You’d probably agree that while remote teams are the future, managing remote communication when people are spread around the world can be a massive challenge.
The possibilities that remote work offers are amazing, but asynchronous communication sometimes leaves you hanging because you are not sure if the right messages have gotten through to everyone on your team.
You might be thinking that co-located teams are much better at that, but that’s not always the case. Your people could be working shoulder to shoulder and still experience psychological distance that prevents them from functioning like a well-oiled mechanism.
Excelling at communication for distributed teams follows the same principles that good office-based communication should. As a remote team manager, you need to shorten that distance by fostering a feeling that your team members are creating something great together.
At Hubstaff, we have been working remotely for eight years, and have learned what makes for great communication as well as where teams can fall short.
Here are the things you can do to improve communication in remote teams, based on psychology and our very own practical experience.
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How to make remote communication a success in 8 steps
1. Use the right tools
According to HubSpot, email is the main communication channel used by remote teams. The problem with emails is that people find it acceptable to postpone email answers, as the cost of hitting ‘reply’ is seemingly a lot of wasted time.
When leading a remote team, you need to be quick and precise at the same time. Emails lack the features and user experience required to do this, but there are apps that — when used together — boost communication and collaboration by a massive amount.
For instant messaging and team-wide discussions: Slack
Slack is a great messaging app with a pleasant and hassle-free user interface. It lets you chat with team members in real time, create channels for different projects or departments, and keep conversations organized with threads within messages.
For video conferences: Zoom
We’re not fans of regular video meetings, but when they are absolutely necessary, Zoom is one of the best conferencing tools around. Zoom is supported on web and mobile, which means availability won’t be a big issue. Team members can join in at any point during the meeting, share screens together at the same time, and interact with ongoing presentations.
For collaboration and project management: Hubstaff Tasks
Hubstaff Tasks is designed for remote teams by a remote team. It is built upon Agile principles, making it the ideal tool for smooth and efficient collaboration. Easily assign tasks to team members, track which project stage each task is in, and notify teammates by communicating within tasks.
The Sprints feature makes it easy to prioritize the right tasks so your team is able to meet project goals on time. Automated Stand-ups make it easy for your team to report accomplishments and if they experienced any roadblocks so you can help them get back on track.
For time tracking and team management: Hubstaff
Tracking their team’s progress is an issue faced by most remote teams. While they can ask their team members, that would be a huge waste of time — not to mention no one likes it. Hubstaff has keyboard and mouse tracking, app and URL monitoring, and an optional screenshots feature that allows you to see what your team is working on.
Hubstaff tracks the time you spend on your projects so you can understand how your team works. Having an idea of how work is being done means less time spent on asking for updates and more time on moving tasks forward.
2. Clarify the purpose of your communication tools and their use
It’s often understood that if a team works remotely, you need to compensate for the physical distance with as much communication as possible. But even if you had the means to communicate, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to constantly speak with each other throughout entire shifts.
It’s not about the quantity of exchanges and the number of channels, but about the quality and emotional value of the shared information. If you are holding various regular meetings just for the sake of having them, they will turn into a huge time-wasting machine. What’s worse, they might instill the wrong idea about meetings in your team members’ heads.
The key to overcoming this pitfall is to select a few online communication tools, but use their powers in the right way. To this end, you also need to be clear about why you need the tool and how you all agree to use it. For example, if you see that video chats work well for your team, choose one channel, and hold regular get-togethers with a well-defined agenda there.
3. Encourage team bonding through remote team building activities
Water cooler talks and quick conversations with a colleague across the table are absent in remote teams. And even with online communication channels, sometimes all you talk about is work, which only contributes to the feeling of being disconnected from each other.
Team building activities are essential to remote teams, perhaps even more so than office teams. While an organized workflow and disciplined team members are often enough to keep the business running, creating bonds between everyone in the organization can help your business reach its maximum performance capacity.
It’s a good idea to set up remote team building activities on a regular basis. This provides everyone a chance to take a break from work and get to know teammates beyond the professional level. These activities will not only refresh their mind, but will also make communicating with each other smoother and more natural.
Even better, you can schedule annual retreats in different countries for short (but meaningful) vacations. Nothing strengthens personal connections as effectively as unique shared experiences.
After a few days of enjoying each other’s company — and understanding more about your personalities — you’ll notice a more positive vibe in your communication channels. As a result, productivity and quality of performance also increase.
4. Give your team freedom of speech
Remote communication isn’t meant to just make reporting work easier. It’s also meant to make everyone feel that they have a voice, and that their opinions are equally valued as everyone else’s.
It’s important for your team members to feel that they will be heard if they need to speak up. Just because it isn’t about a big project update or an impressive statistics report doesn’t mean they aren’t worth listening to.
Remember, anyone in your team could have an idea that could be a big game-changer for your business. If your team doesn’t have the freedom to share their insights — or worse, feel that these insights are unimportant — you’re putting the team at risk of internal collapse.
5. Find the right candidates for your remote team
Determining if someone is right for your team can be a challenge, mainly because success in remote teams is more dependent on the work personalities of its members than each one’s professional capabilities.
In the office, people go in, do their jobs, and leave when they’re done. On the other hand, working remotely involves a lot more personal characteristics — such as discipline, honesty, and initiative — to be truly effective.
When you interview a candidate for your team, don’t just look at the number of years they have worked, or the biggest projects they have accomplished.
Ask them if they can work well with people in different timezones, or if they can perform consistently even without being fed instructions most of the time. When interviewing candidates, your priority should be their work ethic and how they’re going to blend in with your remote team culture. Skills can be taught, but character can’t.
6. Make it easy for your team to talk to you
Imagine that you’re working in a large corporation, and you want to speak with a senior manager.
You’re going to tell your team leader, who will then tell the project manager, who will then try to find a suitable schedule for a meeting — if they decide that your concern is worth their time at all. That’s a lot of time wasted on seemingly endless email threads and “formal” conversations.
If someone in your team wants to talk to you, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to. Rather than being the commanding and untouchable presence nobody really enjoys being around, be the leader who is willing to engage in short and small talks.
Your team should have the means of — and be comfortable with — sending you an instant message for whatever concern without worrying if you’re even going to read it. The easier you make it for your team to contact you, the more they’re going to feel that they are in a good place.
7. Stay on top of team scheduling
One of the best — and the most challenging — things about distributed work is that team members often work across time zones. It can be quite tough to keep smooth communication and collaboration running if you haven’t taken this into account.
But with smart planning, you can make time zones work for your team’s productivity. You just have to create a system in which the work just completed in one timezone feeds into the to-do list of the person in the next one who is just waking up.
That’s how projects can be completed in record time, as different team members will be working around the clock.
8. Create space for authentic and emotional exchanges
After finding the best channel for remote communication that matches the specificities of your team and optimizing scheduling for different time zones, it’s time to get deeper into team psychology.
Yes, we’re talking about truly putting effort into shortening that psychological distance between team members.
Informal exchanges can be difficult for distributed teams because there is no physical proximity, and we all get that. But at the same time, we shouldn’t get so caught up in the problematic aspect of ‘distance.’
Even in offices nowadays, people find online communication as a great way to get friendlier with colleagues without the social anxieties that sometimes accompany face-to-face communication in an ‘official’ setting.
As a team leader of distributed workers, you can create the mental space and offer the tools for people to freely engage in more emotional exchanges. It’s a smart and truly pleasant way of shortening the psychological distance between coworkers.
Ready to rock your team’s remote communication?
While managing a distributed team can be daunting, there are tried and proven ways of improving remote communication and team chemistry despite physical distance.
The best approach is to constantly turn challenges into opportunities — whether it’s time zones or the lack of face-to-face exchanges.
What are your top hacks to mastering communication for distributed teams? We’d love it if you shared them with us.
This post was updated May 2020.