REffective communication is essential for any company. With remote teams, communication is even more important and somewhat more difficult. Like most aspects of remote work, communication needs deliberate planning and attention to detail.
That is not to say it is significantly different from large corporations, where teams on any given project might be distributed across different silos and locations yet have to find a way to share information effectively. There are many studies and best practices which have been identified from these experiences and tools which apply well to remote team communication.
Before we get to the communication tools for remote teams, however, the habits which make them work have to be set.
There are good reasons for a startup to being as remote first, and one of them is setting up this culture of habits and tools which will scale easily as you grow. The right habits will also help you to bridge differences in communication styles that are a natural part of different skills and cultures to build a dynamic cross-functional and diverse team.
All companies have come to rely on new communications tools to enhance their employees effectiveness. Most of the studies, however, are on larger and office-based organizations which seem to not apply at first glance. A deeper dive shows there is much which can be learned.
An analysis by the Harvard Business Review looked at the unique needs of remote team communications. It found that the most effective communications were focused on bridging the distance involved. However, it went on to break the concept of “distance” down to three key areas of communication to bridge them::
- Physical, across space and time.
- Operational, across job functions and skill levels.
- Affinity, across different values and cultures.
The first two are naturally bridged by careful planning and company culture, as discussed in other places. Affinity, or values based communication, can be the most difficult for remote teams and requires special attention.
A separate study by Deloitte found that constant engagement with a high degree of transparency bridges this gap well. They derived their methods from the latest in B2C consumer communications, emphasizing lifestyle and authenticity.
What may be surprising is that all companies face this issue, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. They found that 80% of employees use texting for business purposes. The value which they found came from the perceived intimacy of it, which helps to build trust and direct connection.
Getting the Job Done
What about the operational distance to be bridged? Here, again, the challenges of remote team communications are not necessarily unique to a remote-first company. The effective use of communications tools, particularly new ones, is an issue for all companies.
Remote-first companies, first and foremost, pay more attention to this issue. As such, they are providing great leadership for all corporate communications.
It has been shown for operations that written communication is always more effective. There are three main reasons for this, as written form communication:
- Requires the initiator to think before they write, meaning they are more organized.
- Creates an instant archive which can be referred to later.
- Allows operation in different time zones and schedules.
This may seem at first to be in opposition to the need for empathetic, value based communication which closes the identified affinity gap. It certainly can be. Inpractice, however, this explains why a diverse set of remote communications tools are necessary and how each of them is used most effectively.
Remote Work Communications Tools
There are many guides to the best remote work communications tools, each with their own emphasis and bias. Generally, they all agree on the key tools which every remote-first company will need to implement as part of their daily habits and practices.
Generally, they can be divided into synchronous, or immediate communication, and asynchronous or time independent. Given the different types of distance which must be closed by remote team communications, each has their place.
Slack forms the backbone of communications at Torre for many reasons. It has the intimacy and immediacy of texting, but provides an organized archive which can be referred to later. It also interfaces well with the other tools which we use. As an asynchronous remote work communications tool it cannot be surpassed.
In order to use Slack most effectively, we have these practices and habits:
- Every team has a channel for their general communication.
- Every project has a channel for the daily workflow.
- Labels are used to mark projects which are immediate, urgent, etc.
By setting it up this way, there are well defined spaces for general strategy and values as well as the tactics and workflow. Slack is very good for serving as the center for remote team communications.
There are many video tools which are available. None are as flexible and reliable as Zoom. It is the synchronous remote team communications tool of choice.
While written communications has to form the backbone of remote team communication, there are times when a video call is useful. Workers are human, and a certain amount of “face time” can ease anxiety and work through various issues much more quickly at times.
Zoom integrates well with Slack, allowing recording and archiving of all calls. It also works across many different devices, rarely failing in any way.
Larger files and documents are also a key part of remote team communication, and they need a repository. Google drive serves as this, handling spreadsheet and documents very well. It has security built in, and can limit access to documents unless needed – a feature which is important for intellectual property protection.
It has its issues, however. It can be hard to find documents once they have been created, so organization up front is often the key to making it work well.
As a tool for organizing work flow across teams, nothing is better than Trello. It is highly visual and immediate, allowing status information to be shared quickly at a glance. Individual responsibility are conveyed along with the team progress in one seamless package.
It can also be used as a central archive for version control as work develops. These are visible to everyone, organizing everything by project, task and history easily. The intuitive nature of it makes training for new employees simple.
When it comes to organizing and tracking workflow, Trello is magic for remote team communication.
Generally, email is not a good tool for employee communication. It should only be used externally.
Whatsapp and Everything Else
There are times when whatsapp and other forms of communication can provide a useful backup in case of emergency. But they should provide just that and nothing else. The ability to organize and archive makes the tools described above superior to everything else for remote team communications.
Implementing Remote Communications Tools
In all cases, the goals and values of your company have to come first. The habits which become part of your culture will flow from that naturally. Communications tools are not going to solve problems which are not addressed in your company values and culture.
They can, and they must, reinforce them, however. They represent the way every aspect of you culture is represented, from the strategic big picture to the daily process of getting the work done.