Effective Communication in Remote Teams - Tips from an Experienced Project Manager
I'm sure that you already know how good communication can boost the effectiveness of a team.
And it's pretty easy to achieve good results when all team members are in the same room.
Question 1: But how to keep information and feedback flowing between different offices, companies, and timezones?
Question 2: And is it really something that you should be concerned about since you show up at the office every day?
Answer 1: It's easy, you just need the three keys.
Answer 2: Yes. Even if you have to show up at the office every day, there's a big chance that you work in a remote team, and it's important that you know how to get the best out of it.
"Nah, I don't work in a remote team."
Is a part of your project team located in an office in a different city/part of the world?
Do you work with contractors from outside the company?
Is your client's headquarters located in a different country?
Working in a remote team doesn't exclude working from the office. It happens when at least one team member isn't located in the same office as the rest of the team.
Three keys to successful communication in remote teams
In Netguru, 99% of our teams work remotely to some extent. And I don't mean only teams working on projects for our clients. Internal teams are also scattered across the whole world.
How do we get anything done working like that? It's pretty simple. We know the three keys to successful communication in remote teams.
Transparency - How do you share information with the team?
Empathy - How do you treat the team members and clients?
Structure - How do you and your team organise work?
Let's dive into more details.
All project-related documents - requirements, briefs, drafts, designs, etc. - have to be available online and accessible by all team members. You don't want someone sitting in a different timezone waiting 6 hours to start work because they don't have access to that one very important file.
There are multiple tools out there which can support you in sharing documentation. Even if a part of the documentation is sensitive, there's still plenty of tools which have features allowing you to manage access to given files or folders.
If you make a decision that influences the work of other people, it has to be announced in an accessible way. Send an email, write a blog post, drop a message on a shared channel. Everything will work fine as long as you keep people informed.
This applies especially to decisions concerning company/team/project strategy. Your team members need that information to make better decisions in their areas. Clearly announcing decisions ensures that you all work towards the same goal and are more effective.
In face to face conversations, we have many sources of information coming from our team member. The tone of voice, the facial expressions, the gestures and even the environment in which this person is right now. Is this person sitting comfortably in the office kitchen? Or maybe you caught them in the middle of a conversation with someone else? Or maybe they are running out of the office to pick up their kids from school?
In every one of those situations we can expect a different type of reply to the same question, and we can interpret it in the right way by taking the environment into consideration. So give your remote team the right context by setting a status on Slack or giving access to your calendar. This way, when you give them short replies to long emails while driving to the airport or sitting in a meeting, they will now that it's not because you're grumpy or rude.
Start reporting in the right way
Reporting is usually associated with large amounts of text and numbers which no-one reads. But it doesn't have to be this way.
Even a short daily update for the team or the client can change the perception of progress. It can be done during a daily call or just as a short email/message on Slack sent every day at the same time. This gives everyone the same picture of the progress on the project, as well as of the obstacles that may arise. This also minimizes the risk of doing duplicate work and allows faster problem-solving.
Make the client a part of the team
We all know how it works. Clients deliver a brief, the team works on it like crazy for weeks, and it turns out that it's not what the client wanted. Both sides are frustrated and work starts to seem like a nightmare.
To avoid that, make your client a member of the team. Give the client access to your tools, create a space for free contact between the client and the team, involve the client in your daily discussions. It's very hard to create something not in line with the requirements when you're working closely with the person who creates them.
Yes, it requires extra effort, but believe me, it's worth it in the end.
Your relationship with the team
Your team doesn't spend every day in the same office. Does it mean that they can't be friends? No!
If you create a space for people to share thoughts, jokes or stories not related with the project, they can become a great team of friends, not just co-workers. Personal relationships make us see each-other as people who have better and worse days, not just as avatars on Slack.
During longer calls, spend a few minutes on chit-chat, encourage sharing funny or meaningful stories, make space for praising accomplishments, and aim at meeting face to face from time to time.
Your relationship with the client
If you were spending your money on a team that you can't see and that sits in an office located on the other side of the world, you would be at least a little bit anxious.
Aim at addressing the client's concerns before they even articulate them. Share references before the project starts, reply to messages promptly, keep the client informed, and keep them closely involved with the project. Try to put yourself in the client's shoes and see the project and its risks with their eyes.
Feedback and feedback loops
Do we really need retrospectives at the end of sprints? Do I have to fill this feedback form again? Wait, didn't we have a 1:1 feedback session last month? Do we need it this month as well?
Yes, yes, yes. If you resolve small issues immediately after they arise, you don't let them escalate and destroy your work. Active feedback gathering is important especially when you work with people who are not used to giving feedback. They need this extra push and confirmation that it's OK to share their thoughts.
Choosing the right method
It's important to remember that different types of messages should be paired with different types of communication tools. A simple progress update can be delivered via email, but when you're delivering a document with a project estimation that exceeds the client’s budget, it's better to discuss it over a call and reply to any questions immediately.
The more complex the topic, the more personal communication is recommended. This allows you to be sure that your message was properly understood.
Being careful when writing
We often interpret written word in line with our worst expectations. It's mostly because we lack context (facial expressions, tone of voice, setting).
So, if it's impossible to give this context to the recipient, and you can't use more personal ways of communication, be very careful when you're writing a message. Read the email twice and try to find places which can be misinterpreted. Try softening your message by using emojis. It seems silly, but it works miracles.
Imagine trying to catch the whole project team working in different time-zones every day for an ad-hoc meeting. That's a communication nightmare.
To avoid it, create a daily/weekly/monthly/quarterly schedule for your project. Having the structure in place allows you to minimise the amount of scheduling and makes it easier for the team members to organise their work around the common schedule.
"I hate meetings." How many times have you heard it? How many times have you felt unproductive because of too many meetings?
Recognise them as an important part of your work and focus on making them productive. The right agenda is the key. Share it with the guests before the meeting and give them time to leave comments. It has to include the goal of the meeting. A common goal allows better decisions and better use of everyone's time.
Last minute emergency and can't join the standup? Leave a written update on Slack so that we know what is your progress.
Turn on your camera on the conference call, let us see you as a human being.
Mute your microphone when you're not talking on the conference call. Let's minimize background noise.
Team rules can be very simple and still improve your work greatly. Some of them may be obvious to you, but not to everyone. So it's best to have them written down and available to other team members. Especially those who joined the project recently. This will be a great way for them to quickly learn the project's culture.
Storing materials/project documentation
We've already talked about how important it is to make documentation available to everyone. It's also important to keep it structured. What good comes from a team member having access to the project folder but not being able to find the description of the features in this release in the hundreds of documents stored in the folder?
Here, templates and defined folder structures come in handy. You can also define a naming convention for files, meetings names, Slack channels, etc. These are the areas where being repetitive is more valuable than being creative.
What are your tips & tricks for making communication in remote teams nice and easy?