As a manager of a newly remote team, you might find yourself focusing on productivity, accountability, and the overall results for your team. In reality, remote team communication is a major challenge for distributed teams, and it should be a high priority.
As Julia Melymbrose, head of content at TestGorilla, says, “How well you communicate and collaborate as a team will determine both your team’s productivity and its happiness.”
Successful remote team communication depends on trust, overcommunication, and a balance between work and personal conversation topics. We interviewed managers of remote teams—both seasoned and new—to find out how they achieve that balance and to document their best practices so you can communicate effectively with your own remote team.
One of the most repeated pieces of advice for remote teams is that managers need to overcommunicate and encourage their team members to do the same. If there is any doubt in your mind as to whether you should tell your team something, go ahead and tell them anyway. Gail Marie, lead editor at Animalz, puts it this way: “If you feel like you’re overcommunicating, you’re probably communicating just enough.”
A main goal of remote team communication should be to clear up uncertainty regarding expectations. Communicate every possible detail with your team to make sure everyone is on the same page and knows what is expected of them. That includes anything from working hours to output to whether or not they need to have video on during remote team meetings.
Encourage overcommunication from your team by asking for feedback and status updates. This will help you keep track of how everyone is doing, work-wise, and will tell you whether the team’s timelines are on track.
Remote work can be isolating, especially if your employees are used to working in an office. Video calls let team members visually connect with you and each other, and they allow for spontaneous revelations of issues that might not come up in premeditated written communication. As you plan your remote team communication, schedule team meetings, 1:1 calls, and meetings to give and receive feedback.
Schedule weekly or bimonthly meetings with your whole team. This gives employees a set time to come together and discuss work. It’s a perfect opportunity for anyone to bring up suggestions, questions, or concerns regarding collaboration and ongoing projects.
Team video calls are a great time for team-building activities as well. For example, remote content marketing agency Animalz hosted a talent show during one of their scheduled all-hands meetings. Using video for remote team communication lets your employees see you and each other and feel more connected.
Not everyone is willing to speak up during a team meeting, so it’s important to set aside time with each team member individually at least once a month. Show employees that you’re there for them as a resource, and encourage them to bring up topics and issues they want to discuss at the meeting.
Rachel Kaplowitz, CEO of Honey, acknowledges that “1:1 meetings are always important — but now more than ever. Make sure to ask how your direct reports are feeling. Make sure they have a space to talk and express what they’re going through.”
Employees who are struggling might be more likely to talk during a 1:1 meeting than when the whole team is present.
Even if you leave feedback in other channels, make time to discuss it via video to avoid misunderstandings. Chris Zaugg, cofounder of Uptick, says, “Written communication can be interpreted in a million ways, and you can’t give it any context. . . . Get on a video call, or, if you MUST, an actual phone call.”
Nigel Stevens, CEO at Organic Growth Marketing, agrees: “When you’re remote . . . it’s easy for routine feedback from a manager to come across as a negative evaluation of overall performance.”
Nigel also notes that video calls can be a time-saver. It’s sometimes faster to explain feedback in person than to write lengthy emails or Slack messages trying to explain context.
Remote team communication isn’t just about work. Your team can’t socialize in the kitchen or hallways anymore, and they need an outlet for nonwork conversation. Chris from Uptick makes explicit time in his 1:1s to discuss how his employees are doing: “We talk about their lives (as much as they are willing to share), their professional development, where they’re struggling, and what their dreams are — for themselves and for the team.”
Gail from Animalz sets aside time in her team meetings for personal conversation as well. In their meetings, “every week, the agenda includes a ‘Feelings’ section. I share my feelings and, if so inclined, they share theirs.”
Julia of TestGorilla adds that, as a manager, you don’t have to be in charge of every social event and conversation. “Your aim, instead, should be to build the channels and opportunities that team members can leverage to build up your community.”
For example, you could set up separate channels in Slack for nonwork conversation topics like cooking, movies, or music. You could also schedule regular “watercooler chats’” for employees to video chat about nonwork topics and foster team building among remote employees.
When you don’t see your employees every day, it’s easier to forget who is still new and what ongoing training each employee needs. Remote team communication includes onboarding new employees and continued training for existing employees.
To address this issue, David Kofoed Wind, CEO of Eduflow, says his company “run[s] a structured onboarding course for everyone to guide through our tools, workflows, and to introduce people to our products and the other people on the team.”
Ongoing training is especially important as you introduce new tools to facilitate remote work. Since you can’t host in-person training or send employees to seminars, using a digital adoption platform (DAP) helps make remote training and onboarding easier, both for you and your employees. DAPs include guided walkthroughs and self-help resources so employees can more quickly learn new technologies on their own.
Remote teams need to collaborate and rely on each other just like in-office teams do. Part of mastering remote team communication is showing your employees you trust them and that they can trust you.
Brendan Hufford, director of SEO at Directive, says, “The biggest lesson for managing remote employees that I’ve learned is to have them take ownership of all meetings (they set the time, it’s their Zoom, they set the agenda, etc.).”
Show your team you trust them by not micromanaging their actions.
Maintaining a transparent work culture is also vital for trust-building. One way to do this is by using company-wide Slack channels instead of direct messaging, so other team members can see what is being discussed. This makes it easier to loop team members in if the conversation becomes relevant to them.
Remote team management requires more flexibility than in-office management, and asynchronous communication makes this easier. Julia from TestGorilla puts it this way: “Async flows allow people to work independently without needing to wait around for others.”
You have to be empathetic and remember people are also managing their kids, their pets, and other home responsibilities they didn’t juggle before.
Jay Gadi, engineering manager at SoapBox, says, “Give people the benefit of the doubt. A whole lot of responsibilities go up when you’re working from home.”
By embracing async communication, you give your team the flexibility to not be glued to their screen from 9 to 5.
The variety of written communication channels and collaboration tools, such as email, Slack, and Google Docs, makes async communication easier and more versatile. If you adopt new tools to facilitate asynchronous work, a DAP can help your team adjust smoothly and get back to productive work.
When you first start managing a remote team, it’s easy to focus solely on work and making sure your employees are productive. But newly remote workers are adjusting to a sudden lack of social interaction as well as a new work environment, and it’s up to you, as their manager, to help them through this transition. That means purposefully carving out time to talk about feelings and personal lives and facilitating social interaction between employees.
“Fun, mental health, and physical wellness are just as important to a successful team as productivity,” says Rachel of Honey.
Remote team communication is just as much about finding outlets for social conversation as it is for communicating about work and collaborating on projects.