Managing Communication In A Flexible Remote Team
Everyone who has ever worked in an office knows how easy it is for someone to pop their head up over the divider and say “have you got a minute?”. We’ve all been pulled into those spontaneous team meetings, and the classic “let’s have a meeting to plan more meetings”. And managers will know the benefit of crossing paths at the water-cooler, checking in on an employee to make sure they’re okay and on track.
When you work in an office it’s always assumed that communication is easy – and sure, sometimes it is! Communication in an office environment can be easier when you see people face-to-face every day. But what happens when the water-cooler disappears?
When The Water-cooler Disappears
When your team works remotely and picks their own hours, a lot of those spur-of-the-moment “let’s talk this out” luxuries of the office world can disappear. Working remotely forces you to be a better communicator and a better manager.
Time is precious and gets used more wisely in meetings/Skype calls. The “have you got a minute” questions can promote self-directed learning, or better team learning and shared knowledge. The short stops at the water-cooler (or the #random channel on Slack) are less about “how are your tasks” and more about “how are you”.
I won’t pretend that everything goes smoothly 100% of the time. Managing a remote team can be tricky. We’re constantly learning and evolving when it comes to our communication, but it’s a challenge that makes us better communicators and more efficient workers.
As someone who has battled some of these challenges, I wanted to share some of my best tips for communication in a remote team.
Task Clarity: Explain like I’m 5
In our remote & flexible situation, we occasionally have overlap time where we utilise programs like Skype or Slack to call each other and share our screens to explain the more complicated tasks. However, in most cases when we delegate tasks to others, we have to assume we won’t have time to chat about it. This is where you have to structure things well, explain concisely, and ensure that the staff member will have everything they need to do the job well. Here’s some points I always include in tasks:
Why are we doing this? What’s the goal?
Context is powerful. When someone understands what we’re trying to achieve, it allows them a bit of autonomy to get to the end result. If they understand where you want them to go, the how can be a little more flexible (even if the details aren’t always clear).
When is it due?
A due date might seem obvious, but it’s actually often missed on some of the longer or more complicated tasks. I try to put exact parameters on it, even if I say “best case scenario; completed Wednesday 3pm AEST, worst case scenario: Friday 9am AEST”.
Giving someone a deadline allows them not only to prioritise the task properly, but also get an idea of how much time to spend on it. Sometimes I will even specify “don’t sink more than 2 hours into this task”.
Signposting & bulleting
Clarity in tasks often comes down to how easy they are to read. Break tasks into chunks and check things off to avoid missing something. Rather than dumping a long essay in front of someone, I like to use headings and bullet-points so that the task is easier to comprehend.
What happens next?
I always give a direction of what needs to happen next. Some examples are:
- “mark this task as completed when you’re done”
- “let the client know via email”
- “assign this back to me or someone else to check it”
We’ve found this is especially important if the task is part of a larger project. It can make a big difference to another employee who’s waiting on this to be completed before they can start their part. If an employee understands the bigger picture behind this one task, we don’t miss any steps.
The awesome power of smiley faces :)
When you explain something in person or over the phone, you can easily get across that you’re grateful, happy, and trusting of that person. But when you’ve only got words on a screen, a task can seem cold and demanding. I always end the task description with a “thank you!” or “this is a massive help, I really appreciate it”. I often use smiley faces to convey my gratitude, since we can’t see each other in person! It helps to soften the harshness of the digital world :)
Cut out the unnecessary questions
We love asking each other questions, and we ask each other for help a lot!
But in this journey of managing a remote team, I’ve learnt that some questions are important, while others are unnecessary. There’s no stupid questions, but there are questions that can be avoided, assuming that an employee has everything they need in the first place.
The unnecessary questions are things like “can you give me access to this document” and “what’s the password?”. When you’re delegating tasks, make sure the person has everything they need from the start. The best way to do this is through internal transparency & using the right systems. Google Drive & Lastpass are fantastic tools that are secure, and allow remote-sharing of data.
We also document conversations and emails using our CRM (Capsule). All emails are recorded to our Capsule client files. We also make notes on any phone calls we have, and include as much detail as possible. Everything from the strategies discussed, down to small things like where the client is going on holiday. All of our staff can see this history, and can see everyone else’s task list to know who is working on what.
Managers in a standard office environment can take a quick look around and get a basic understanding of who looks stressed and who looks happy. The conversations and interactions you get with employees in an office environment are often the prompts to check in with someone. When that disappears, you have to learn to be proactive and read the digital signs. I look for symptoms like:
- a drop in the quantity of tasks getting completed,
- are they making small mistakes when usually they’re always spot on,
- hours moving more frequently in the work calendar.
These aren’t always signs that someone might need a chat, but they are good prompts. If someone isn’t completing as many tasks, I never tell them to “pick up their game” or ask them “why aren’t you completing more tasks?”. My question is always “are you feeling all right?”.
I know that employees won’t be motivated or happy 100% of the time, and that’s okay. You’re not a robot!
Be Honest, Be Human
This is a two way street and one major thing I ask of my employees is honesty. Hungover and not feeling like working? That’s fine, just let me know when you move your hours. Feeling unmotivated or bored with your tasks? Happens to all of us! Some workplaces try to deter people voicing when they’re unhappy or frustrated as they believe it creates a negative culture. I believe the exact opposite. My policy is “don’t afraid to be human”.
Let’s not waste time pretending that every day is easy and a total joy. This creates a more positive culture because we pull together, have greater sympathy and empathy for each other in tough times, and often find ways to lighten the load or make things easier when it gets hard. And as I say to my employees, “I can’t solve problems I don’t know about”. No one should suffer in silence!
Whether you’re working remotely or not, communication isn’t always easy. It’s a skill that takes time and practice. For us it’s a skill we’re all constantly evolving. We’ve found that the communication challenges of remote work has made us become better communicators. Start practicing in little ways and take the challenges as they come! For now, I will wish you happy working, and leave you with one of my classic smiley faces :)
Written by Gemma Renton