This post by Belle Beth Cooper marks the beginning of the “Remote Work Month” series on our blog. Throughout April, we will be publishing thought pieces by movers and shakers in the field of remote work, who will be sharing their best advice on how to make telecommuting and digital nomadism work for yourself and your team.
A few years ago I took my Melbourne-based content marketing job and ran off to London, effectively taking on a remote working role for the first time. While I was in London, I had my first interview for the role of Buffer’s first Content Crafter. I wrote an article for the Buffer blog and set up my second interview—which I did from an AirBnB in Paris.
By the time I spoke to Buffer’s CEO for my third, and final, interview, I was back in Melbourne. I stayed in Melbourne while working for Buffer, and later Ghost. I’ve also worked with companies based all over the U.S., Canada, and Australia.
This is what’s great about remote work. It gives you the freedom to balance work and life however it suits you best. And for employers, it opens up opportunities to hire great people you can’t find locally.
In all my remote work experience so far, I’ve come across a few problems that seem to commonly plague remote teams. Thankfully, a little awareness and more open communication can help you overcome most of these. But leave them to fester, and they can breed frustration and dissatisfaction among team members..@BelleBCooper on the 3 commonly overlooked problems affecting remote teams, and how to overcome them Click To Tweet
One of the double-edged swords of remote work is that you can hire people from all over the world. This opens you up to a bigger pool of candidates, and can make it easier to increase the diversity in your team.
On the other hand, timezones can be a huge problem for remote teams if your employees are too spread out. Karin Christen, managing partner at We are required, found this out the hard way when travelling the world while working remotely for her Switzerland-based company.
In both San Francisco and Hawaii, Christen found being 9–11 hours behind her team in Switzerland made her workday a lot harder:
To catch up with my team while having some real-time communication, I sometimes stayed awake until 2am and already had client meetings planned for 7am again. That was really exhausting. Additionally waking up having a whole Swiss work day in my inbox wasn’t easy. So I was confronted with over 50 emails each morning.
It was also difficult to keep up with work that was tightly coupled with Switzerland’s timezone:
Back then I was responsible for our service Freshjobs — a job board dedicated to web professionals working in Switzerland. We review each listing for quality before it gets published and that was a really hard job to do, because I had to make sure the listing goes public at swiss working hours but I was 11 hours behind! So I had to stay awake till late and wake up early to check the new job listings. Nowadays I would transfer the responsibility to a colleague in a better timezone.
For Christen, the best timezones offered roughly half a workday of overlap with the team in Switzerland, and half the day for focused work without interruptions. Being just a few hours behind, or several hours ahead hit the sweet spot for Christen.
Usually this means that they’re within a time zone of each other, but it might also mean that an engineer in Europe works evening hours so that her day overlaps with the working day of the rest of her team.
In my experience, lacking several hours of overlap each day can make the most well-intentioned communication efforts break down. Getting the go-ahead from a superior is a lot harder when you have to work around very different timezones, and can take away the employee autonomy that’s so important for remote teams.
- Require enough overlap to avoid isolation or communication problems.
- Test out new timezones thoroughly during a new hire’s trial period.
- Remember that overlap is most important for colleagues working in the same area (engineering, for instance, or support), and for direct superiors so employees can get their questions answered or get support when they need it.
The inconvenience of face time
Based on teams that are making remote work work, it’s clear that facetime is an important facet of remote communication. Even whole startups, like Sqwiggle, have popped up to improve this all-important aspect of remote working.
While I’m all for synchronous communication, it can take its toll if not orchestrated carefully. This comes back to timezones, but it also relates to personal lives and commitments outside work.
When team members are required to get up extremely early, stay up late, miss social events with friends, or give up important family time on a regular basis, it can wear on their commitment to the company and their health.
As team member Sergei from Hanno says, “Odd working hours, disruptive meetings and lack of careful planning can seriously affect work productivity, as well as people’s personal lives.” Sergei suggests that you “appreciate that they value their own flexibility just as you value yours.”
Sergei also suggests being flexible and looking for compromises when it comes to facetime.
If you’re the one working from 9–11pm one evening, your teammate should return the favour, getting up for an early morning meetup next time around. And of course, don’t forget to thank each other for your efforts.
Davide Casali, Product Experience Designer at Automattic, adds that being aware of what time of day it is for others in your synchronous meetings can go a long way:
If I’m aware it’s late for the other person, I do double effort to make it on time, even starting before if possible. If it’s early morning, I give time for the other person to arrive a bit late. We all know that Monday mornings can be difficult!
Fission Strategy CEO Cheryl Contee suggests being sensitive to mealtimes and school pickup times, as well as allowing team members joining meetings very early or late to use audio only:
Video is fantastic for closing the distance and facilitating info but if one of your team members has to call in at 6am or midnight, a little consideration that they may need to do the call in their pajamas goes a long way.
- Rotate meeting times so everyone takes turns being inconvenienced.
- Make it clear that you appreciate the sacrifice team members are making when they give up their Friday night or get up at 4am to be present in meetings.
- Find out more about what works and what’s inconvenient for each team member. Different situations mean different times of the day or week are most convenient.
- Try splitting your team into smaller groups to enable more convenient meeting times, and recording meetings so everyone can stay in the loop.
The perils of asynchronous communication
Nothing ruins productivity more than waiting around on your coworker, who might be asleep when you’re working. — Chris Byers, Formstack CEO
While asynchronous communication can make some things easier, like having big blocks of focused work time without interruptions, it can also cause issues. Asynchronous communication can lead to confusion when everyone’s not on the same page, or important issues can fall through the cracks due to time gaps in the conversation.
In an office, if someone isn’t responding to an email, it’s easy enough to stop by their desk and get what you need.
On a distributed team, that’s not really possible.
Of course, in a truly urgent situation, we won’t hesitate to call.
But for everything else, it means we have to be organized and diligent about tracking what we need from each other. And if getting that information or deliverable is an obstacle, we need to be able to switch tasks until we can get it.
It’s not the most efficient system.
While I think there’s a net positive impact on productivity from working remote, the communication barrier can, and sometimes does throw a wrench in the gears.
Headscape founder Paul Boag suggests implementing core hours when team members need to be contactable, even though they can work whenever suits them. This is more flexible than demanding everyone works during the same hours, says Boag, but will help to maintain team contact.
- Formalize your company’s approach to communication so everyone knows how to approach other team members, how to respond when they’re approached, and what time frame is appropriate when waiting for a response.
- Set expectations for new and existing employees of the amount of communication they’ll need to deal with on a regular basis and how to prioritize it all.
- Encourage teams or partnerships within your company to find the communication methods that suit them, rather than struggling with an approach they don’t like.
Remote working comes with as many pros and cons as working in an office does—there’s no commute, more flexibility, more trouble scheduling meetings, more communication problems… You won’t be able to avoid every single remote working issue, just as no office culture is perfect.
More insidious than most are these challenges that tend to be overlooked. Hiring across timezones can hurt productivity and increase feelings of isolation, unless you combat that with plenty of overlapping work hours. But don’t forget to work around the personal lives of your employees to make facetime more comfortable for them and their families.
And finally, try setting out hours during which everyone needs to be contactable, to increase the success of your team’s communication. Relying on asynchronous communication all the time can lead to trouble, as small misunderstandings build up over time.