Keeping Remote Teams Cohesive, Part 3: (Over-) Communication is Key

communication

This is part of a three-part series on keeping remote teams cohesive. We recommend that you begin with parts 1 (hiring) and 2 (onboarding) before reading this post on communication.

In the final installment of this series, I’ll discuss the importance of effective communication — over-communication, in fact — in remote teams. I’ll share the communication strategies and methods that I’ve seen be most effective for keeping remote teams cohesive.

Build and Maintain Trust through Direct Communication

In my post on onboarding, I introduced Esther Derby’s framework for building trust on teams: Display trust; address issues directly; share relevant information; follow through on commitments, or give early notice when you can’t; say no when you mean no; share what you know and what you don’t know.

Notice the verbs of each of these: Display, address, share, follow through, give notice, say, share. Each of these reflects a need for proactive, direct, clear communication. This is how managers and team members will build trust with their remote employee.

But it isn’t enough to just build trust — you have to maintain it as well. When you hire a smart, talented person, it’s easy to assume that once you onboard them, they’ll be entirely self-sufficient. However, as initiatives change, the team grows, and priorities shift, it’s easy for remote employees to get lost in the shuffle.

I’ve found that the following strategies are helpful for maintaining trust through direct communication in remote teams:

  • Have an onsite team member take notes during team meetings, and distribute them after so everyone can review them.
  • Create a simple log of any major team decisions — what was decided, when, and why. This is helpful for everyone on the team, especially as the team grows and individuals specialize, to have a record of how team priorities were implemented. This also allows your team to keep a record of any continuous improvement initiatives.
  • Make use of a social messaging tool like Slack, and organize it according to teams, sub-teams, and projects, so everyone knows where to go for important information. The team log mentioned above can be a Slack channel, with important decisions pinned to the channel.

A Note for Managers

These recommendations are equally important for managers as they are for teams: According to Harvard Business Review, 91% of employees say communication issues drag down their management. A successful relationship between manager and remote employee requires proactive communication. Leaders must share the vision to keep their team members on track toward their objectives. It’s not just about “checking in” from time to time — remote employees need the same amount of face time as onsite employees, if not more — and it’s up to both the remote employee and their manager to make this happen.

Create Communication Habits

In 2012 New York Times Bestseller The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg describes the habit loop. It starts with the cue, then a routine, and finally, a reward. Teams need to identify ways to make communication a habit.

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Beyond keeping meeting minutes and a decision log as mentioned above, the daily standup is an excellent communication habit for all teams, especially remote teams. Standups are an opportunity for teams to gather to discuss work and identify and remove anything getting in the way of productivity. Learn more about standups here.

For remote employees, daily standups are an invaluable opportunity for facetime with their team. Standups allow remote employees to ask for help, communicate their value, and learn how they can add value to the work of others.

Daily standups keep the team in sync, without disrupting the flow of daily work (effective standups usually take less than 15 minutes). The team can check in and prioritize commitments on a daily basis. For managers, daily standups are an excellent opportunity to ensure that the team is prioritizing work according to the team’s goals.

Visualize Work with Kanban

It’s said a picture is worth a thousand words. A few years ago, I was working at a Startup Weekend. We were trying to understand all we needed to do to launch our application. Brandon Carlson started putting up note cards on the wall. This was the first Kanban board I had seen. We started with simple steps, like To Do, Doing, and Done. It was really incredible to see how quickly Kanban helped this group of people become a team — and start prioritizing, delegating, and getting work done.

Visualizing work with Kanban can be invaluable for remote teams. Kanban boards help teams and their managers stay aligned around priorities, goals, and project objectives. Kanban helps remote employees communicate what they’re working on to their team, manager, and stakeholders.

LeanKit is an excellent Kanban tool. If you’re new to Kanban, get started with their excellent Kanban Roadmap. Download it here.

Cultivate Rapport

Rapport is defined as: “a close and harmonious relationship in which the people or groups concerned understand each other’s feelings or ideas and communicate well.” This should be every team’s communication goal. Much like balancing a basketball on your finger, building rapport on a remote team takes constant motion. It’s not something you do once and forget about it. We need to keep it in mind at all times.

When I think of rapport, I always think of my mother. Whenever she meets someone, she tries to find something in common with her new friend. Seeking common ground allows her to establish a meaningful foundation for the relationship. Then, each time she interacts with that person, she has something meaningful to ask about: Instead of a simple, “How are you?”, she’s able to ask, “How is your pottery class going?” or “How is your son liking his new school?” This is why people love my mother — because she is empathetic and cultivates rapport.

Empathy is challenging when you aren’t working face to face. On a remote team, we need to be very attentive to pick up on our co-worker’s emotions and energy. Our teammates may need our help. If we tune them out or only maintain a transactional relationship, we’ll miss an opportunity to help them succeed.

As a team member or a manager of a remote employee, it’s important to know what’s going on, both in their work and their personal lives (as much as they want to share, of course). We spend 40+ hours a week with our coworkers — it’s helpful if we know, like, and understand them as people. Make an effort to cultivate rapport with remote team members by making efforts to include them in social, as well as work conversations. If you’re organizing team building events, find create ways to include remote employees. Do not let a geographical barrier become an emotional or professional one! Cultivate rapport, and you’ll reap the personal and professional rewards of strong team morale.

Keeping Remote Teams Cohesive: (Over-) Communication is Key

The definition of cohesion is “the action or fact of forming a united whole.” The goal of any team is to work as a unified whole towards a common goal. However, unified does not mean uniform — great teams are a mix of talented individuals, and developing cohesion in great teams requires a uniquely personal mix of communication tools, habits, and tactics. Building a remote team that trusts, supports, and empowers each other is a challenge, but it’s a challenge worth tackling.

Recommended Reading

To learn more about building cohesion in remote teams, we recommend the following resources:

Tom Henricksen

Tom Henricksen is a technology professional, career coach, and speaker. He has worked in various roles in technology for over fifteen years. He helps technology professionals at MyITCareerCoach.com. Follow him at https://twitter.com/TomHenricksen.

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