Here at Teamdeck, we have always embraced the concept of virtual teams, so the goal of this blog post would normally be to help you see the benefits of working from home. Granted, we still think that...
Perhaps the most significant difference between the way you communicate in the regular office settings and remotely is that for the latter to be successful, it has to be deliberate. Your conscious effort to establish successful communication processes in your remote team will pay off. In this blog post, we’ll go through the biggest challenges of remote communication and how you can mitigate them. We’ll also list tools that your remote team will benefit from using. Having read this post, you’ll be able to introduce the best practices of communicating remotely.
Before we dive into the details, however, it’s imperative that you remember to document your company’s communication processes. Create a space in your organization’s knowledge base/workspace where you can store guidelines regarding the way people should communicate. List the tools they need to use. Make sure that new hires read this document/page during the onboarding process. What’s more, don’t let it become stale. You and your employees need to address these communication processes regularly and make adjustments if needed. If you’re a project manager, you can discuss remote team communication during sprint retrospectives.
Challenges of effective remote communication
What are the first challenges of communicating remotely that come to your mind? Perhaps you’re thinking about time zones and the difficulty of staying in sync. Or maybe you’re worried about issues with an unreliable internet connection. These are valid concerns, but the challenges outlined below often turn out to be more serious, even though they’re not that easy to anticipate or notice.
Lack of visibility
The lack of visibility that could be difficult for remote teams is evident on several levels:
- Who’s available?
When you don’t see your team face to face, it’s harder to know who’s at work and who’s on vacation. Things are even more complicated for part-time employees and freelancers who tend to work remotely. On top of that, many remote workers work flexible hours, juggling work duties with personal activities.
- How do you know if they’re available?
There are two ways to solve this problem: First, introduce an absence tracking process and a place where your team can see who’s available and who’s not on a given day. Then, ask your team members to announce their current availability, e.g., using Slack statuses: short updates like “in a meeting” or “out for lunch” will be enough.
- Who is working on what?
“I don’t know if you’re the right person to ask about this project, but here I go” – ideally, you would want to eliminate guesswork from your team’s communication. If you have fewer than, say, 25 team members, it’s relatively easy to remember who’s working on what. If your team is bigger, things get much more complicated. Again, you could use an online space where your teammates can check who is involved in which project.
Teamdeck’s resource calendar is a single source of truth regarding your team’s availability and workload. You can see who’s assigned to which project, who’s on vacation, and who’s some capacity left (if you’re looking for people that can join your project).
- Who should know about this?
Effective communication means that the right people are getting the right message and the right time. For that to be true, your remote employees need to know who should be in the loop regarding different things. Write down some simple rules like “Jane Doe, who is managing our website, needs to know about new milestones in your projects so that she can publish updates.”
Lack of context
When communicating with someone who is working remotely, you don’t have the context that direct communication provides. In essence, you don’t see the body language, most of the time you don’t know what that person has been doing recently, what’s their mood, etc. Consider this example: you receive a very curt message from one of your coworkers asking you to share some information. At first, you may be thinking: “Is this person mad at me? Annoyed? I haven’t done anything wrong”. You can see how that might lead to miscommunication or even conflict. This is why it’s vital to:
- Provide context when you contact your teammates about something. Instead of writing “Send me stats from the last campaign ASAP”, say “I’m having an unexpected meeting with XYZ in an hour. Can you send me the stats from the last campaign so that I can show them during the meeting?”. More context = Fewer misunderstandings.
- Make use of video communication. When you’re not sure about the context, and you’re worried that getting to the bottom of things might take a while, just say: “let’s jump on a quick call and discuss it”. Chances are you will be able to clear things up faster.
The difficulty of staying connected
People working in remote teams need to make a conscious effort to stay connected. It’s quite easy to limit communication to short messages exchanged on Slack or via email, especially if people’s roles are independent or they’re working in different time zones. As a team leader, you can foster team spirit by encouraging to have regular video calls, team-building activities, or even a chat channel that’s dedicated to posting memes (you can see ideas for other culture-strengthening channels here).
Few opportunities for 1:1 meetings
This point is a little tricky. You might think: how come there are fewer opportunities for 1:1 meetings? After all, people can chat privately whenever they want: many communication tools used by remote teams allow for private conversations.
That’s true for employee-to-employee chats, but manager-direct report 1:1s might quickly get forgotten when you don’t see your team every day. Alternatively, you might get a false sense of security when you do chat with your team regularly—everyone looks happy, there’s no use for additional 1:1 meetings. Only there is, regardless of your team’s perceived well-being.
Granted, this challenge is not exclusive to remote teams. In-office team members may also get fewer chances to meet with their boss than they need. When it comes to remote workers, however, you need to make sure that they get an opportunity to talk to you every once in a while. You can schedule a fixed time for these meetings or remind employees regularly to pick a time slot for a 1:1. This way, you’ll be able to connect with your distributed employees better and also build trust with your team.
Your tools for remote communication
An important note about tools: it’s not enough to just create accounts and let your team know that “it’s there if you want to use it.” Make sure everybody knows what the platforms they should use are and how to use them. Again, you should document these guidelines and make them accessible to your current employees and future new hires. If any of the tools you’re using is not working out the way you hoped, redesign your toolbox. The technology landscape is vast, so you will likely find apps that are 100% fit for your team’s needs.
We’ve asked Rohit Gupta from Pixpa, a platform that helps creatives build beautiful portfolio websites, about their approach to remote works and tools:
At Pixpa, we have gone fully remote now for the past 3 months, and we intend to continue working as a fully-remote company from here on. While the shift was forced upon us by the pandemic lockdowns, we quickly embraced the new normal and switched to working remotely seamlessly. Working remotely has a lot of benefits – the time and stress of commuting every day has vanished, work-life balance is restored and productivity levels are up. As a remote team, our focus is on sustaining and building our culture, the camaraderie between teammates and fostering collaboration.
We use Slack, Asana, Zoom and Github for all of our work communication and collaboration. We have a free-flowing, unstructured collaboration within the team that wouldn’t fit into the definition of scrum meetings.
Here are the categories of tools you may want to consider for remote teams (we’ll also share the names of the apps we use at Teamdeck and highly recommend):
- Online chat tool – Chats help remote teams stay connected and communicate in real-time or asynchronously. At Teamdeck, we love Slack, we’ve even created a list of our favorite Slack apps for Project Managers.
- Video conferencing software – a reliable video communication app allows you to run more effective meetings and build stronger connections between your team members. At Teamdeck, we organize video calls with Google Hangouts Meet.
- Project collaboration app – a platform where you can track your project(s) progress and see how much work is still left helps you to cultivate project transparency. For remote teams, a project management tool is their virtual office: this is where they can see what’s going on. At Teamdeck, we use Jira for that purpose.
- Resource management software – it allows you to schedule resources, track their time, and measure their performance. Most importantly, it provides more visibility into your remote employees’ availability and workload. At Teamdeck, we utilize Teamdeck for that purpose, duh!
- Digital workspace – it’s like a virtual knowledge base for your employees, where they can browse company-wide or team-specific information: procedures, guidelines, policies. At Teamdeck, we use Confluence for that purpose.
- File sharing and storage – having a single access point to files will save your team members a lot of time. File-sharing features are handy if you need to collaborate with clients or external companies. At Teamdeck, we utilize Google Drive within G Suite for that purpose.
- Automation tool – even if you don’t have programming skills, tools like that allow you to connect different apps to create an integrated toolbox. You can also design automated workflows to make your work more productive. At Teamdeck, we use Zapier for that purpose.
Increase your remote team’s visibility
Having read this blog post, you probably realize that lack of visibility is the factor that may cause several challenges for your remote employees. When people don’t know each other’s availability or workload, they might find it difficult to communicate effectively. A single source of truth regarding when people work and what they work on will save your team much uncertainty.
If you want to learn more about implementing a resource calendar in your company to improve the visibility of your remote team, schedule a consultation with Teamdeck’s resource management experts.