Communication in Remote Teams


Monday, March 6, 2017

I recently did an Escape room with my family and four other strangers we had never met before. After some brief instructions, the game managers gave us one key piece of advice, “...and remember, you must communicate with one another.”

Forty-five minutes later, with fifteen minutes to spare, we successfully exited the escape room. I stopped one of the game managers.

“Do only 30% of teams make it out? Or did you invent that statistic earlier to motivate us?”

“No, really, very few teams make it out. People just...they don’t communicate. That’s where almost all of them fail,” she responded, shaking her head slightly.

What is Good Team Communication
Webster’s Dictionary defines communication as “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior.”

If you’ve ever worked on something “not-alone”, you know how very important this information exchange is for teams.

In healthcare, where good team communication can save lives (and bad communication can do the opposite), researchers have identified some factors important for good information exchanges:

  • Routine, open communication
  • Clear roles, tasks and accountability
  • Shared responsibility for team success
  • Healthy conflict resolution
  • Established decisionmaking processes
  • Trust and respect among team members

Remove any of these foundational pieces, and both communication and outcomes suffer.

What’s Difficult About Remote Communication
But what about when your teammates are halfway across the globe, not halfway across your desk or the hallway? Doesn’t that change things?

It does and it doesn’t.

Excellent remote communicators observe the basic elements of good team communication (remote team communication is, after all, team communication), but they also take a few other factors into account.

These factors, relatively unique to remote teams, add an extra layer of complexity to normal communication challenges. While there are certainly more factors than the ones I’ve listed below, these are three of the most common and most difficult communication challenges for remote teams:

  • Information is primarily exchanged in writing. Depending on context and the subject of conversation, much (some would even argue most) of communication is nonverbal. If you primarily communicate via written methods then, identifying correct context and achieving correct interpretation can be an enormous challenge.
  • Remote teams can be very diverse. Remote companies can hire talent from all over the world. This means teams often include cultural, gender, age, organizational, historical, and functional diversity (and that’s not an exhaustive list). While diversity can be a big strength for remote teams, it can easily become a big communication hurdle as well.

“There is no law in the universe claiming that others will understand what you’re saying simply because you understand it yourself.” - Scott Berkun

  • Timezone barriers. Inevitably, a diverse geographical team means teammates working in various timezones. Some coworkers may share similar work schedules while others may only overlap for an hour or two (or not at all). If managers aren’t careful, this can really compound the potential difficulties of written information exchange and diversity.

Overcoming the Difficulties of Remote Communication
Many companies advocate and run highly productive remote teams though, so these three challenges aren’t insurmountable. Even better news, there are some pretty practical steps any team member can take to boost communication in remote teams.

Here are a few ideas, both from my own experience and others, on how you can work to improve information exchange:

1. Listen. This is especially important in very diverse teams. Listen to your teammates and encourage them to share information on their backgrounds, their previous team experiences and how they prefer to communicate most days. Does a teammate’s culture influence how they approach conflict? What about how they make decisions? Identifying these subtleties, and knowing how to manage them, can be very beneficial during conflict.
Implement It: Make it a personal goal to have regular (formal or informal) 1-on-1s with teammates you work with often. Find some questions (like from this list of 1-on-1 questions or these non-awkward ones) ahead of time to help you get to know your teammates and how they navigate conversations. Take a few minutes after each meeting to write down anything new you learned about that person, their personality, or communication style (this will help you remember it).

“A good communicator is aware of both internal processes in themselves, and external processes in others” - John Bradshaw

2. Make use of all forms of communication, including in person. Just because most of your communication may be written doesn’t mean all of it needs to be. Assess the communication channels open to you (e.g. chat, email, phone, video, text, in person) and determine which channels are most effective for different conversations.
Implement It: Outline all types of communication available to your team. Then outline which types of conversations are most effective for each type. Keep this list handy and even bring it up with your team at some point to see whether they agree or would add anything.(Bonus tip: when you have non-written conversations on important topic, summarize the main points for the rest of the team - team members are more likely to discuss and repeat important information when everyone is in the loop.)

3. Communicate often (more often than you’d guess) about a wide variety of topics. While it’s important to talk about work, it’s also important to talk more casually with your teammates. Research implies that teams who build personal connections are more effective. This is why many successful companies advocate water cooler slack channels and other creative ideas that encourage informal conversations.
Implement It: Create a dedicated Slack channel for non-work talk or set aside 15 minutes before team meetings to catch up with one another.

4. Establish shared processes, goals, routines, and vocabularies. Or, if these are existing, make sure you make use of them. Shared team elements help with context, relaying complex information in short periods of time, and can even help remove common roadblocks like lack of clarity and role confusion.
Implement It: Identify useful processes and routines for your team. Outline how you can more efficiently incorporate these or (if they’re pretty bad) how managers can improve these. If your team has a tough time working through critical issues, think about encouraging teammates to use the SBAR technique or some other model that organizes complex thoughts.

Lastly, depending on your team size and culture, not all of these ideas may be applicable to you. For this reason, one other thing I’d encourage you to do is keep an eye out for how other organizations (similar to yours) are overcoming these hurdles. I assure you, it’s possible to make the leap!

P.s. If you’re interested in further reading or helpful tools, check out HelpScout’s tips for keeping a remote team connected, their excellent list of remote resources, how Zapier builds strong teams despite physical distance, and Auth0’s wonderfully helpful tips on remote working.

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