Five tips for communicating with your remote team

You love working from home, and you love the small team you work with, but you are just. so. sick. of searching through your email inbox wondering “What did Uma say about keeping costs down again? Was it about the Carter project?”

You need to get your team on the same page about how and when to communicate, stat. But you don’t know where to start.

I hear you.

Here are five principles of good communication for you and your team:

1. Keep your discussions in a single, central location

You should have a single go-to place where your team members can check who said what, when. When everything is kept in one place, it’s much easier to keep clear on the current status of any given project.

And no, your single, central location cannot be email. Why not? Because email has so many distractions baked right into it that it makes it impossible for our brains to stay on task.

Instead, try a system designed for team communications, and which allows your team members to completely immerse themselves in one project at a time. I’ve tried (and liked) both Asana and Basecamp.

2. Have one dedicated discussion per project

Some online systems (including Asana and Basecamp) are geared in a way that will allow your team members to start a new discussion every time they have a new thought or question.

I highly recommend a team policy where each project gets exactly one online discussion. End of story. This makes it much easier to preserve a clear record of what happened on a project, and what the latest information is. It also makes it easier to find a piece of information someone mentioned a few weeks ago. You don’t need to search through dozens of different discussions, because there’s only one discussion per project.

If you find a new tangent developing that isn’t strictly about that project, then it’s time to start a new discussion.

3. Make sure you see each other’s faces and hear each other’s voices

Working from home can be isolating. People who feel isolated are less happy and less productive.

To feel like they’re part of a “real team”, your team members need to see each other’s faces and hear each other’s voices.

Firstly, require everyone to upload a profile picture to whatever online system you’re using for team conversations. This small change makes a really big difference!

Secondly, speak to each other in real time every so often. It’s the only way you get a sense that the people you’re speaking to are real people. Over the phone is good, video chat is better, face-to-face is best.

Speaking to each other helps you get a sense for who your teammates really are. It helps you better understand the tone of their written communications and to maintain a friendly atmosphere.

Importantly, though, you should summarise any important decisions or discussion points from your real-time conversations and put them into writing in your single, central location. You’d be amazed at how easy it is to forget what you decided in that meeting two weeks ago, when nobody wrote it down.

4. Have a designated hardass

People will fail to follow the system. They’ll email each other instead of posting in your single, central location. They’ll post new discussions about an existing project, or (shock, horror), start totally new topics of conversation within an existing discussion. They’ll make decisions over the phone and then fail to record those decisions anywhere.

That’s OK. It’s part of the process.

The solution is to have a designated hardass. Someone whose job it is to say “just a friendly reminder that this should have been posted under the central discussion for the project”, or “I’ve moved this conversation out of our email inboxes and into our central discussion, where it belongs.”

If you don’t designate a hardass, one of two things will happen: Either the entire system will collapse and within weeks you’ll be back to spending hours searching your inbox for that thing Uma said about keeping costs down. Or, someone will designate themselves as the hardass, and everyone else will resent them for it.

Ideally, your designated hardass would be someone who is a stickler for the rules, but also someone who questions the rules when they don’t make sense. You will need to make adjustments as you go. If the designated hardass notices that a lot of people are breaking the same rule, then that’s probably because the rule isn’t working! That means it’s time to find a better rule that works for the team.

5. Encourage people to talk about problems

When you work in the same office as your teammates, certain problems become obvious. If a particular aspect of your customer communications isn’t working, for example, and every member of the sales team is spending heaps of time clarifying the same misunderstanding, chances are that the sales team will notice.

But when you work remotely, it becomes really easy to overlook things like that. Unless the sales team regularly discusses their day-to-day work, they may never notice that their personal frustrations are symptoms of an underlying problem.

The only way to ensure that such problems come to the surface in a geographically dispersed team is to explicitly encourage people to talk about them. Choose someone to should collect information about problems. (It could be the designated hardass, the project manager, or the team manager, for example.) And then (this part is important) that person needs to thank people profusely every single time they raise a problem. Regardless of how they really feel.

It’s that second part (the “thank you”) that actually sends the message that it’s OK to raise problems, and that saves you from the hassle of finding out six months down the track that the reason your sales are underwhelming is because of a small piece of misleading text on your website.

What principles do you use to communicate successfully with your team? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!


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