communication
Most remote team communication occurs in writing, whether via email or collaboration software.
The problem? Written communication has a reputation for being tough to decipher. The lack of in-person social cues on remote teams can lead to anxiety, disengagement, and a lack of innovation.
To prevent this on your own team, default to practicing asynchronous communication—sending messages without expecting instant responses. This is the most realistic way to reach remote teams who work across multiple time zones.
Asynchronous isn’t a synonym for infrequent; it’s the opposite. As a remote team leader, aim to over-communicate. If your expectations aren’t explicit, you can’t expect your team to meet them.
When you do need an instant response, denote that by including some form of “[URGENT]” in the subject line of an email or using the “@mention” feature in your team’s project management software.
Create and share a process doc with your entire team that explains which actions they must take if they need to make an urgent request, and store this doc in the same space where your team’s user manuals live.
Reserve instant responses for deadline-driven requests. If your asynchronous communication is clear, concise, and explains the “Why” behind each request, then you shouldn’t need to use them frequently.
3. Prioritize video calls
The lack of in-person social cues on remote teams keeps coming up for a reason. Not being able to see someone’s face or body language impedes communication. That’s why your first choice for meetings, weekly check-ins, daily standups, etc. should be video calls.
This is especially true for inevitable hard conversations. Whenever you need to meet to discuss missed targets, a performance improvement plan, or similar topics, schedule a video call. In such cases, written communication isn’t enough to address the issue at hand.
You should conduct all virtual meetings the way you would hold them in-person: Deliver your core message first, then clearly outline the next steps for your team. If you have to give hard news, work on framing your message in a positive way beforehand. Always end the meeting with time for questions, and let folks know where they can follow-up one-on-one if needed.
Your goal in using video is to create as many face-to-face interactions as possible. When paired with clear written communication, you’ll create psychological safety for your team (which is crucial for employee retention).
4. Set aside budget for in-person offsites
The average business with a full-time remote workforce saves $10,000 per employee per year. Likewise, the average U.S. office space costs between $8 and $23 per square foot, with costs increasing alongside employee headcount.
These cost savings allow leaders to reinvest money back into their businesses. If your team is fully remote, allot some of that savings toward in-person off-sites where your team can meet in person.
Uniting all colleagues in the same physical space builds a deep level of trust and familiarity. It’s also an ideal time to share and reinforce company goals.
At your offsite, team leads can share key achievements from the past six months or year, announce new initiatives for upcoming quarters, and host team dinners/field trips to help cross-departmental peers meet each other. By interspersing strategy sessions with team meals and outings, you can create a sense of warmth that transcends remote work.
Aim to get your entire organization in person at least once if not twice per year. Try to pick a location that’s as central to as many colleagues as possible. This will minimize costs for your business, as well as the time it takes employees to travel to and from the offsite.
Working for the future
In addition to reaping the benefits of productivity gains, leaders of remote employees must be proactive about communication. If you get it right, you stand to boast, happier, healthier, and more engaged employees overall.