When you manage a global remote team, your employees aren't communicating across cubicle walls or around the water cooler; instead, they're communicating across oceans, time zones, languages, and cultures.
Remote team communication can be as effective as that of teams in traditional office settings (sometimes even more so), but it takes careful planning, along with a little trial and error.
Remote workers, especially those that hadn't experienced the WFH (work-from-home) or WFA (work-from-anywhere) lifestyle prior to 2020, reported that the biggest change to their work experience was in the way they communicated with colleagues.
Whether you're operating a fully distributed, experienced team of remote workers, or you're adding employees who are new to this style of work, communication can be a challenge. We're here to share some of our best practices for making your remote communications smooth and seamless. But first:
What Are the Biggest Gaps in Remote Communication?
Well before COVID-19 forced a widespread shift to remote work, the Harvard Business Review was on top of the emerging remote trend. The publication outlined some of the most significant barriers to effective communication within remote teams. There are three types of distance between remote workers, and they include:
This denotes the actual distance between team members. It could span only a couple of miles, or it could span entire countries. Physical distance also includes time, which is a tough one for distributed teams to tackle, especially if they have employees working in different time zones.
Operational distance is more high-level. This includes the difference between employee skill sets, education, ability, and bandwidth. Not all of your team members will be on equal footing here, and it can contribute to a communication breakdown.
Affinity is defined as the distance between team members in terms of values, trust, and interdependency. While the other types of distance are relatively easy to overcome, this one is the most crucial to closing the communication gap. The best way to do that is to take a hard look at your remote work culture and find areas for improvement.
Best Ways to Close the Communication Gap on Remote Teams
Fortunately, there are many ways to bridge the distance between employees, whether that distance is measured in physical location, operational abilities, or team affinity. Here are some of the best practices across the remote work landscape, including those we've put to the test (and have proven effective) on the First Page team.
#1: Figure Out Where You Are and Where You Want to Be
The Five Levels of Remote Work is a pyramid that shows the progression of remote teams in terms of their communication style and efficacy.
Level 1 is where traditional office spaces may find they are, where no action is taken to adapt to or welcome remote work. Level 2 is where many teams found themselves during 2020, attempting (with varying degrees of success) to operate exactly as they had when they were still in the office.
The adaptation period comes next, followed by embracing asynchronous communication (more on that in a bit). Finally, the remote team reaches the top of the pyramid and achieves nirvana. That's where we'd like to think we are at for First Page. But a word of caution: You aren't likely to reach one level and stay there. The goal is to journey upward, but you might find you move up and down the pyramid as your needs or your team evolves.
Use the pyramid to determine where your team is now, and create a plan to get to the next level. Make a big picture goal of what it will take to hit nirvana, then work back to build a plan to take you through each new level.
#2: Plan to Spend a Lot of Time at Level Two (Asynchronous Communication)
The good 'ol days of "this meeting could have been an email" are officially behind us (thank goodness). But in today's tech-savvy remote world, there are many email alternatives to ensure the right message is communicated, in the right way, at the right time.
Synchronous communication — that which happens in real time — is still valuable, but most remote teams will find it's more time-effective and productive to look at asynchronous communication.
Async is also a highly effective way for remote team members in different time zones and locations to communicate clearly with one another, on their own schedule. Some standard async communications may include:
- Scheduling a pre-written Slack message to send when an offline recipient logs back on
- Creating a video clip with Loom or a similar service to walk through screen-shared instructions, introduce new employees, or include team members in distant time zones in regularly scheduled meetings
- Recording an audio message with team updates, operational reminders, or other team-wide information
- Using Google Drive to collaborate on projects, edit documents, and create better visibility for all those involved
#3: Create a Culture of Communication
What's your remote work culture like? If it isn't built on a solid foundation, the cracks will soon begin to show. When you have team members from all parts of the globe, you must recognize that they come from different backgrounds. They may speak different languages and may have different approaches to how and when they work.
How do you avoid these misunderstandings? A great place to start is with your company's DEI policies and initiatives. Make it a goal to encourage team members to share as much of their culture and background as they're comfortable with, as this could lead to more open communications.
#4: Keep Your Virtual Office Doors Open
Working together in a remote virtual office can be challenging, but this is where it's critical that leaders are ready and willing to lead by example. Communicate with team members in the way you expect them to communicate with you and with their colleagues. Practice empathy, understanding, and compassion — most of the time, they will do the same.
We know that time is a hot commodity, so a total open-door policy may not work for you. If that's the case, be sure you're scheduling enough 1:1 time with team members who need it. This could be a brief monthly check-in, but even just a few minutes of your undivided attention will ensure they feel heard and valued.
If your team is growing and this isn't feasible, make sure you have a solid operational flowchart so all employees know to whom they report and who they need to communicate with when any issues arise. Delegate 1:1s to supervisors and managers who can then elevate issues to you when necessary.
#5: Tackle Your Tech Stack
What you communicate is important, but equally crucial is how and where you communicate it. Load your team's tech stack with the tools they need to communicate in the way that works best for them.
Messaging: At First Page, we lean heavily on Slack for daily communication. The great thing about Slack is that it's both sync and async. Team members can chat live when both parties are available or leave messages during colleagues' off-hours. With message scheduling and the capability to record both audio and video messages, it's probably our most-used tool. Slack also allows users to communicate within specific channels, so they only receive messages that are pertinent to them. They can set up huddles or initiate audio or video calls for live communications as well.
Project Management: Your project management tool should also facilitate easy and effective communications. We use ClickUp, a robust platform that allows us to collaborate across channels. Tagging helps ensure comments get to the right person, and the program helps us create a digital paper trail to stay on top of projects and make sure communications are being sent and received.
Collaborative Tools: This will vary depending on your industry and your specific needs, but cloud-based SaaS has made it easier than ever for teams to collaborate in the digital space. We use Figma for design, GatherContent for copywriting, and Google Drive for presentations, data spreadsheets, and more. This may also include a video conferencing tool, such as Zoom, for the occasional meeting. We try to keep those to a minimum, but our monthly video all-hands calls are a great way to communicate synchronously, see each other's faces, and share important company-wide news and updates.
Closing the Communication Gap Can Be Done; You Just Need to Build a Bridge
Think about the types of distance your remote team experiences, and look for ways to bridge those gaps. Plan a yearly team retreat, participate in a fun virtual course or activity together, and recognize team members' accomplishments in a space that allows others to see and acknowledge their good work. As a leader, remember that you set the tone.