Remote work is more popular than ever.

Even before lockdowns and social distancing orders, working from home was increasingly common. Now, the pandemic has made remote work a necessity for a lot of companies.

Is your company 100% remote?

There’s a lot to like about this style of work.

Businesses that were worried about productivity have found that people are actually getting more done. Thanks to remote work, employees are happier. Companies have kept their business running successfully despite serious challenges.

But there’s one challenge that all distributed companies need to overcome  — remote communication.

Remote communication isn’t necessarily harder. It’s just different, so it takes different skills.

Our 2021 Project Management Report found that a lack of communication is also the biggest challenge for 46% of remote managers. Buffer found similar results — remote communication is the biggest challenge for 20% of remote workers.

How to create a remote work policy

Communicating at a distance isn’t always harder than it is in an office. It’s just different. Your team has to think about it more and use different tools to keep everyone informed.

Build a few good habits and your remote communication can be better than it ever was in the office. Then, if you ever decide to move your team back on-site, communication will be your superpower.

This article will help you upgrade your remote team’s communication skills. Bookmark it so that you can come back later to reference the specifics.

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What is remote communication?

Remote communication means talking and connecting with teammates who work in multiple locations. Often, people work at different times, so communication happens out of sync. This means that conversations happen through tools instead of face-to-face.

The biggest difference from in-person communication is that nothing happens accidentally. You have to think about it.

In the office, information can be passively shared. People hear what others are discussing and can follow up on anything important. There’s more casual conversation, thus more opportunity to pass on information.

Just seeing your coworkers’ faces can spark important conversations. You’re more likely to remember that you wanted to talk to Kate about the sales figures when she walks by your desk.

When your team is distributed, communication happens on purpose.

Remote employees only know what you tell them. If you don’t include everyone in the conversation, the people who got left out won’t even know that they’re missing anything.

Remote communication happens on purpose. You have to put effort into it so your team knows what’s going on.

The best way to keep your distributed team in the loop is to organize information where everyone can find it easily. Get good at virtual communication and your team will have a big advantage.

Challenges of remote communication

45.8% of remote project managers consider lack of communication to be the biggest challenge to managing remote work.

Working from different places is an obvious challenge.

There are less obvious challenges, too. When you rely heavily on technology to communicate, you need a different set of skills to get your point across.

A lot of remote communication is written. Anyone who has ever struggled through a high school essay knows that writing is not the same thing as talking.

Written communication is even more challenging when there’s a language barrier. A lot of people can speak a second language far better than they can write it, and they may struggle to read and understand.

For some people, it’s just the opposite. They might feel most comfortable in writing and struggle with verbal communication. These people may have a hard time following the conversation in a video meeting, especially if there are lots of people talking at once.

When you rely heavily on technology to stay connected, you need a different set of communication skills.

Missing subtext also makes it harder to get your point across.

People naturally pick up on signals like tone of voice, body language, and gestures when they talk face to face. Those things get lost when you have to talk remotely.

Emails or direct messages can sound short tempered and tactless when they weren’t meant that way. Even video conferencing isn’t quite the same since lighting, camera angles, and internet delays might cover up your tone and expression.

None of these challenges are impossible. With awareness and a little effort, you’ll become an expert communicator.

How to master remote communication

Conquering remote communication begins with building good habits.

If communication was poor while your team was together in an office, you probably have some underlying problems to address first. This article on team communication strategies can help you troubleshoot.

When you’re ready to take your killer communication skills remote, here’s how to do it.

1. Set the ground rules

This is going to take effort from everyone on the team. Communication has to flow in every direction.

Your remote communication rules help remind team members to update tasks, share information, and keep their teammates in the loop.

At the same time, respect the differences between in-office and remote work. Employees who work from home can and should have more time to focus without interruptions. That deep work time is one of the reasons remote teams are more productive.

At Hubstaff, we use a communication manifesto to define how our distributed team operates.

Our manifesto answers questions like these:

  • What channel or tool should you use if you need a quick response?
  • How do you signal that you need some uninterrupted work time?
  • What hours do team members need to be online and available?
  • How do you decide if something belongs in a public channel or a private message?

When you’re ready to create your own set of communication rules, you can use our manifesto for guidance and inspiration. Get it here.


Get our free Communication Manifesto




2. Use the right tools in the right way

There are lots of great communication tools to keep your team connected. Remote teams use a combination of tools to accomplish different things.

Your task management software should be the main hub and source of truth.

When each task is up to date, you can easily check on the status without interrupting the people who are doing the work. Use comments, attachments, and workflows wisely so that you can see the current status and history of every project.

This also makes it easier for people to hand off work or join a project halfway through. The information is readily available and organized by task so it’s easy to catch up.

You still need other communication tools. For example, it’s okay to have an important work conversation over Slack. Just make sure you update the task with your decisions afterwards.

Give your team plenty of room to connect over personal stuff, too. All work and no play might sound like a recipe for productivity, but in reality, it just makes your team less engaged and more likely to lose interest in their work.

Use your communication tools wisely. Here are some tips.

Email

You’d have a hard time finding a business that doesn’t use email for communication, remote or otherwise.

Email is useful, but it’s also a source of frustration for a lot of professionals. If you’ve ever wasted hours trying to find that spreadsheet that someone emailed you last week, you know the feeling.

Limit the amount of emails you send to keep your inbox clean and to make sure your message gets through. Emails are good for:

  • External communication
  • Meeting invites with a full agenda or outline
  • Detailed messages that aren’t time sensitive
  • Sharing information that does not require a response

If you need to have more back-and-forth, email isn’t the best way to do that. Have a phone call or use a chat tool instead.

Checking email every time the notification pops up is a huge time waster. Give your team permission to timebox their emails and only check during certain times. That means that you shouldn’t expect immediate responses.

When you do send emails, follow these best practices so that you’re as efficient and useful as possible.

  • Use a clear subject line – Say what the email is about. This helps the recipient decide if they need to respond now or if they have room to wait until later. It also helps them find your message again later if they need to.
  • Proofread your email – You want people to focus on your message, not your spelling. Typos happen to everyone. If grammar and spelling aren’t your strongest skills, install a tool like Grammarly to help catch those small mistakes that can distract people from the main point.
  • Use plain text formatting – For most routine communication, the default font and colors are the best choice.
    Stay away from big images or extras that aren’t part of what you’re trying to say. Flamboyant email signatures and unusual text styles are a distraction at best. At worst, they make your message hard to read and might cause issues that prevent delivery.
  • Double-check attachments – Always double check your attachments. It’s a good idea to open the file from the email to make sure you include the correct file and version.

Chat

Chat programs like Slack and Flock are one of the main ways remote teams communicate. Your team chat is the closest remote equivalent to an office.

Your team chat is the remote equivalent of the office breakroom. It’s the common area where everyone can connect.

Just like the common areas in your office, your chat app is a venue for both work related and personal conversations. The chat is where relationships form and grow.

Your chat is like the office chatter in another way — it can easily turn into a constant interruption for people who need to focus.

Chat apps are best for:

  • Quick conversations that need a little back and forth
  • Getting feedback on files or projects
  • Casual chatting throughout the day
  • Group conversations on a specific topic, especially when working asynchronously

Encourage your team to set healthy boundaries for the team chat.

Employees should be able to join social channels that appeal to their interests. They should also be able to mute notifications when they need to focus.

Keep your chat productive and interruptions to a minimum by following these best practices.

  • Use channels wisely – Keep work conversations organized by creating channels with specific topics. Include just the people who need the information so that others aren’t spammed with irrelevant messages.
    Use channels instead of group chats. In channels, you can add or remove people and the new additions can view the channel history. Plus, it’s way easier to find previous conversations if they were in a labeled channel.
    For example: imagine you had a discussion about whether or not you should try a new SEO tool, but you can’t remember what it was called. If that conversation happened in the SEO channel, you’ll be able to find it pretty quickly. But if you had that conversation in a regular group chat, it’s tough to find it again. You remember that Bobana and Gia were part of that conversation, but you need to know the exact list of people to find the history.

  • Use status updates – Status updates let team members know if they can talk to you right now or not. A blank status and a green indicator tell your team that you’re available. If you’re online and not available to talk right now, you can use status indicators to announce that you’re in a meeting or focusing on deep work.
  • Think your message through before hitting “send” – When sending direct messages, try to write out everything you need to say in a single message. This will reduce the amount of notifications your coworkers get. Multiple messages are more acceptable in private conversations, but keep in mind that each notification is a tiny interruption.
  • Make your messages easier to scan – When writing longer messages, add some structure. Some of your coworkers may use the mobile app, and most will have limited time. Bullet points, bold text, and using multiple lines can help get your point across faster.
  • Use reactions for acknowledgment – If you want to approve a message or acknowledge that you’ve read it, use one of Slack’s built-in reactions. That way, team members won’t be bombarded with too many notifications saying things like “Thanks,” and “You, too.”
  • Use threads for ongoing discussions – Most team communication apps support discussion threads. Use these to organize your team’s communication without cluttering channels.
  • Take advantage of the Do Not Disturb feature – Do Not Disturb prevents you from getting notifications in the middle of the night or during family time. Set up your quiet hours to protect your work-life balance and encourage everyone on your team to do the same.

Video conferencing

When you don’t have face-to-face communication, video calls are the next best thing.

If you need to have a team meeting, do it over video.

It’s the most complete form of communication because you have your teammates’ total attention in real time. You can see their face and hear their voice.

When you schedule a video call, all participants have to stop the other things they’re doing and focus entirely on the meeting. Keep calls as short as possible and stick to the agenda to respect your team’s time.

Regular video calls help your team feel like their coworkers are really there. Remote work can be isolating, especially for people who aren’t used to it. Find the right balance between collaboration and independent work to help your employees adjust.

Video meetings are the most complete form of remote communication because you can see facial expressions and hear tone of voice. They are also the biggest interruption for your remote team. Use video wisely.

Here are some things to keep in mind when you host video calls.

  • Find a good conferencing spot – If you work from a desktop computer, you might be stuck at your desk when it comes to conference calls. Laptop users, on the other hand, should try to find a quiet spot with lots of light. This will make it easier for team members to hear and see them clearly.
  • Test your video and audio before joining a call – Make sure your headphones are charged and your webcam is working before joining a call. Have a backup plan in case of technical difficulties.
  • Join with the camera on by default – If you use a video conferencing tool like Zoom, you can set default meeting settings for all attendees. You can also ask your team to default to video for all meetings.
  • Look into the camera – Try not to look at your screen when talking during a video call. Look into the camera itself. This mimics eye contact.
  • Mute your microphone when you’re not talking – Background noise is distracting. Even if it sounds quiet to you, your microphone might pick up your air conditioner, pet noises, or other stuff you don’t notice. Keep your microphone muted to keep noise to a minimum.
  • Check if you’re on mute before you speak – If you’re following the previous rule, this one’s crucial. Always check if you’re muted before you start speaking.
  • Don’t multitask during calls – When you try to work through a call, you miss the point. It’s also rude to others who need your input and have to repeat themselves when you miss something important. Focus on the call and handle everything else when you’re done.
  • Use good meeting habits – Schedule meetings ahead of time and give everyone the details they need to come prepared. When the meeting starts, stay on topic and end on time. Step in to stop side conversations and ask people to follow up separately so that you can accomplish the meeting goal and let everyone get back to work. Learn more about how to run a productive remote meeting here.

3. Work on your tone

As a leader, you know that the way you communicate is just as important as the message itself. People are more likely to cooperate if they feel respected and valued.

You might need to adjust the way you talk when you move from an office environment to a team that communicates mostly through Slack. The same words come across differently when they’re just text on a screen.

For example, in the office, you might have started most conversations by asking “Do you have a second?” with a big smile. It was clear that you were checking because you didn’t want to interrupt.

Now, you send that same message via Slack. “Do you have a second?”

The recipient feels like they’re in trouble. It feels like they got a text from their mom that says “We need to talk.” Instead of sensing that you respect their time, it seems like you’re trying to soften a blow.

Especially if your team works asynchronously, you don’t need to start conversations with this kind of opener.

Asking if a team member has time to talk is just as much an interruption as it would be if you just said what you wanted to talk about. In fact, starting a conversation with something like “Do you have a second?” is even more disruptive because now they have to answer that question to find out what you really want.

When interrupting a remote team member, it’s more polite to get to the point quickly. Don’t ask if they have time. Just ask your question and they’ll respond when they can.

If you want to let your employee know that your question isn’t urgent, try something like this instead.

Hi, Dave. When you have a minute, can you send me the slides from the presentation you gave yesterday? Thanks!

There’s no suspense. Dave knows exactly what you want and he’ll respond when he finishes what he’s doing right now.

At the same time, understand that the other people on your team are just as new to this as you are. They need time and experience to work on their tone, too.

Be forgiving when your employees say things that sound too direct or too wishy washy. Assume that they mean the best.

4. Practice transparency

Transparent leadership can be difficult, but it’s worthwhile.

You don’t want to be the only person who knows everything about your business. That means you’re the only person that can make informed decisions. Everyone else needs to either go through you or risk making a bad choice based on incomplete information.

Neither of these situations are ideal.

When you’re the only one with your information, you can’t get your work done because you need to be available to everyone else. Your team feels like you don’t trust them. So, they don’t trust you.

Trust and transparency are even more important for remote teams.

Look at it from your team’s perspective. Imagine you work from home and you know that your boss doesn’t trust you. In your mind, what does the boss expect from you?

You probably think that your boss assumes you’re goofing off and watching Netflix instead of working. You might expect surprise meetings or check-in messages at random times just to see if you’re paying attention.

Each time you need to ask for more information, you hesitate. Asking the wrong question might make it seem like you’re not taking the initiative on your own. It’s probably safer to just guess and hope for the best.

If your team feels like you don’t trust them, then they don’t trust you.

That’s not a recipe for success. Employees who feel this way are more likely to feel disengaged. They struggle to stay productive because they feel demotivated and unvalued.

Transparency helps fix that problem.

Keeping your workplace transparent is also great for remote productivity. Your team is better equipped to solve problems on their own, and the outcome of projects is more likely to align with your company goals.

Developing transparency is a long term process, but you can make positive changes immediately. Here’s how to get started.

  • Make the decision – For a lot of leaders, this is the hardest part. Transparency means admitting that you’re imperfect. The good news is that your team already knows that you have weaknesses, and owning your shortcomings just makes them believe in you more.
  • Use all-hands meetings wisely – Your remote team isn’t around to see what you’re working on. Use company-wide meetings to share updates on your progress and your future plans. Talk about your goals and your strategy to reach them. Afterwards, be open to feedback and ideas.
  • Record all meetings – People miss meetings sometimes. If you record all your meetings, you can keep those people in the loop. Plus, you can look back and see exactly what was discussed and decided.
  • Discuss important topics in public channels – If you need to discuss something that’s important for the entire team, make sure to discuss it in a public channel. This doesn’t necessarily need to involve a meeting. Slack channels are great for this.

5. Make it easy for team members to talk to you

Whether you’re striving for full transparency or not, it’s still crucial to make sure your team can talk to you.

There are two parts to this.

First, make sure your team is comfortable approaching you. If your team doesn’t trust that they can talk to you safely, they won’t reach out.

Try using a tool like OfficeVibe that gives your team a way to share anonymous feedback. Some people may not believe that it’s truly anonymous, but others will feel safe enough to be honest.

You know you have some work to do as a leader when the anonymous feedback is very different from the things people say to you directly.

Second, give your team plenty of practical ways to get in touch.

Consider creating specific office hours when your team is invited to send you a chat or schedule a call. Post in a public channel at the beginning of your office hours to remind your team that you’re open and available.

If people are still hesitant, suggest topics. Ask if anyone wants to discuss your latest company goals or ask for people to give you ideas for team building activities.

Stay open to emails, video calls, direct messages, public messages, phone calls, or whatever other communication method your employees feel comfortable with. Especially when you first begin to build trust, try not to shut down any attempts to connect.

6. Set specific hours for collaboration

One of the advantages of remote work is that you can hire around the world. You have access to the best talent, no matter where they live.

That means that you may hire across different time zones.

Even if your entire team works from the same general area, schedules may not always match up.

Some people may need to start and finish earlier to accommodate their children’s school schedules. Others may prefer to get most of their work done at night while their partner is available to take care of the family.

It’s important to respect personal time. But you need a certain amount of overlapping work time to get things done as a team, too.

At Hubstaff, our schedules are flexible, but we ask that everyone is available during certain hours of the day. This works well for us and for thousands of other businesses.

You might decide that your team needs to be online from 8 AM until 5 PM in your local time. That’s okay. If that’s the case, don’t send messages or emails outside of those hours unless it’s a real emergency.

If you work with multiple time zones or offer more flexibility, set specific hours when your team should be online and available. For example, you can ask everyone to work between 9 AM and 1 PM in your local time, and anything outside of that is at the employee’s own discretion.

Schedule meetings only during this time so that you respect your team’s personal priorities.

The more time zones in which you hire, the smaller that window should be. As you grow, you may have to schedule all-hands events at two different times to accommodate people who live around the world.

7. Allow team members to focus

You’ve just set your collaboration hours. Now, give your team some room to focus on deep work.

Some teams set aside certain days of the week when meetings are off limits. You can create deep work hours at specific times and instruct your team to turn off notifications unless there’s an emergency.

For example, each day from 3 PM until 5 PM can be deep work time with no messages or meetings allowed.

You can also leave it up to the individual. Let employees turn off notifications for up to three hours per day as long as they’re logged in and have a status that tells their teammates that it’s deep work time. When notifications are muted, Slack allows you to bypass that setting if it’s an emergency.

The goal is to give your team room to get into a flow state.

Being in a state of flow increases productivity, boosts creativity, and helps people learn faster. It’s one of the great advantages of remote work — while working in a busy office, it’s much harder to get in this productive mindset.

8. Make your meetings super effective

Did you schedule a lot more meetings when you went remote? If so, it’s okay. A lot of people made the same mistake.

When your team goes remote, it’s natural to try to stay connected by scheduling a bunch of check-ins and status calls.

You don’t need those. There are better ways to keep in touch. Hubstaff Tasks can even automate your daily Standups so that you can get out of your team’s way while staying more informed than ever.

Nobody wants to attend a meeting that could have been an email or quick Slack exchange.

Even if the meeting is short, the interruption takes the wind out of your sales. You waste time and energy trying to get back to what you were doing before.

When you really do need to meet, respect your team’s time and mental energy by planning ahead. Save this list and make sure your meeting matches all of these criteria.

  • Only invite people who absolutely need to attend – Think about which team members really need to attend the meeting. Don’t invite anyone who doesn’t need to be there. This will help save everyone’s time. Since you’re going to record the meeting anyway, you can always bring someone up to speed later if needed.
  • Have an agenda ready – All effective meetings use an agenda. Your meeting agenda should include a list of talking points and the goal of the meeting. Brainstorming is rarely a good use of meeting time. Have a clear, actionable goal and focus on that.
  • Make it short – Most meetings take longer than they need to. Use your agenda to estimate how long you need, then only schedule that time. Stick to the start and end items strictly. If you still haven’t achieved your goal, you probably need to do more work on your own before calling another meeting.
  • Engage participants – If someone sits quietly through an entire meeting, they shouldn’t have been there at all. Remind your team that they were included in this appointment for a reason and ask them to contribute.
  • End with clear next steps – Assign action items and go to work. Make sure you update your task management software with the decisions and next steps you reached.

9. Schedule non-work-related communication

If you want team members to develop great relationships, you need to give them some space for casual conversations. Here are a few ways you can do that:

  • Create Slack channels on non-work-related topics – At Hubstaff, we have channels like #what-to-play, #what-to-listen-to, and #hobbies. These give team members a chance to talk about stuff they’re passionate about with their coworkers.
  • Pair team members for weekly calls – Some team members might never get a chance to interact due to how you set up your workflow. Pair team members randomly every week and schedule a call for them to get to know each other better.
  • Virtual coffee breaks – Schedule virtual coffee breaks where team members can get together on a video call and just chat about whatever’s on their mind.

Virtual team building activities aren’t practical on a weekly basis, but you can do them quarterly or monthly depending on the size of your team. Try getting together to solve a virtual murder mystery or ask one of your employees to host a casual cooking class on Zoom.

Hubstaff team member Nelson Haraguchi taught teammates how to make temaki.

Connecting takes effort. Even if your employees used to work together in an office, their relationships will fade away as they work at a distance without talking.

Remote culture takes constant maintenance. Put in the time and effort to make sure people are connecting.

If a formerly popular Slack channel is starting to die, take it upon yourself to post regularly. Start conversations.

At the end of smaller meetings or one-on-ones, chat about what’s going on in your employees’ lives. Try to connect with their interests. You can encourage them to mention their recent snowboarding trip or their kid’s dance recital to another employee with a similar interest.

It’s worth the investment to have an employee who focuses on team building. They can be a full time human resources person or just an employee with a passion for human connection.

Do the work to keep your team connected with each other and remote communication will get a lot easier.

Create a remote communication policy

This is a lot of information about remote communication. You should write it down.

In other words, create a written policy that tells your team what kind of communication habits you expect. Define things like:

  • Expected response time – Tell your team how long they have to answer different types of messages. For example, it’s okay to let emails sit for a couple of days before you respond, but Slack messages should usually be addressed within a business day.
  • Channel-appropriate communication – Talk about how to use Slack channels correctly. Lay out the rules for comments in your task management software. Explain when an email is the best choice versus a Slack message.
  • Meetings – Include information on how, why, and when meetings take place. If you expect everyone to use headphones and have their webcam on, specify that here.

The goal here is to answer all the questions your team might ask.

How do you know what questions your team has? That’s easy. Ask them.

This is a good place to start working on transparency. Tell your team that you’re creating a new remote communication policy and explain why you think it’s a good idea. Invite them to ask questions and share suggestions for things they would like to see included.


Need help creating your own remote communication policy?

Download our Hubstaff Communication Manifesto for free to help you get started.



Next Steps

There’s a lot of information in this article. Bookmark it so that you can come back to it later.

Now, here’s what you should do next.

  1. Talk to your team. Explain that you’re creating a remote communication policy and you’d like their help. You can even share this article with them for reference.
  2. Download the Communication Manifesto for inspiration. It’s a detailed document that we at Hubstaff use to guide all of our team communication. Use it to help you decide what you need to include in your own policy.
  3. Start a list of questions, concerns, and policies that you know you want to address with your team. Do this in a Google Doc or Google Sheet so that others can collaborate as needed. This is your starting point.
  4. When you’re ready, start fleshing out the details of your remote communication strategy. Make sure your team is in the loop. After all, this is about communication.

Looking for more tips on managing a remote team? Here are a couple of resources to help.

No Excuses: The Definitive Guide to Managing a Remote Team

The Most Important Soft Skills for Managers & How to Develop Them