By Mathilde Leo
Remote work is the dream, until you realize exactly how much you’re staring at your screen — not to mention how many notifications, pings, and threads are competing for your attention on that screen. Suddenly, you might feel the pressure to be constantly “online.”
But that’s all part and parcel of being on a remote team, where communicating often means juggling multiple tools and expectations. It means having to balance the need for distraction-free work and the necessity to be available at all times. And it’s not an easy task, especially when you don’t see your colleagues everyday — and emoji reactions have replaced water-cooler conversations.
So how do you turn things around? The first step is to diagnose the problem: what communication challenges are you most exposed to? Then it’s time to explore your solutions for a healthier line of communication, which this article is here to help you do.
Diagnostics: Common Communication Challenges for Remote Teams
If you want to improve, you first have to identify which specific problems you’re dealing with. Here are the most common communication hurdles faced by distributed teams.
Real-Time Chatter and FOMO
In the remote world, instant messaging is both a boon and a curse. At once our means for communication, it’s also a trigger that makes us compelled to read and respond to everything that comes our way. As Samuel Hulick writes in his “break-up” letter to Slack, the popular instant messaging app: “Just because it’s fun to hang out at the water cooler at work, it doesn’t mean I want to work there.”
Imagine if all the most strategic company decisions were made at the watercooler. Most people would end up hanging out there, chatting, and staying really hydrated, instead of doing, well, work. If you’re not careful, this can easily happen in your remote team. Matters get worse when your team is spread across time zones: it’s hard to stay in the loop (much less motivated) when topics have already been discussed and decisions made by the time you even wake up.
Feeling Out of the Loop
What if some of your team works in an office, but you don’t? It’s simple: your fear of missing out is compounded. A recent HBR study found that a majority of remote employees feel left out and doubted, especially in partially distributed teams.
This adds to already salient paradox of remote work (and what most companies don’t tell you): despite being hyper-connected and always on(line), you’re going to find yourself isolated. That’s why perhaps, you’re holding on to chitchats in public channels: these notifications bring back some humanity into your screen-first environment.
The Cost of Interruption
What happens when you’re bombarded with notifications? You stop, interrupt your work, and re-orient your attention to that external stimuli. But this comes with a switching cost, as the neuroscience of attention has well demonstrated: in other words, your working memory is being eaten.
This is what Adam Gazzeley, author of Distracted Mind and researcher at MIT, distinguishes as an interruption, or an “interference.” Clearly, it’s meddling with our ability to set goals — and meet them.
So, what’s the solution?
Solutions: 4 Habits for Calmer Communication
The good news is that breaking this cycle of chaotic communication doesn’t have to be hard: it just requires a conscious change of habits. Here are some simple ones you can use to turn things around.
1. Establish Ground Rules
Just because you can communicate at the speed of light doesn’t mean you should. Instead of defaulting to ‘more’ and ‘faster’ messaging, establish clear rules and set expectations. The objective is to remove the ambiguity that so often surrounds real-time communication by providing guidelines around how people should interact with each other.
- What qualifies as time-sensitive information?
- How should people approach you if they need urgent feedback?
- Which conversations should take place in a public vs private channel?
- What are the rules around tagging an entire @channel?
In other words: define what ‘urgent’ means and be explicit about how your team should communicate, so that people know what kind of situations necessitate emergency (i.e. “no snooze”) attention.
For everything else, let the team know that it’s perfectly okay to respond in their own time. Go about this the right way and you’ll be able to liberate your team from the tyranny of the instant response, making room for deep and focused work, instead.
2. Audit and Adapt
Making sure that these rules work in practice is as important as setting them. To that end, popular platforms like Slack offer built-in analytics that let you see how your team is using it.
Pro-tip: evaluate the split between public and private conversations on your communication platform of choice! If too many 1:1 conversations are happening, it could be a sign that important information isn’t openly available. Not only is a lack of publicly searchable data a major efficiency block, it’ll also inevitably result in conversation overload.
3. Make Asynchronous the Norm
Asynchronous communication is another habit that successful remote teams have adopted. Simply put, it means allowing yourself and your team to respond later, instead of immediately. Successful distributed tech companies like Github or Automattic have made it their modus operandi. It works because it gives people the space and time to receive, take in, and respond to the information in a way that doesn’t interrupt their work.
Wait a minute. Isn’t email THE asynchronous method? Yes – but it’s a terrible one, simply because it doesn’t provide the transparency your team needs to make informed decisions. You need a way to document critical information and important conversations, making sure that everyone from the CEO down to the newest team member stays in the loop.
Here are three alternative tools for you to consider:
- Basecamp — As a veteran of remote collaboration and one of the earliest tools in the space, Basecamp combines to-do lists, message boards, schedules, and documents.
- Twist — The new kid on the block of remote tools, Twist was built to help teams “tame the chaos of communication.” Threads let you keep your conversations organized by specific topics. That means you no longer have to check every little ping to stay in the loop and can digest and respond on your own time.
- Notion — If Google Sheets met your favourite To Do and Wiki apps, their child might look a lot like Notion App. Notion includes powerful and easy-to-use databases, an intuitive commenting system, and some flexible modularity that enables you to document and structure information in any way you prefer.
4. Humanize Your Communication
While communicating asynchronous is key, so is making time for real, face-to-face interactions. When it comes to hashing out a difficult decision, brainstorming, giving or receiving feedback, the written word won’t do the trick.
There’s no shortage of studies pointing to the positive impact of building social ties and trust at work — which means that you shouldn’t let your screen-first, remote environment stands in the way of creating connections in your team.
Here are simple ways to do this:
- Use video conferencing whenever possible. Seeing your teammates will go a long way in ensuring that your team is productive and happy. So the next time you hop on a call, don’t forget to turn that video on.
- Schedule regular 1:1 time. Make sure you use these moments to highlight when you’re happy with someone’s work, or share more personal feedback. Use this non work focused face time to ask how you’re doing too. It’s easy to get caught up in working, or talking about the work. Take a step back and reflect on your own.
- Make time for team building. Designate specific times to foster community and knowledge sharing, such as remote ‘lunch and learn’ sessions. Finally, scheduling regular on-site get-togethers is another way to set the foundation for a strong team culture even when everyone is back to their respective location.
All of which to say: communicating in a remote team doesn’t have to be chaotic. There’s an art to building habits that enable real work and collaboration. It requires practice and tweaking, and strong incentives for people to default to asynchronous communication. By experimenting with these habits, you’ll unlock insane results for your team.