With quick research, you’ll notice that the biggest struggle for remote teams is communication. How we express ourselves and share information. If you are interested to learn how to make remote feel less remote as team culture, read our previous post. But here are 8 practical tips how to improve team communication.
1. Fully remote or partially remote
There are different ways distributed teams work today. Some teams are fully distributed, some partially and still quite often just one or two persons work remotely in a larger team or organization.
I’ve tried all three options in the past and I’d never suggest having one single remote employee. Unless you are a two-person team.
I walk into the kitchen to grab a cup of nice hot coffee. Obviously, I’ll have a chat about the bug I’ve found recently and figure out a way to solve it. It’s just so simple, we’re both already there.
Couple days later someone asks about it in our team chat. “Hey, we discussed this already few days ago, don’t you know?”
The person asking is that one person working remotely. But it’s okay because it’s his problem his not in the office, right? Not really. But groups always win over one single individual. Habits die hard.
Something that I’ve seen over and over again. Being single remote employee in a team sucks.
When half your team is remote, you already begin to have the critical mass to drive cultural change. Instead of chatting over the desk, we are probably going to use some online tool, instead. From my experience, it is even better when everyone has a remote working time every now and then to really feel it. If I work from home for a week, do I miss out on some information? If yes, find a way to fix that.
At Deekit, this is what we do right now. Everyone chooses the best place to work from. I’m constantly on travel. I love doing research-like things from home. Writing tasks are best at cafes. Some things are better at the office. This summer I’ve decided to pack my kid and family and move away for the summer. Andres will be working for a month from Tenerife soon. As a team, we encourage everyone to take remote work time so that we all feel what it’s like to be the remote employee at Deekit.
Having entire team remote removes all temptations and the only way you will communicate is thought channels available for everyone. GoWorkaBit, an Estonian startup, has been working fully remote from day one and they literally cannot imagine any other way.
2. Prioritize your communication
I think communication is all about prioritization. While leading operations at Skype, I oftentimes saw people asking questions about our systems, outages, emails, release status and much more. And each request would request response NOW. Because for each person it is the most important thing on their mind.
Not every conversation is treated equally in my mind. When your product is having an outage, then probably this is more important than a conversation about PostgreSQL new release features.
Because of this, I’ve started to agree on priorities across our teams for a while now. Setting some ‘common sense’ regards how important different discussion topics are and which channels should be used for them. Think about when to use call, SMS, chat, wiki, file sharing system or email for example. Are there any chats more important? Here’s how we do it at Deekit:
Huston, we have a problem.
Urgent topics that must get an answer now (outages, urgent issues) are to be discussed over a call or SMS. Considering that SMS is something one can miss, a call might be preferred.
Attention, there’s work happening here
Topics that need to get an answer soon end up in a chat and proper channel. Unless there is an outage, these would be the chats I pay attention to.
- Monitoring chats for monitoring different aspects via integrations and WebAPI. There is no talking in those chats other than the automated posts. We have a channel for systems monitoring, social monitoring, support monitoring.
- Chats to discuss different topics. We have tech channel, database channel, release channel, marketing channel and customer feedback channel for example.
- General channel for anything else work related
- Deekit boards. We have consolidated our communication tools so we draw, write, document and handle information inside Deekit. So, for example, suggesting architecture change for a new release would be visualized and discussed inside Deekit. Equally, we do our roadmap planning, retrospectives etc there.
Topics that can wait or just socializing talks usually also end up in chat but the relevant channel.
- Random stuff channel. This is the place for everything not work related, interesting links, fun stuff and more.
I’m just letting you know.
These are channels where we only share information. No answer needed. It’s just to make sure you have all information at hands.
- Release chats that get automated posts only, no talking and discussions. We have a channel for release and change management for example. Why? Because it’s easier to scroll through release, deploy etc automated messages when you are searching for particular information. It’s an absolute nightmare when you have discussions in the same place.
- Deekit boards. We keep all our documentation inside Deekit.
- We don’t use email for communication inside the team. Email is overloaded and everything important would simply get lost. There are thousands of companies all fighting over your attention in your inbox, equally so are people trying to sell you products and services. Notifications, spam, newsletters, bills, investors, partners and more.
In my previous jobs, because of the nature of email, I would send email only in case the topic can wait a few days (or week).
Choose your tools wisely
I’ve seen companies using Skype for some meetings, Hangouts for other, email, one task management system for product planning, another for engineering, wiki keeping business documentation, another place for engineering documentation, email, SMS, chats and pretty much any channel I could think of to speak to each other. Result? You are lost in the middle of everything. What could be even worse? Different chat tools, for example, used at the same time.
At Deekit, we use only one tool for a task – Slack to chat, Deekit to share knowledge and so on.
We’re not saying you should stop experimenting with tools to find the best fit for you. Test, choose the best one and use that one. Consolidate where you can to keep it simple.
3. Remove distance between people
Using real-time tools removes the distance between people. Video calling takes away the distance and allows people to talk and see each other in real-time. Chats allow us to write and respond in real-time if we want to.
We started Deekit because we felt that so many interactions we do at work are just one-way sharing. Powerpoint in meetings for example. “Look at the 50 slides that I made” – could something sound more disengaging? I’ll rather write some code while you’re messing with the slides.
“I’ve sent you the photo of the whiteboard” – why bother? In couple days, I won’t find it. And frankly, I cannot understand your handwriting and most of the drawing anyways either.
Immediate interactions connect and engage people. Use tools that allow you to have office-like feeling online in real-time instead.
4. Close the conversation loop
It’s like throwing a ball over your shoulders without checking if there’s someone catching it. And later being angry if there wasn’t.
If something needs an action from someone on the team, make sure that they also receive your ask and will act upon it. For me, the most natural thing to do is to reply with an “ack” message.
In chats where you have a lot of conversations going you, you might want to add tags to the topic and reflect back to acknowledge. There are few things that I typically do:
- Repost quote and answer from a new line.
- Quote the topic and answer.
5. Cut unnecessary meetings
It is so easy to have way too many meetings. Agile teams can do planning meetings, retrospectives, standups, groomings, bug reviews and much more. As a team, we have grown into the habit of constantly asking do we really need this meeting.
After an incident or release that went wrong, you might need the retrospective to look back. But do you need this every week, for example?
For those curious, there are few meetings we do regularly:
- We are rather a small team, so we plan our week together. This way all of us understand what’s going. We plan on Monday mornings.
- There are four founders in Deekit and we are used to catching up on important things once a week. Our “anonymous coffeeholic meetup” that happens first thing on Monday.
- We have a standup meeting before lunch every day, except on Monday (Monday already has meetings, so it felt ridiculous to have a standup, too).
Occasionally as needed, we review bugs, do design reviews and anything else. We also do quarterly retreats for planning and fun.
6. Have overlap time
Some say you need 4 hours overlap time between different locations to work remotely. Some say it is an hour. For me, it has felt the best if there are at least couple hours of overlap time between people.
7. Speak globally. Use UTC as timezone
At truly global teams you cannot speak in your own timezone as it creates a lot of confusion. At Skype we started to speak UTC early on.
8. Have #realtalk culture
Hudl, a sports video software company based in Lincoln, Nebraska, have the culture they refer to as #realtalk. “All right, give me the real talk…”
What they refer to is giving honest and straight forward feedback or discussing directly some topic. It also means that it is not a personal conversation and one should not be offended.
At Skype, for a long time, it was referred to as “the freedom of speech”. People would speak up and be open and honest about things.
It is culturally also very common amongst Estonians to give direct and honest feedback. When a conversation is honest, it doesn’t need the “sugar on top”. Say what needs to be improved and focus together on how to make it happen. Nobody takes things personally.