Call me, maybe: The best remote work communication secrets

In hindsight, maybe you should have phoned in that Slack bomb.

Don’t kill the conversation with the wrong form of communication.

Knowing when to send an email, schedule a video conference or pick up the phone is a skill that is exponentially more important in a remote team situation than it is in an office. Here are some guidelines and strategies that have worked for me and my teams for the last decade.

The Digital Epistle

Let’s start with good old email. Email is still the reliable workhorse of remote teams. Some companies have tried to get away from it but most slowly find their way back. It’s hard to beat for speed, flexibility and archivability. If you are discussing a project with someone, having the email thread can be invaluable. However, it’s not a panacea. Not everyone can describe concepts or be as persuasive in writing as they are when speaking. And many people simply delete emails or can’t figure out the syntax for quickly searching for them later.

My love-hate relationship with digital epistolary communication knows no bounds

For me, I use email for internal messages that need a paper trail or communication with vendors who are not usually part of our project management platform. Messages to clients almost exclusively go to our project management platform, which leads me to Basecamp.

A Better View From a Platform

The next step up from email is a team or project management platform like Basecamp. Emails get buried and deleted but threads in Basecamp are archived for future reference that builds up over time into an invaluable database. Whenever you need a reliable record of team communications that can be passed along to future employees easily then it’s smart to utilize this type of platform.

The happy face says it all.

I can’t tell you how many times I have gone back to Basecamp threads from years ago and found something that saved the day. Team members come and go and you can’t always be sure that they handed over valuable documents before they signed off. If it’s in Basecamp, I know we’re okay.

I’m Ready for My Close-up

For group communication when you don’t need a paper trail or you want to share your screen, you can’t beat a video conference. It’s also the closest thing to a face to face meeting you can achieve when working remotely and there is something energizing about getting the whole team in one virtual room.

We make video optional on our Hangouts. Get dressed EVERY DAY? Are you kidding?

Team members outside of the US find it especially useful since it doesn’t rely on calling a stateside phone number. And lastly, the desk sharing feature that most video conference solutions boast nowadays is critical for remote teams and my teams use it regularly. Notice, however, that I said “no paper trail.” That’s important. What is said in a video conference can evaporate from everyone’s mind as soon as you exit. Take good notes, of course, but it’s not as reliable as an auditable written communication trail.

Rapid and Kinda Auditable? Yup.

For rapid communication among team members, you can’t beat a messaging system and Slack is the current standout in the industry. Need a quick yes or no? Need to pull two people together to solve a problem in less than a minute? Then this medium is a great choice. On the downside, it falls short in archiving even if you pay extra to have all your communication saved and it definitely isn’t a good medium for client communication.

Picking up the slack in your communication strategy (I love a good pun. Maybe I can find one.)

Over the past couple of years, the majority of my remote team’s communication happens in Slack but it comes with pitfalls. Slacking someone sets up the expectation of “drop everything and reply.” I can’t always do that and many people simply ignore the on/off state of the green dot next to my name. To them, it’s just decoration. Of all the communication channels, Slack is the clear leader in throwing off my work-life balance.

Be wary of the long pause.

And managers! Take note that the rapid, perfunctory nature of the medium makes misunderstandings more common. Be wary of the long pause. What you just wrote may seem clear and innocuous to you, but the person on the other end may have misunderstood.

All of these Slack gotchas also apply to texting. My teams don’t text much for a variety of mechanical reasons: we don’t provide company devices so it’s to a personal number, it’s less reliable internationally and between networks, etc. If you do use texting (SMS) for your teams, keep in mind the points above. “I think someone texted that info to me” is the same as saying “I don’t have it any more”.

Call Me, Maybe.

The override for all of the above is the old fashioned phone call. If you have an email, Slack or Basecamp discussion thread that seems to produce more confusion each time you hit send or you can tell that what you just wrote to someone was taken the wrong way or Google Hangouts unexpectedly dumps everyone off the video conference, you need to grab the phone. A few minutes on the phone can often clarify a misunderstood point or badly received comment.

So some of you may wonder why not just call everyone on the phone and be done with it?

You want to communicate like a human? Please hold.

One reason already mentioned above is that you often want the digital equivalent of a paper trail for important discussions. Another is time. Many people don’t sit next to their phone waiting for it to ring. They have meetings to attend and projects to concentrate on that a phone call will interrupt which means that most unscheduled calls end up in voicemail and who knows when that will be listened and replied to. How many games of phone tag have you played that took days to complete? Then there are formalities to observe for politeness or professionalism reasons. You can’t simply call someone and firehose information at them like you can in an email or Basecamp post. Phone calls simply take longer to communicate the same information.

You can’t simply call someone and firehose information at them

Of course, some communication options are determined by employers, and individuals have their favorites and frustrations with various mediums that make them uniquely unreachable through some channels. In some cases, everyone involved should agree that a new communication channel is valuable before officially adding it into the mix. It it’s not filling a clear need, then it’s just another inbox. And we have enough of those.


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