How to Improve Your Remote Team's Communication

And it's not by organizing virtual happy hours

Cover image courtesy: People photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com

Remote teams are the future of work

Yes, COVID-19 reshaped how companies work globally, but the shift towards remote work has been coming for a long time. Even back in 2017, a study done by Gallup on the State of the American Workplace showed that 54% of office workers were willing to leave their job for one that offered flexible work time.

But does this new normal work style mean we have to be constantly on? Unending video conferences, Slack pings, emails; it can all get too much too fast. Haven’t you ever thought to yourself, “There has to be a way to improve remote team communication? There have to be best practices we can follow.”?

You aren’t alone! 

Working remotely needs a different communication paradigm; conversations need to be deliberate for remote teams to collaborate and work successfully.

So what’s in the way? What are the various virtual team communication challenges that companies face?

The Hurdles in Effective Remote Communication

Why is remote team communication difficult? 

The truth: There is no one answer. 

When working with co-workers in different time zones, the problem could be finding an ideal time for colleagues to speak.

Or it could be the lack of guidelines to follow when a team with 8-10 people is on a video conference, and everyone talks at the same time.

It could also be simply a case of miscommunication. The time it takes for someone to unmute themselves may be misunderstood as them being inattentive. 

When you are unable to see your colleagues face-to-face, it’s hard to read them. This can often cause issues due to the lack of body language, misunderstanding of the tone of voice, and even the lack of formality. Dr. Karen Lojeski, the founder of Virtual Distance International, explains this.

“There's something called same-as-me bias. So, in a typical situation, a more traditional situation, without a screen between us, if we sit down and start talking to each other, what ends up happening is we sit down assuming that we are just like each other, but in the blink of an eye, literally in fractions of a second, we start to realize, 'Wait a minute, we are not just like each other' and what that prompts us to do, behaviour-wise, is we start adjusting for the other person. We start changing our tone of voice; we start to change our cadence. We actually start to mimic how the other person is talking and treating us, and they are doing the same thing, and that helps us, but if who we see in the machine is ourselves, all day long, how do we break down the bias.”

Dr. Lojeski says three types of distances affect remote team communication: physical, operational, and affinity. Physical distance is because of geography and time zones; operational distance is a result of factors like differing skill levels, team size, and technological bandwidth; affinity distance is a result of issues that prevent your team from building close bonds, trust, and interdependency. 

So, what do you need to do then to improve communication in virtual teams? 

We’d say work on reducing affinity distance and make a conscious, deliberate attempt to stay connected. 

Improving Your Remote Team's Communication: What You Can Do

In January 2021, PWC conducted its Remote Work Survey. The results highlighted why when virtual work is increasing in popularity it’s also causing ineffective communication

For example, while 83% of employers said that the shift to remote work, post-pandemic, was successful for their company, the same report underlined that the widest gap was in training for managers leading remote teams. 

“As more and more of our interactions happen digitally, we will continue to experience new forms of miscommunication and misunderstanding. The solution will not come from new technologies (although, no doubt, developers will keep trying to bridge that gap). Instead, the solution is in understanding the new rules of engagement; in building a communication skill set that reflects the demands of our digitally-driven age.”

Erica Dhawan and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, How to Collaborate Effectively If Your Team is Remote, HBR

What can we do to make remote team communication and management of distributed and remote teams less challenging? Let’s take a look. 

#1 Invest in Good Technology

 We agree with the HBR quote we mentioned earlier; technology may not be the only answer. But it’s a massive part of the solution. We can’t refute the fact that you need an excellent remote communications toolkit for a high-performing, transparent, and cohesive team. 

Create a tech stack with remote team communication tools and platforms like shared cloud storage, video conferencing, instant messaging, emailing, and project management. This allows for seamless communication. 

But do remember that constant communication can be stressful and impact your team’s mental health.

Think about practicing asynchronous communication (sending messages or emails without expecting instant responses). Allowing conversation to flow through the day without everyone having to be on in a particular time window can ease stress.

#2 Have Clear Guidelines for Communication

This brings us to the importance of retraining team members in how to communicate with a remote team and each other. 

In remote and distributed teams, people develop unique schedules, especially when we are in a situation like the pandemic we are experiencing currently.

Right now, people are juggling several things at once; other family members also working from home, children who need homeschooling, loved ones who require care and comfort. Colleagues must be empathetic to each other. 

At the same time, setting expectations and deadlines can ensure that productivity is unhampered. As a team leader or a manager, you need to consider the challenges employees may face at home. 

Have an open dialogue. It can go a long way in alleviating stress and creating manageable project timelines. 

Create communication processes to save critical time and up productivity. Use specific communication channels for particular communication types; for example, a video conferencing tool for alignment meetings or daily standups, Trello or Jira for project management, email for notes, and Slack for critical communication or quick check-ins.

Gif by Team Tumult depicting a person using various forms of communication channels and devices at work
Gif Courtesy: Team Tumult via Giphy

Document your company’s communication processes. Creating these guidelines can help employees, new and old, to have ready access to information about how to communicate. 

#3 Talk over Video Calls

Sure, sending a quick message or an email is easier and doesn’t need you to schedule your conversation but take the time to talk to your team over video calls. 

Improving remote team communication requires a more engaged and interactive team, and video calls can do just that. How? By adding a human element to your conversations and allowing you to see each other. 

But take care not to over-schedule these calls. Ever heard of ‘zoom fatigue’ or ‘video call fatigue’? Continuously focusing on a screen, meeting after meeting, with minimal verbal cues can be stressful. A Microsoft study showed that resulting fatigue is noticeable in less than 30-40 minutes.

If you need to have multiple calls in a day, give team members the option to turn off the video. This is especially helpful for introverts and people more sensitive to stimuli. Be mindful. 

#4 Meet Regularly, Albeit Virtually

Do you miss having the entire team together to catch up on projects? We do, too. The next best alternative? Regular team meetings. 

Think about scheduling calls for the entire team to meet up regularly, say once a week or once in two weeks. These short meetings should have fixed goals and used to talk about project updates and team deadlines. 

You can also organize meetings that use a bursty communication style, where ideas are communicated and responded to quickly. These meetings usually don’t have a fixed agenda, with the goal being a rapid exchange of information. The idea is to encourage team members to align activities. 

“By designing systems that facilitate bursts of communication and collaboration among team members, employers can achieve higher quality collaboration in their teams, all while balancing employees’ desire to work remotely.”

BehavioralScientist.org

#5 Be Careful About Tone

Ever received a message in all caps and wondered, “Are they shouting at me?”. But ever paused to think that the message is in caps because the caps lock button was switched on by mistake? No, right? 

That’s the problem with remote communication. Your tone in a video call or while chatting has no resemblance to face-to-face conversations. The lack of body language in a video call or the lack of facial expressions can cause human beings to fill in the gaps with negative bias and assume the worst. 

So what do you do? Try to clarify the emotional tone of what you’re saying. But how? Simple. Use emojis, which can help manage the emotional tone of digital messages. 

Uncomfortable using emojis? Use descriptive words instead. So instead of saying “Okay” when asked to do something, say “Okay, absolutely! Happy to do this later today.” The word happy helps clarify your emotional tone. 

#6 Build Team Bond and Camaraderie

Of course, it’s important to discuss work and have proper communication about the same but as a team leader trying to enhance remote team communication, think about how you can build your team’s bond. 

It’s not enough to mimic in-person events and create virtual versions of coffee breaks and cocktail parties. While these have their benefits, like allowing people to have fun, they don’t necessarily build team bonds

An excellent virtual team-building activity that enhances communication and collaboration has clear learning outcomes.

For example, the virtual escape room that Skyrocket Your Team designed offers a collaborative experience with puzzles that require every participant to be involved. The solving of the escape room depends on clear communication. It’s followed by a debriefing session where team members talk about the activity, what they felt, what they learned, and how these reflections can translate to the work environment.

A view of role selection on Skyrocket Your Team: Each team member is allotted a specific role in the virtual escape room and success depends on seamless communication between team members.

Wrapping Up

If you want to get remote team communication right, it is essential to remember that the rules of the game have changed. Staying connected in a remote team does not have to be overwhelming.

Focus on remote team communication strategies and best practices like asynchronous communication, matching messages to channels, having a communication guideline document, allowing remote team members to have uninterrupted work time, and encouraging empathy. 

You can have better communication in a virtual team and effective and fruitful conversations. It’s just a matter of getting the balance right.

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