4 Ways to Improve Communication With Your Remote Teams

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Remote work is the new norm, and that won’t change anytime soon.

Header image showing illustrated men communicating from computer screens

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).

But tech advancements ranging from web conferencing to collaboration software can’t replace an absence of communication, the area in which many companies fall short.

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:

  1. My style
  2. What I value
  3. What I don’t have patience for
  4. How to best communicate with me
  5. What people misunderstand about me
  6. 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

Remote work’s moment is far from over. As of February 2020, an estimated five percent of Americans worked remotely full-time. In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, that number is sure to skyrocket.

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.

Looking for Project Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Project Management software solutions.

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About the Author

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Lauren Maffeo

Lauren Maffeo has reported on and worked within the global technology sector. She started her career as a freelance journalist covering tech trends for news sites including The Next Web and The Guardian. She has also worked with CEOs at pre-seed to profitable SaaS startups on editorial strategy. Lauren currently works as a senior content analyst at GetApp—a Gartner company—where she covers the impact of emerging tech such as AI and blockchain on small and midsize business owners. Lauren's writing has been cited by Forbes, Fox Business, The Atlantic, and more. She has been featured on LeanIn.org, BBC Capital, and Inc.com and has spoken at Gartner's Symposium in Florida, ETH Zurich in Switzerland, the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., and Women Techmakers Montreal in Canada

Comments

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Why use them over other tools?

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Great list. I am also working as a remote team member and using VAIOX and CHEERYFILE for our meeting and webinars. These are safest software’s to use for communication and data sharing.

[…] Communication. Ask the team of engineers to come to your office once a week to discuss progress. If they live too far away, use Skype or similar applications for calls, hold a video conference once a week. Write down notes – the most important meeting should be summarized with an e-mail sent out afterwards to every participant. Be sure to use concise and simple language. But don’t forget to talk to the engineer team about non-work related stuff too. Establishing a friendly connection will make workers feel more invested in the outcome. […]

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Very nice list. I’d like to include ProofHub to the list too. We’ve been using it for the past year and couldn’t be happier.

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We have been working with remote teams from last 2 years and there is lot of things on we have worked for improving remote teams productivity. At present our team is using proofhub for managing almost everything from tasks to clients. I think tools are essential part of successful remote teams culture.

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Good points Rachel. The genesis of effective communications starts with effective listening. With that I mean its not just about hearing, but understanding and connecting with the other person.
There are no shortage of tools and technologies to facilitate communication across remote teams. But is this a blessing or another hurdle in disguise? Teams should stick to what communication channels works best for them and restrict these to maximum 2-3. Communicating over multiple channels will only lead to communication mayhem.
Another tip for improving communication is to remove barriers (while acknowledging cultural diversity) in remote communication.

Disclaimer: I work for Celoxis(www.celoxis.com), an enterprise class project portfolio management software.

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