Unless you’ve been under a rock for the past five years, you already know that the majority of American workers have some flex time and the number of remote teams is going up all the time. With that explosion, powered by the Internet, we’ve also seen a significant increase in remote team communication done right and horribly, horribly wrong.
No one wants to be in the latter category, so we’ve put together a quick guide to help new managers, new remote teams, and even established leaders looking to give their teams a little more flexibility. We’ll look at the needs specific to remote team communication and give you a quick list of tools to start your journey.
Good luck, your employees are going to love it.
1. Creating Rapport Clearly and Early
Remote teams miss out on many different communication elements people use in their daily lives. Body language, physical proximity, tone of voice, and gestures like waving hello or shrugging your shoulders don’t always come across in remote communications.
The simple ability to mute your mic or turn off the video on a call can remove these and more. There’s even less of it when you’re working via text in email or a chat service like Slack. There’s a strangeness to it that not everyone is comfortable with — there are risks of becoming too comfortable too where someone is openly rolling their eyes every time the boss speaks, and this carries over into that first in-person team meeting.
You and your team need to take proactive steps to avoid some of these pitfalls and potential disruptions with purposeful action. You’ll need to work to build rapport and establish a connection through your channels. Create a digital water cooler so people can gather and share.
Remember that all kinds of employees are going remote
Rapport is one reason most companies make good use of catch-all or “random” channels on chat services. Giving people a way to share all of the things not related to work — but that we still like to share at work — is a digital way to create these interpersonal connections. Photos of kids and pets, talking about a favorite show, and much more are easily accessible.
But always define what’s not okay, such as politics or other personal matters.
A few smart things to consider for your team include:
- Give people a chance to meet each other by scheduling meetings. Some recommend limiting these to 15 minutes.
- Practice and teach active listening so that people are engaged, and you can avoid miscommunications that lead to hurt feelings.
- Allow people to ask for clarification during meetings.
- Leadership sets the tone, so share but also limit your time and ask your team questions about themselves.
- Reach out to HR when you’re creating these interpersonal channels so you can limit or prevent any communications that might go against your culture or harm the team.
Remote teams still benefit from in-person meetings too, so when your team gets new leadership look for opportunities to do a retreat or other on-site event. These are an eventual goal but need a good foundation so that everyone is ready and excited to attend.
2. Building a Routine
Remote teams can operate extremely independently, even when all working on the same task. When working from home or coffee shops, people choose their own settings and environments. They’ve got quiet or hand-selected music and podcasts. Your favorite beverage is readily available in the fridge or from the counter. And when something comes up, there’s flexibility to do a load of laundry, run to the store, pick up the kids from school, or just take an extra few minutes.
Many remote workers love this about their jobs. It’s why employees routinely list this as one of their top two desired benefits and why two-thirds of U.S. organizations offer some version of telecommuting. When Gallup asked more than 31 million Americans, more than half said they’d change jobs for flex time.
We’re harping on that a little because you need to introduce a balance to all that independence when you need it. Most office teams have regular meetings on the phone or in-person to establish tasks, know current status of things, and ask questions.
Being remote doesn’t change the need for routine
So, determine what you need and ask for it. Establish a standing call with teams or members and reviews. If you want to limit time-specific elements, turn to a project management tool like Trello that can repeat tasks. Make a repeating list that people must fill out for specifics and then review these in your weeklies.
By making it normal and standard, people expect it and know when they can ask for help too. And, if someone is going to miss a planned meeting, they know what will be asked and can provide that information beforehand. Routines are useful and your team will actually be thankful for them — just try not to schedule six-hour meetings every Friday.
Setting Your Guidelines and Requirements
Remote work is all about flexibility, but remote success requires a great deal of specificity at the same time. Your team needs to know what’s a requirement and how it operates within their work schedule. Set clear expectations for performance and participation to get the team where you need it.
Requirements need to touch on projects and work habits as well as any social elements you think are worthwhile. Think of what you would expect to be the “normal” for your team. Then, define what isn’t acceptable as well as what goes above-and-beyond. Some elements you’ll want to specify for your team:
- Weekly/monthly meeting schedule and who must attend.
- Communication tools you need and how people should be available. Think big here to cover email and phone as well as chat services.
- Other technological needs and requirements.
- How people should participate. Not only should they have their video on but should be ready to share X, Y, and Z each meeting.
- Maximum acceptable delay in getting a response from remote teams.
- Daily and weekly hours or requirements.
- If any in-person requirements exist, as well as when and why.
- How do you measure compliance with these elements and what role does that play in job performance or reviews?
Always define what you think is or isn’t appropriate
After you have the basics, build out your guidelines around communication as well — something your entire company needs, not just the remote team. This covers who to tell about what and how. Wild Apricot has a great list of questions to get you started here. This way, your team will tell each other what they need without CC’ing leadership unnecessarily.
HR can further develop those communication elements into company policies to get everyone on the same page. When it comes to broader company communication, you’re going to want help. It’s easier to create and implement these measures when you’ve got a broad set of stakeholders in on the ground floor.
3. Think About How Remote Is Different
Dig through Gallup’s big employment survey when you have the time and you’ll find plenty of worthwhile nuggets, no matter your team structure. One interesting place it led us is to this question the researcher called controversial: Do you have a best friend at work?
The arguments for and against asking the question are compelling and will give you a good insight into building a better team. Beyond that, the most important aspect for your remote team might be the realization that people who have best friends at work are significantly more engaged and happier.
Women who said they have a work best friend were more than twice as likely to be engaged than those who didn’t — 63% versus 29%. They’re also less likely to be looking for other jobs, report lower stress levels, more likely to take risks that lead to innovation, and more likely to have positive experiences at work.
Remote teams may face a big hurdle in creating best friends because there isn’t necessarily all the normal face time and small things that can help a relationship become this close. That said, besties can be on a remote team together. It just requires the right infrastructure:
- Open communication and collaboration teams
- Giving people time to get to know each other
- Promoting participation in social activities
Now Gallup created that list for traditional workspaces. Tweaking them for remote teams will take some time and understanding of how it’s different. Giving people time to know each other not only means letting them chat or talk on their own but also creating time for people to meet without work requirements.
You could, for instance, require everyone to be on a call at 9:00 but the work side of things doesn’t start until 15 or 20 after. That’s time for people to arrive and just talk. They can create bonds and share stories and participate socially. Following this up with icebreakers can also help people learn about each other and get everyone participating, helping your team discover what they have in common or want to learn more about with each meeting.
Only possible with flexibility and the right tool.
That’s just one example of how traditional workplace elements need a slight adjustment to operate in the remote space. Ask yourself what other things are different and may need additional support. See what you can do to foster relationships and engagement, while still giving people the benefit of remote work.
4. Picking the Right Tools
Often the biggest and most personal challenge for remote teams is How they communicate. There’s a growing number of apps and services that can make it easy for you to reach people or can unnecessarily disrupt workflows and get in the way. Choosing tools is difficult and requires a look across your entire organization.
Depending on other existing software like your email, CRM, and project management suite, you might have specific integration needs. Gather up these and other requirements (user numbers, remote support, screen sharing, recording, etc.) and then start reviewing what’s available. To give you a little hand, we’ll look at some categories and services that might help.
Chat and communication
Slack is a leading communication tool for in-house and remote teams because it’s very user-friendly and has affordable options for most teams. Plus, you can quickly create specific channels for different departments and purposes. This makes it easy to share the right information for your next big project or everyone’s Halloween costumes.
Slack also has a ton of integration options and apps that track important KPIs, like when a customer posts an online review. Some bots are even designed to ping employees periodically to ask for updates and keep people engaged. Its support for videos and GIFs makes it a go-to for sharing and celebrating any good news.
Collaboration and project management
Project management tools are a must-have for remote teams because everyone needs a way to understand the current state of a project at-a-glance. It’s an extremely crowded field, so ask colleagues for recommendations and test out a couple of options before making a purchase decision.
Trello is usually atop lists like this because of its simplicity and visualization. It also integrates with a lot of great services to automate document attachments, notifications, reminders, and more — Zight (formerly CloudApp) helps it get a little more visual too.
Nearly every team is going to use Trello slightly differently, but it has the flexibility to allow this without becoming cumbersome. You can also provide very little information on its boards while still making the status of a project clear.
That said, test out what people know and use, because services like Asana can also be great options.
You’re going to need video calls with support for screen sharing because that’s just how today’s world works. There are so much software and support tools that few of us can keep up without a healthy reminder.
And, both your team and your leads retain visual information better!
Video conferencing solves this issue and few services are more popular than Zoom. It largely avoids to glaring glitches of other platforms and reliably delivers quality sound and video for everyone on the call. It’s also got well-rated screen sharing capabilities that support team building, training, file sharing, and more. You can record calls directly and use a service like Zight (formerly CloudApp) to edit snippets to quickly share a recap of the most essential information.
Hootsuite even used it as part of their #randomcoffee efforts to get team members from across departments and continents to get to know each other, and the company has said the initiative was a major success.
(Shh. Don’t tell the boss, but you can also avoid meetings thanks to video when you use Zight (formerly CloudApp) to record your screen with audio and send in your feedback that way.)
Document creation and management
File management is a big part a remote team, many companies are looking for cloud tools to handle this requirement instead of banking on a company backbone. If that’s your situation, you might enjoy tools that support both the creation and storage of your files.
Google’s G Suite has become a go-to because you can use it all for free if people have Gmail accounts — plus its paid options are very cheap too. Google’s Drive makes it easy to store, sort, tag, and manage your documents of all kinds. Plus, its permission tools simplify the sharing process significantly.
Pair it with the Docs, Sheets, and other tools from Google and you’ve got a platform that does your creation in the same place too. It’s the standard and can serve most businesses for years to come.
There are a few additional tools that a remote team may need that your in-house team won’t. One such category is team development systems designed to help people stay engaged and work more productively together. These services can help replace some missing team elements around collaboration and participation.
CoachBot is one of the more popular development tools for teams because it can help track team and organizational efforts as well as connecting people.
Managers can use it to simplify scheduling meetings and sharing agendas. It can be set to automatically ask questions or solicit advice for the next meeting as well. Users on average say it increases the trust within the company and teams, which is a strong way to improve how well remote teams interact and operate.
5. Don’t Forget the Fun
The final piece of the remote work puzzle is to keep reminding yourself and your team that it’s okay to have a little fun too. Remote groups can quickly devolve into only checking in on projects and discussing what’s next. If you’re not actively encouraging people to grow together, it might not happen.
Remote communication can starve when not nurtured because remote workers have a ton of other things they can do instead. Making communication fun and working to actively engage your team keeps it healthy and boosts engagement.
Fun is about creating the right atmosphere and having the right tools for people to share.
Zight (formerly CloudApp) is just one of the tools you can use. From creating GIFs and annotating videos to helping your team share within services like Trello, we’re built to communicate easily and effectively. Cat videos have a home at work, and so do all the reaction shots that follow. See how simple it is by adding Zight (formerly CloudApp) to your existing communications tools and start with this free trial.