Effective communication is important within any organization, but it is especially crucial for companies with geographically dispersed teams. The unique communication challenges that virtual teams face are obvious: no quick check-ins during the workday or face-to-face meetings to facilitate team building.
Communication for virtual teams takes more forethought and planning on the part of the executive team. But putting a strategy in place, and using virtual communication tools and platforms, can make communication in a remote company just as effective as within a centralized team.
Here are seven tips for upper-level management to improve communication within their remote companies:
1. Create a communication plan
Communication within remote teams doesn’t usually happen organically; there needs to be a plan driving it. Since teams aren’t together in a co-located office, everyone needs to be proactive in creating a communication schedule—one that will work not only work within teams, but also one-on-one between managers and employees.
The first thing managers and executives should do is schedule a weekly meeting for their teams. This creates structure for checking in on projects, successes, and obstacles, as well as provides time for casual team building. Team members can connect on a professional level and get to know each other personally, too.
Next, establish regular, one-on-one meetings with team members in order to work more closely on project-related issues. These meetings can also include more personal check-ins to get a read on employee satisfaction.
Beyond regularly scheduled meetings, management should also have open and honest conversations with their team—both as a unit and individually—about what the communication expectations are for the group. For example, if someone emails or direct messages another team member, what expectations does the manager have for how responsive employees should be? Do they expect a response within the hour or by the end of the day?
The rules for virtual teams will differ based on the group. Teams whose members set their own schedules and work hours will probably need more time when responding to communication, while another team, where the members all work the same business hours, might agree it’s reasonable to respond to messages much more quickly.
But what about messages that come in after hours? Does management have an expectation that team members will still respond right away? Or does the team know that they can simply respond when they are back on the clock the next day or following a weekend?
It’s also important to set guidelines for the team about how and when to notify managers and coworkers about out-of-office time. Does the manager want to know about any and all anticipated appointments ahead of time? Do they prefer to have employees Slack the team when they leave and come back? Or do they prefer to not know at all and trust that the employee will complete their work?
The clearer the expectations, the more successful the team will be at communicating. But as executives and managers, it’s important to set the ground rules from the beginning.
There is no such thing as overcommunication in a remote team. More communication means more trust-building, less misunderstanding, and better teamwork. Managers should encourage team members to reach out between meetings and check-ins if they have any questions. Reinforcing a team mindset increases the likelihood that employees will reach out when it is time to problem-solve.
Likewise, executive team members should communicate about the company’s goals and plans just as much as they would if they were sharing an office. This type of communication could include quarterly all-hands meetings, monthly emails about successes and upcoming projects, and sharing new job openings and encouraging employees to apply if they are interested.
Open and transparent communication from the executive team can go a long way in making employees truly feel trusted and valued—not to mention, it is a key component to the broader success of the organization.
3. Use multiple communication platforms and tools
Using the appropriate tools is vital to effective communication within a virtual organization, as is the proper guidance on how and when to use each tool.
Many organizations rely heavily on email and messaging apps like Slack for daily communication. Depending on the organization’s culture, management could establish guidelines about when to use each of those tools. Perhaps Slack could be used for a quick question between two people, or within a department, whereas email could be used for information that needs to be shared with the whole organization.
Tools like Box, Trello, and Asana are also popular options for remote project management. These tools allow for communication that is related to a particular project, so at any point during the week, if someone on the team has a question about a project’s status, they can go straight to that tool to find out where it stands.
The key to these project management tools is for everyone to use them. Yes, sometimes it is easier to text someone about a project status, but if that person isn’t immediately available, then that project information should be just as easy to find in a project management or remote collaboration app.
Communication platforms for more casual forms of communication can also be important, depending on the remote company and the culture they want to foster. Platforms like Yammer are used for “water cooler chat” purposes, and social channels can be set up for casual conversation within Slack. These can be a great way of fostering community among employees, including birthday shout-outs or congratulating employees on their work anniversaries.
Another great tool for virtual offices is Sococo. This tool can help with building trust and supporting remote teams at the same time. The Sococo “map” essentially looks like the floor plan of an office layout, with offices, conference rooms, and break rooms—however an organization chooses to configure it for their needs. Each person has a “floating head” that appears in their office when they log in to begin working. This way, everyone can see at a glance who is “in the office” online.
Need to have a quick meeting about a project update? Managers and executives can message remote team members and see if they can jump over into Whereby, or another flexible meeting app, for a brief audio or video chat. This tool can even be used for team-building by hosting virtual happy hours on Fridays or holiday parties where groups can gather in a conference room wearing their best holiday attire or costumes.
4. Build trust and give the benefit of the doubt
It is important for the executive team to foster an environment of trust and give team members the benefit of the doubt. One way to do this is to manage based on work results rather than virtual facetime or hours clocked.
Trust is crucial for management to model because other team members will take their cues from their supervisors. If the supervisor asks their team about one of their coworkers’ productivity, then the team members themselves might start questioning each other, too.
Trusting remote teams to get their work done also means not micromanaging them. While communication is important, it is equally important for management to allow their employees to do their jobs. When projects begin, managers establish important check-in points for status updates, and their teams will feel that they’re trusted to do their jobs.
If communication plans are set in place from the beginning, managers and coworkers alike will trust that everyone was hired because they are the best candidate for their position, and that they are all experienced professionals who will get their jobs done.
5. Be considerate of time zones
Addressing time zone differences upfront can save remote teams a lot of hassle and frustration. It may seem like a minor issue, but knowing everyone’s time zones is important for remote team communication. In fact, it is one of the biggest issues that a virtual team can face on a daily basis.
From arriving to virtual meetings on time to waiting for a response to an email or Slack message, time zones can impact the efficiency of a company—not to mention the work-life balance of team members. Managers can confirm the time zones of all of their team members before scheduling meetings to make sure they are not causing someone to hop online unusually early or stay unreasonably late.
One of the easiest ways to help team members with this is by giving everyone a link to a time zone conversion app and ask everyone to use it when scheduling meetings. Another guideline could be to have anyone scheduling a meeting include the time zone that they are in so remote team members can calculate what time that meeting would be in their own time zone.
6. Build team relationships with video calls
One of the obvious benefits of working remotely is not having to worry too much about what we look like or how we are dressed when we begin our workdays. But meeting face-to-face can be important in building relationships within virtual teams. Video calls are the best way to accomplish this when team members are dispersed throughout the United States or internationally.
Different organizations have their own company culture standards. Some use video conferencing more than others, but a lot of communication happens through nonverbal means. Facial expressions and tones of voice can be better expressed over video than through audio conference calls or via text.
Video conferencing doesn’t need to be used exclusively in order to be effective at building teams, and probably would not work well for larger teams. However, adding some video calls to a remote team’s meeting schedule can help improve communication and solidify team accountability and structure.
7. Get personal
While virtual team meetings can sometimes be more efficient than in-person meetings, they can also be less personal and not as clear a source of team building. It is important for executives and managers of remote teams to check in with team members on a personal level. A simple strategy like starting each meeting with a personal anecdote can break the ice and clear the cobwebs from the communication lines since the last meeting.
Some team members might be more willing to share with coworkers than others, but it is important for managers to let everyone on their team know that they see them as individuals, not just employees. Asking about their lives not only helps everyone get to know each other, but also strengthens team bonding and collaboration.
Communication within remote teams does take a little more planning and foresight than it does in a centralized office, but it is worth the extra effort to create a stronger team. Telecommuting teams that communicate well and see each other as human beings rather than cogs in the wheel will be more successful within their virtual organizations—and that’s the bottom line.
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