Remote work is the future. More of us are working remotely than ever before, and even without factoring in the effects of the pandemic, more of us expect to work remotely in the future – at least some of the time. But teams don’t just fall into highly effective remote collaboration; they develop robust communication structures to stay visible, aligned and involved.
Remote communication structures are as much about relaying company culture, as they are about providing practical cues for smooth everyday interaction. You need to think carefully about what messages and values you’re sending out. They’re also living systems; you’ll need to regularly revisit your processes as employee time zones, team sizes and digital toolkits change.
While that sounds quite intense, it doesn’t have to be – you just need to outline a few basic norms and protocols somewhere public. Here are a few we’ve been using for the past six years here at Memory to help get you started.
Since most of us regularly use digital forms of communication, it can be easy to gloss over how important in-person interactions really are. Not only do they help us build effective working relationships, but they also allow for context and nuance in a way that digital communication rarely can. It’s also much easier to keep everyone on the same page when you’re all working under the same roof.
So to keep all activity clear, coordinated and accessible to everyone, remote teams have to rethink how they communicate. Setting a few universal communication norms is a great place to start. Here are just a few to keep everyone in the know:
The main reason remote workers are more productive than office workers is because they have control over how and when they communicate. By fitting communication into their schedule, they can protect space for productive deep work and give colleagues their full attention when they are available to help. For these resasons, asynchronous communication should always be your remote team’s default – with video meetings and calls used only for the most complex group problem solving.
Successful remote communication hinges on people knowing exactly what’s expected of them. That includes knowing which communication tools and channels to use when, as well as understanding the time frames, actions and next steps for any tasks they are set.
When you’re working remotely, important context can easily get lost, and wires can become crossed – so it’s crucial to ensure each message you send is fully contextualized. This means including all the relevant background information, resources and links for any interaction – whether it’s an update or announcement, question or new work request.
Before sending any email or comment, take a second to ensure your message is crystal clear. The person you’re talking to shouldn’t have to assume anything or ask questions before they can action your message. If you’re referencing a task or a person, always use the right name. Don’t leave anything open to interpretation. It might feel like you’re over emphasising a point, but in the long run it helps avoid confusion and unnecessary back-and-forth.
Asynchronous communication offers remote teams huge transparency – provided communication tools are used correctly. That means keeping conversations in apps like Slack and Twist public, accessible and searchable – try to use public channels and themed threads over private DMs wherever possible. It’s also a good idea to record any meetings, so they can be consumed asynchronously afterwards by anyone unable to attend.
Virtual collaboration takes place across a ton of different digital tools via a tangle of comments, tags and chat threads – almost every remote tool you use has its own internal communication system. Being so fragmented, it’s easy for communication to get lost – and you might find yourself duplicating messages across several spaces to ensure they are seen. To stay visible and efficient, you just need to establish some basic communication protocols, establishing rules of engagement so everyone understands how, when and where to communicate different things – and what to expect from others.
There should be clearly defined protocols for using different communication tools, so everyone knows how, why and when to use them. Take time to create a process for daily communication tools – e.g. creating Slack guidelines that everyone can follow.
Remote workers need to know when their colleagues will be online, especially if they work in different time zones to them. Setting core hours can help clarify this – ensuring important catch-ups and meetings don’t happen at unsociable hours or when someone is on lunch.
If you have set hours for responding to email and Slack, make sure everyone knows about them. With async communication, you don’t need to be instantly available to give your opinion, but people should have an idea of when they can expect a response from you.
Just as you should over communicate the content of your messages, so should you over communicate your availability. You can do this by incorporating visual clues: if you’re in the middle of deep work, change your Slack status to ‘do not disturb’ (or get AI to do it for you!), so people know not to bother you. Similarly, if you’re out of office for any reason, make sure it’s clear in your status so people aren’t left pinging you in the dark.
If someone is going to be out of the office, it’s important to ensure other employees know about it early on, so they can adjust schedules and resources if needed. Try using a public team calendar to make it easy to visualize and sync team attendance, and coordinate team efforts.
To protect your culture from virtual presenteeism and employee burnout, have a clear policy on out-of-hours work. Create your own “right to disconnect” policy to deal with people sending work requests out-of-hours, working on vacation and sending late-night emails. Make sure everyone documents their overtime and work hours, to help address deterioration of work/life boundaries.
Just because meetings are virtual rather than in-person, doesn’t mean you can show up whenever. Make sure everyone knows to arrive at the time meetings start, not five minutes after.
Each remote workers should have regular touch-ins and know when they’re coming – not only to keep on track with projects, but to strengthen relationships and build trust. Schedule meetings well in advance, whether that’s team catch-ups, one-to-one conversations or all-hands meetings, so people know when to expect it and can sufficiently prepare for it.
To stay visible, involved and represented, remote workers need ways to to feedback on the remote experience – both anonymously and publicly. If employees aren’t able to give feedback and feel secure about it, you won’t be able to respond to individual concerns and needs. Think about different ways you can gather remote employee feedback.
Just because you can’t chat by the coffee machine doesn't mean your remote team can’t enjoy casual social conversation. Create digital social spaces by setting up Slack social channels, scheduling daily virtual breaks together, and saving the last 10 minutes of video meetings to share personal news.