Tips for effective communication on a remote team
As shelter in place orders have gone into effect around the world, many companies are attempting to establish a remote work environment. At 4 Mile Analytics we have always had a distributed team that works remotely, but for many of our clients this is new territory. One of the biggest challenges of a remote team is effective communication. In this Zoom-tastic new life that we are leading, it can be easy to suggest jumping on a call, in an attempt to maintain synchronous discussions, as you would in the office. However, we are not at the office — we are all trying to juggle work, life, new routines, and a pandemic, so we need to adjust our communication styles to fit our new workplace.
There are two basic modes of communications — synchronous and asynchronous.
- Synchronous communication happens in real-time and has the expectation of an immediate response.
- Asynchronous communication does not happen not in real-time, but rather allows for the exchange of information with an expected and understood delayed response.
While meetings (aka synchronous communication) are generally the norm in many work environments, they are not necessarily the most effective form of work (whether colocated or remote). Meetings are expensive — there is a cost in the time spent, the time between, and the time taken to return to previous work. Studies have shown that it takes on average 23 minutes¹ to refocus. Disruptions also increase an employees stress levels and incidence of errors.² In order for people to complete demanding and creative tasks, they need uninterrupted blocks of time which allow them to concentrate and achieve peak performance.
Before scheduling a meeting or call, ask yourself if it is really necessary. Many day-to-day interactions and project tasks do not require immediate responses or parallel workflows. This is where asynchronous communication tools such as email, messaging apps, document comments, etc. can shine. These written forms of communication also provide a built in record of the project. By allowing for a lag in response time, you do not force your colleague to break concentration. You allow your teammates to take time to digest the information and be thoughtful in their responses, along with addressing scheduling conflicts and time zone differences.
Here are some tips to promote asynchronous communications across your team:
- Set guidelines around usage of different communication channels and set expectations for response times. This is common practice among remote organizations such as Gitlab’s Communication Handbook, Buffer’s Slack Agreement, Basecamp’s Guide to Internal Communication, and Doist’s Guide for Remote Team Communication.
- Be proactive in your correspondence. Always share plenty of background (screenshots, links, etc.) and include the priority and timeline for when you need the information. Anticipate any follow-up questions and ensure that your colleague has enough information to respond.
- Manage notification settings, so you don’t get distracted or feel responsible for communicating in sync. This also provides transparency to your teammates about whether or not you are available for a real time discussion.
That being said, synchronous communications are still valuable. Times when meetings are preferred include:
- Emergencies or unexpected issues that require immediate attention.
- One-on-one and team meetings that help to build and maintain relationships across the organization.
- Complex discussions or a project kickoff where it’s important for everyone to quickly get on the same page.
- Brainstorming and problem solving sessions when you want to promote collaboration and instantaneous feedback. While this can also be done asynchronously, doing it in real time can help to quickly generate ideas and solutions.
How can you make sure your meeting or call is most effective?
- Every meeting or call must have an agenda or stated intention. Meetings are most productive when the agenda states a topic, lists a specific amount of time for each topic and assigns the topic to a person who will lead the discussion on that topic.³
- Share the agenda beforehand, as well as any relevant background information. This gives attendees time to prepare and also allows those who are not required to decline.
- After the meeting, document and share the outcomes and action items. This provides a record for those who were unable to attend, as well as a reference for those who were present.
There are many challenges to effective team communication (whether remote or colocated); however, with thoughtful and conscious effort to balance synchronous and asynchronous communications, everyone can manage their schedule and be more productive.
 Megan Eiss, founder of Heddy Consulting