Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations considered remote work a perk, perhaps even one that was limited to a handful of trusted employees. Now, millions of people are connecting on Slack, Zoom, and other collaboration tools every day to help keep their companies functioning.
Not surprisingly, many of these remote workers report that communication is their biggest challenge. Here are some tips to help your teams stay connected, build trust, and get work done.
1. Use a chat app
When you’re working remotely, most communications are asynchronous – you can’t simply drop by a colleague’s cube to ask a question. To address this, plan your tasks so you won’t be blocked while waiting for an answer.
If your team doesn’t use a chat app, such as Slack, that enables everyone to see a discussion, now’s the time to start.
[ Want more tips for efficient remote workgroups? Read Remote work: Lessons from a remote-first company. ]
When using such tools, effective organization is critical for keeping conversations on topic. Break out channels for different product areas, projects, and teams, and use a prefix (such as #prod- for product teams) to make them easy to find. (At Tricentis Flood, some of our most popular Slack channels include #anything (watercooler chat), #eng- prefixed engineering channels, and #sales, where a bot posts the logo of each company that signs up for our load-testing service.)
It’s normal to have more channels than team members. Be sure to make them long-lived so team members can search back to gain context about previous discussions. Also, acquaint yourself with the “Remind me about this” feature; it’s especially helpful when you’re scanning messages on your phone, for example, and see a request that’s easier to address from your computer.
2. Over-communicate everything
Keeping everyone on the same page can be tricky, especially for companies that are growing quickly. Consider recording any communications that happen outside of Slack in a tool such as Notion so that the entire team can follow all discussions and decisions. At Flood, this has been invaluable for helping everyone catch up across time zones. We think of Slack as transient conversation and Notion as persistent thought.
3. Establish online etiquette
If your teams work in different parts of the country or the world, be mindful of time zones. Get a good world clock app to avoid calling colleagues at inappropriate times (Slack and other tools can also remind you of other people’s time zones). At Flood, we use flag emojis as our status icons to indicate what time zone each person is in on any given day.
Even if your teammates are just down the street, it’s important to establish an etiquette for notifying channels or pinging people. Don’t assume, or require, an immediate response. We use a simple thumbs-up emoji to acknowledge messages to each other and eye emojis to indicate we’re taking a look.
4. Give feedback
Writing feedback to colleagues in a public chat can sometimes feel awkward or unsatisfying, but with no feedback, your team members will feel isolated and unmotivated.
Our team uses the “HeyTaco!” Slack chatbot, using a taco emoji to reward each other for helping out, achieving goals, or just doing great work. Every taco, and its rationale, is visible to the whole team, and tacos are tied to rewards such as paid days off and Amazon gift cards.
5. Keep everyone up to date
Many teams meet daily at the office, formally or informally. A stand-up meeting typically gives each team member 30 seconds to update the team on what they plan to do that day and where they need help. This is important for sharing intent as well as identifying blockers.
Stand-ups work well for remote teams but expect them to be asynchronous. There are several Slack bots available that can help with this. We use Geekbot, which pings each team member at 9:00 a.m. in their local time zone to ask: “What did you achieve yesterday, and what will you work on today?” Responses are posted in our #standup channel, along with stats on team-wide standup participation.
6. Increase communication bandwidth
We use Zoom for quick video calls, but we always take notes and share them with the team afterward. To ensure that everyone knows what was discussed, record and share details such as:
- Who attended the call
- What was discussed
- What alternatives were mentioned
- What was decided
- Who approved any changes
7. Make decisions thoughtfully
Whether your team is debating a simple icon color change or a critical business decision, the underlying thought process is just as important as the decision itself. We tend to “rubber duck” (using a duck emoji) to indicate when we are thinking or talking through a decision and input is not necessarily required within Slack. When we need participation, we ask others to comment in threads.
Recording thoughts and discussions helps others understand the context of decisions later. Once decisions are made, we record them in Notion for traceability and transparency.
8. Be open
Remote team members obviously can’t rely on the nonverbal cues that happen in face-to-face communication, but they can use methods such as emojis to help gauge each other’s mood and status.
For example, at Flood, we use the following emoji-based system:
- Carrot: Trying to focus
- 8 ball: “Snookered” or stuck
- Cactus: Distressed, feeling awful
- Watermelon: A little fragile, in need of support
9. Look for signs of success
Once your team settles into remote work, look for the following signs that indicate things are running smoothly:
- Most of your email is coming from people outside the company because you’re using more efficient channels internally
- Team productivity has reached previous (non-remote) levels
- Group chat is noisy, and discussions of both work and home life (including hobbies – think #homebrew) have developed
Once all these communication tools are in place, you might wonder what will happen once the world returns to a more normal state. If your team is just as productive working from home, should you commit to maintaining a culture of remote work?
Remote work will be an integral part of workplace culture for the foreseeable future. I hope the strategies we’ve developed at Flood help make it more enjoyable and productive for your team.
[ Are you leading culture change? Get the free eBook, Organize for Innovation, by Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst. ]
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