7 Ways to Increase Communication with Your Remote Team

by Matt Boyd on May 14, 2013

message-in-a-bottle

Working remote can be extremely difficult.

In those moments when communication is less than ideal and the situation seems dismal, joining the ranks of a team in a physical office space can sound like a good idea.

Everyone has these moments.

When this happens, it’s important to stay calm and not make any decisions you may come to regret. I can assure you, there are several ways to connect your remote team and streamline your communication.

I can recall, in great detail, specific instances where I felt like pulling my own hair out or just sleeping the day away. Time zones were the enemy and a constant darkness loomed over my head like a perpetual loneliness that only working alone can bring.

This could’ve been solved if I only knew what I know now. Communication in any organization, especially remote teams, should become the most vital centerpiece of the team culture.

I’d like to share some tips that have helped us communicate better and ultimately destroy the cloud that haunted our productivity and group collaboration.

1. Tool Overload Kills Communication

Diversifying your tool set seems like a great thing and in most situations, it generally is. I’ve noticed when communication is heavily reliant upon technology to fill the gap of distance, especially in a remote environment, team leaders have a tendency to “over tool” and overwhelm their colleagues with several different channels of communication. For example; using WordPress for internal blogs, Hipchat for team discussion, Trello for project planning, Github Issues for bugs, Skype for video chat and email for less direct communication when nothing else seems to work.

I’d recommend scaling this down as much as possible and only utilizing one or two of these tools for the bulk of your team’s communication. Relying heavily on one channel of team based communication allows your team to enjoy a central location where all discussion activity is happening. It makes whatever tool you’re using feel “alive” and electric. It naturally gives the team a feeling of central stability instead of dispersed openness.

2. Hire Great Communicators

I talk a lot about hiring the right people and in this instance, it’s extremely important. When your team is distributed around the world, team members that have the natural ability to cut through the darkness and say what needs to be said in the most efficient way are truly valuable at taking charge and building a culture that centered around communication.

Every organization should have a basic understanding of simple communication efficiencies. Really great communicators have the keen ability to help their more introverted colleagues become efficient communicators as well.

“I’m a great believer that any tool that enhances communication has profound effects in terms of how people can learn from each other, and how they can achieve the kind of freedoms that they’re interested in.” -Bill Gates

3. Passive Communication

Time zones suck for remote workers. As soon as we face that fact, we’ll be able to move on and come to a solid solution of how to better communicate in that situation. When you don’t have the ability to speak directly with your colleagues, it’s important to adopt a passive or asynchronous form of communication that’s less direct and always moving in the right direction, regardless of time or availability.

This can be something as simple as a very liberal email policy or using Github issues. Just sending several emails and CCing everyone that could possibly be interested allows for transparency and open communication. The great thing about excessive emailing is it’s a form of opt-in communication that doesn’t eat up your time if it’s not necessary. You can decide to read the email if it’s relevant to you and that’s a beautiful thing for staying connected with what’s going on. I just read a post on how Treehouse uses a “Reddit clone” to achieve a similar form of communication.

Real time communication is awesome but people are generally sleeping at 3am, so it’s not always an option. Passive communication is a great alternative to stay in the loop. 

4. Time Overlap

As mentioned in my previous point, time zones are kind of dumb. Why does the world have to be round? It seriously messes up everything. Kidding! On a serious note, one great way to increase communication is by planning wisely your overlapped time with team members. Know what time your colleagues generally work, and make a schedule around that to maximize the amount of time you’ll have together. A good rule of thumb is to have 2+ hours together. This will give you more than enough time to communication the most important items for the day.

Creating this overlap also gives you a scheduled time of communication darkness and an opportunity to go away and achieve the goals you previously discussed with your colleagues. If used properly, this can be a powerful way of increasing productivity, scheduling communication and working into a nice groove with your teammates. 

5. Spend Time Together in Real Life

One important aspect of any thriving team is from a social perspective. Nothing can replace sitting face to face with your team members and chatting over coffee or participating in group team building exercises. Having social outings and team “get-togethers” is a great way to become more familiar with your teammates on a personal level. I’ve always found that the better I know someone, the less “jargon” I use to get my point across thus, I can be more effective in my communication.

We live in a society where small talk is a protection mechanism to keep us from saying something stupid and embarrassing ourselves. Unfortunately, it’s become a major centerpiece of our communication process but it can be avoided by creating a familiarity between team members.

6. All Day Conferencing

One downside to working with a distributed team is the constant feeling of being alone. I’m a “people-person” so I enjoy spending time together with my colleagues, even if we’re working on different projects. One great thing that the physical office space can have is the social connection of being together and seeing faces of the people you work with. There’s a major advantage of having the ability to tap someone on the shoulder and instantly start discussing something important.

I believe the social “water cooler” environment can be captured by creating an all day video conference that allows you to come and go as you please. Sound can be controlled by muting the microphone when necessary. This naturally creates a “connectedness” that wouldn’t be available in standard text chat. There’s a socially driven psychological effect of seeing someone’s face and connecting with their voice during the work day that naturally makes group collaboration more enjoyable. 

7. Make Yourself Accessible

It’s a startup, so things happen. Minor emergencies are a common occurrence in high pressure situations like a private beta or early release of your team’s product. It’s a matter of how you respond that determines the successful triumph of the problem. Making yourself accessible is the best way to respond quickly but it can be difficult when distance is involved.

I can’t count the times where something has happened and team members magically disappear without a trace. The best way to counteract this is by creating solid procedures that take place when something does go wrong. I would recommend using IFTTT, Gmail and SMS to create a “recipe” that will automatically send you a text message when someone emails you a very specific subject line letting you know something is wrong. Phone calls with international team members can be difficult and expensive. I’ve found that Gmail alerting is the easiest way to accomplish this. For example: If you email me “Servers Down” past 11pm, then IFTTT knows to send me a text message alerting me of your message.

Conclusion

Regardless of circumstance, it’s always best to work toward better communication in a distributed team. Be mindful of how people are communicating and keep tabs on the difficulties while working to improve them. Communication is one of your greatest assets so don’t waste it or use it improperly.

Take advantage of scheduled downtimes and hire strong communicators. When something scary happens, like server outages, respond as quickly as possible and tackle the problem in the most effective way possible. Use your words wisely and always put communication at the center of your company culture.

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    I want to start by thanking you for an excellent post, as business man that operates few locations in the state of Texas i find it hard to keep smooth communication with my managers and your post have some point that i will try to implement.

    • http://www.junloayza.com Jun Loayza

      Awesome! Let me know if you improve your communications.

  • http://www.bizopps.co.uk/ Jay

    I find these posts so useful. For freelancers, maintaining good communication channels can be tough – tips like these however, will really help.

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  • George Cook

    Thanks for sharing such a useful points. One more way is to start using Proofhub for better communication with remote teams. Try it at http://www.proofhub.com

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