HR Leads Business

Nov 30, 2018 | Ginny Engholm

Beyond Slack: Building Communication Systems for Remote Teams

As more companies seek to create an agile workforce, they increasingly rely on remote teams to meet their workforce needs. Forty-three percent of Americans worked remotely at least some of the time in 2016, and it’s believed that the figure continues to rise.

But creating effective remote teams can be challenging, especially regarding communication.

Communication problems can hurt employee engagement on remote teams. Twenty-one percent of remote workers said in a 2018 survey that collaboration/communication is the most difficult aspect of working remotely.

Creating a strong culture of collaboration and communication is key to helping remote teams thrive. Here are some strategies you can use to build communications systems that work for remote teams.

Think Communication Strategies, Not Just Tools

Companies tend to focus on the tools that remote teams will use to communicate, especially tech tools like Slack that seek to virtually replicate in-person communication.

Leila Bulling Towne, an executive coach, says this is misguided. “The most common mistake I see leaders stumble upon is the assumption that a tool or system is how to effectively manage a distributed workforce. Slack doesn't manage for you, and it never will,” Bulling Towne says. “Technology will help, yet it can't speak to your team members for you.”

Instead, leaders of remote teams should focus on developing effective communication strategies. “Don't delegate management of people to an app on your phone,” she says.

Focus on Communications Processes

Bryant Galindo, co-founder and CEO of CollabsHQ, says it’s important to create processes around your communications. For example, online meetings can feel unstructured and disjointed to the participants, he says. It’s important to create structure for virtual meetings by making it clear why you are having the meeting and what the goals or desired outcomes are.

Bulling Towne agrees with this foundation, and suggests a dose of discipline: “Start simple with solid meeting management processes — and apply them ruthlessly.” She recommends ensuring that only the crucial participants are present, that you start on time, that you have an agenda, that you recognize that some conflict is needed for collaborative decisions and that you recap decisions made and commitments reached.

And remember that follow-through is crucial, she says. “The key is to introduce these practices and hold everyone accountable — as well as ask them to hold you accountable for following them too,” Bulling Towne says. “The teams I have seen be truly ruthless about this experience incredible changes in productivity and engagement.”

Create Virtual Connections

Remote teams rely on virtual connections for all aspects of their work, and team leaders need to use them to spur engagement as well. “Team members in the same office routinely grab coffee together and chitchat. Leaders must do the same with employees based in different offices,” Bulling Towne says.

Galindo says leaders should create virtual water coolers and virtual happy hours where team members can connect remotely.

Bulling Towne notes that this effort can require some adjustments. “Time zones can make this more difficult but not impossible,” she says. “I coach a leader in San Francisco who does 9 p.m. ‘coffee’ meetings with employees in Bangalore. This leader drinks chamomile tea while her team drinks their usual morning brew. These occasional late-night meetings lead her to less lost sleep over her team struggling to see her, know her and feel active parts of the team.”

Watch Your Language

Leaders can send subtle messages that devalue remote teams, Bulling Towne says. “Consider how you speak about members who work in an office other than your own. Leaders should avoid calling teams other than the HQ ‘satellite’ or ‘remote.’ Those words subtly convey less importance or priority, and that is an instant hurdle to virtual communication.”

She advises that you name a team based on its location. “That office location — whether it is Munich or Minneapolis — most likely has an identity partially based on its geography,” she says. This can give the team a distinct identity that helps it connect with the rest of the organization.

Also, Galindo notes that a simple communication guide — with best practices, shared language and goals unique to the organization — can help reduce communication issues that are common with virtual settings.