- 9 min read
A guide on distributed team communication
So, your company is going global, and that’s exciting! But as it grows, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain effective remote communication. Distributed teams come in all shapes and sizes, bringing with them great heterogeneity, flexibility, cultural diversity, and capacity for innovation. Each one is different, and, consequently, there’s no universal template for building top-tier remote team communication. There are, however, ways to avoid making the most common mistakes.
How to communicate within a remote team: eleven essential rules
Let’s dive right in and explore eleven essential rules for uninterrupted, efficient communication with your distributed squad.
- Over-plan. If a little bit of thinking in advance goes a long way, this is doubly true when your team occupies multiple time zones and locations.
- Communicate without obstruction. Establish a comprehensive information flow throughout your distributed team.
- Find the right time. Teams waking up and going to bed at different times are naturally out of sync. Schedule to accommodate and coordinate your various remote team members so that communication can be efficient.
- Guidelines matter. Set up clear guidelines and expectations, and confirm that your team understands them.
- Set a regular reporting procedure. Don’t rely on random disclosures and announcements; your virtual team needs to know precisely how and when to prepare and present important information.
- Engender a feedback culture. Create a constructive, transparent, two-way feedback environment.
- Show up (virtually). Require full online “presence” from both yourself and all your team members.
- Plan in-person time. Arrange valuable in-person meetings. Modern technologies may have extended our ability to connect, but nothing can replace in-person communication, especially in a time of social distancing.
- Minimize Remote FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Engender trust and mutual respect among your team members, regardless of whether they’re in-house or remote.
- Be a cultural diplomat. Neglecting cultural differences can ruin the trust within your team.
- Use simple language. Leave aside complicated or colloquial words and phrases that only native speakers can understand, and opt instead for straightforward, clear speech.
That’s the skeleton of our approach. Now, let’s put some meat on these bones.
If in-house teams benefit from thorough planning, distributed teams stand to gain even more. Create and distribute a concise, understandable action blueprint ahead of time. Avoid vague terminology such as “ASAP,” “in your own time,” or “whenever you have a chance” — expressions that can kill efficiency even for an in-house team. When you’re not in the middle of a busy office, feeling the urgency and priority of your tasks, you need specific, hard deadlines. Finally, double-check to make sure all your team members comprehend and are on schedule to complete work assignments. Coherent plans and concrete due dates will lead to success.
Communicate without obstruction
Remote work shouldn’t make your team feel like Tom Hanks in Castaway, stranded on a desert island, muttering away to a volleyball for company.
Communication is, in the words of Automattic founder (creator of WordPress), Matt Mullenweg, “the oxygen of a distributed company.” Err on the side of over-communicating, repeat things, ask for confirmation that your message reached your teammate. Better too much oxygen than not enough.
- COMMS TECH
Use Slack, Trello, Skype, Google Meetings, and any other communication tech you think will help to keep everyone connected.
- Slack. Digital version of the office watercooler. Hang out here with your colleagues to gossip, share photos, post GIFs, or even collaborate on a work-related question(!). Create separate channels for different purposes, choose who to add. Downside: without a Premium subscription, messages older than a week get deleted.
- Google Meet. Want a virtual face-to-face? Google Meet lets you create a unique meeting link ahead of time, and now facilitates multiple simultaneous screen-shares.
- Google Drive. Create folders, share documents, presentations, and photos while commenting on and editing each other’s work. Dropbox lets you do these things too, but offers far less free storage than Google Drive.
- Trello. Kanban platform that helps you organize and track your daily tasks and those of your team members. Trello lets you create boards with columns and put tasks into separate cards. Assign cards to individuals, update them with comments and work in progress, and mark their completion. Jira (another Kanban tool) has similar features, but it’s more specifically tailored to software dev teams and IT professionals.
Finally, while you can’t control app crashes and bluescreens, you can pretest before your call to make sure that:
- your internet connection is stable and secure (if it’s available, cable is more reliable than Wi-Fi);
- your communication app’s video and audio (camera and microphone) are set up correctly.
No app is perfect, but it’s possible to optimize its performance. Make sure that your conversation can last as long as necessary.
Find the right time
If you’re lucky, you can nearshore your remote team so that all members live in the same or similar time zone/s — waking up and going to bed around the same time, possibly even having the same holidays. But it’s increasingly common for members to be offshored all over the globe. Finding universally agreeable meeting times for remotely distributed teams can be challenging. You may prefer daily stand-ups right after your morning espresso, but your dedicated team across the ocean may have just gone to bed. Make sure you coordinate your team’s schedule so everyone can participate and collaborate, wherever they are.
Find tools that help. World Time Buddy website, for example, can display the time zone of every remote team member, and helps find the most suitable team communication window. Sharing calendars is also a good idea.
Providing precise, concrete guidelines for your project at the start can help your team understand their tasks and goals, develop efficiently, and succeed. Check in with each team member during the onboarding process to ensure that they understand the project, its milestones and targets, and how they will contribute to its success. Verifying team understanding up front can preempt a frustrating cycle of misunderstanding, inefficiency, and possibly even failure.
In particular, make sure your remote team grasps not only project details but also day-to-day procedures, who has responsibility for what, the reporting process, and daily stand-up and feedback session schedules. Use online tools, like Trello or Jira, to help your team members visualize and intuit the work process.
Set a regular reporting procedure
Reporting is a logical and essential extension of proper planning. Once you’ve established clear goals, ensure your team members provide regular, scheduled reports on outcomes. Trust is essential to the success of a distributed team, and can be tricky to establish at a distance. While an overly cumbersome reporting process can threaten to undermine that trust, reasonable accountability only helps encourage it. Insisting on regular reports reassures your team members that you follow through on your commitments, as they should theirs.
Engender a feedback culture
In-person, daily contact and collaboration can help engender the trust required for team members to receive feedback constructively. In-house feedback sessions are, therefore, usually easier than remote ones. To avoid the whole process devolving into unproductive negativity and reactivity, a remote team manager must carefully and thoroughly explain their team member observations. Instead of sending abrupt, demanding, “rewrite code!” pop-ups to your developers, take time to talk your remote team members through your thoughts and concerns. Reveal the logic behind your corrections, solicit their opinions, notice and celebrate their successes. If you follow these guidelines, your feedback sessions will go more smoothly, your team members will be more forthcoming, and with time you’ll create tighter team bonds and trust.
Show up (virtually)
Whether in feedback sessions or more generally, in-person communication conveys more information than from a distance. Indeed, remoteness usually reveals the importance (by their absence) of non-verbal signals and simple presence. Just being in the same room can build a sense of ease among a team. Of course, from time to time we all need space, but the in-person smile or laughter of a colleague, the confident but humble manner of a team lead, or the calm demeanor of a coworker can provide the baseline conditions for trust.
It’s much harder to perceive these unspoken, sometimes unconscious reassurances when you’re working remotely. If someone’s Skype video is turned off or isn’t working, it begs questions. Is the team member busy with something else? Are they not listening at all, or nodding reassuringly? A distributed team’s trust at a distance is fragile. Insist that team members show up in all their audio-visual splendor(!). Be present yourself, encourage full presence from your team, and make the most of your time together.
Plan in-person time
Still, making sure everyone can see and hear each other on video calls only goes so far towards creating group trust and cohesion. To feel connected, people need time together, having a laugh over a pint, taking a stroll, grabbing a bite. In-person teams inspire each other. If you want to create a friendly atmosphere and maintain business alignment, in-person time is essential. As our client Upptec likes to say, “The state of productivity requires inspiration rather than coercion, and it’s difficult to achieve it remotely”.
Cost reduction is a great advantage of distributed organization, but flying to see your remote team every three months is still far less expensive than brick-and-mortaring everyone in the same place. Run the calculations on this. You’ll see.
It’s December 2020 as we write this. Remote work and social distancing have become the new normal. We are, of course, more careful about hygiene, and meet in-person far less often. Still, depending on where you are, it may be possible to meet your team in-person, or least start planning to.
Minimize Remote FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)
Treating people equally should be a cornerstone of your distributed team. Trust is essential to productive teamwork, and trust relies on equal treatment and mutual respect, regardless of a team member’s proximity.
Here are three things that can serve as a foundation for equal, trustful relations:
Appreciate your remote team’s work, listen to them carefully, and act fairly.
Bear in mind remote team time differences when scheduling meetings. As much as possible, let your distributed team pick a time that works better for them.
Let your remote team know you prioritize their work and concerns and defend their interests at higher levels of your organization.
It’s easy to develop a preference for your in-house over your remote devs. You spend more time together and, as a natural result, probably collaborate more. As a team leader, you need to consciously work against this. Remote team members can easily feel discouraged and vulnerable if they notice a bias. Make every effort to include your remote members in as much in-house activity as possible. Why not keep a virtual meeting room open and live-stream the office to everyone remote? If everyone’s remote, schedule work sessions and just hang out online. Reduce remote FOMO to a minimum. Your remote devs will appreciate your efforts.
It’s true that distributed teams often present more communication challenges than in-house ones. We would go so far as to say managing a remote team is a litmus test of your management skills. But it is also rewarding, exposing you to the new realities and diversities of our current working world. A remote team introduces new sources of inspiration and new efficiencies that, as a manager, you are in a perfect position to optimize, to everyone’s advantage.
Be a cultural diplomat
Remote work brings different cultures and languages together, at an increasingly accelerated pace. Everyone’s behavior is learned in a specific context that imbues it with a particular meaning and significance that are sometimes lost in translation to another cultural context. When different cultures meet, misunderstanding is inevitable. With a little research, we can reduce the potential awkwardness and unintentional offense. Reach out to someone and ask them if they can help you understand something you don’t.
In our opinion, cultural diplomacy is mostly about being open-minded, deferring judgment, not jumping to conclusions. If a remote team member behaves unexpectedly, there’s no need to react. Take a breath. Ask a simple question if you don’t understand. Tolerance and respect permit us to explore and enjoy the rich diversity of our various cultures.
Use simple language
In multilingual environments, distributed teams communication can get very complicated, very quickly. We recommend you set (and follow!) some specific rules:
- Native/fluent speakers should dial down their fluency, avoid idioms, use straightforward diction. Listen actively. Rephrase complicated sentences. Ask clear and concise questions.
- Non-native speakers should always be actively encouraged to participate in discussions, comment, and share their opinions. If your meeting environment is open and friendly, they’ll eventually find their place. Still, remain prudent. Repeat things for clarity, and make a practice of asking whether everyone understands.
- Team leaders should actively coordinate the communication process: command an environment of openness, cut off unnecessarily long oratory, encourage collective discussions, and stick to the schedule at hand.
All eleven of these guidelines are meant to serve the same goal: building an effective, productive communication within your distributed team. We hope you find them useful. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with us and discuss. And check out our other tips for creating a successful software development team in our ultimate guide.