How High-Performing Distributed Teams Tackle Their Communication Challenges

Why do some companies have higher performing remote teams than others?

We researched and interviewed successful remote teams to collect best practices and actionable strategies to set up, manage and develop remote teams. First up, communication.

The Challenges of Communication in Dispersed Teams

Remote, hybrid and dispersed teams naturally have a (minor) competitive disadvantage to their in-house counterparts when it comes to opportunities for face-to-face communication. Less physical contact with colleagues can hurt team cohesion and affect both company compliance and productivity.

When the majority of our workplace interactions take place through screens, apps and devices, it can be challenging to build trust, rapport and accountability between team members. Non-verbal cues such as tone, pitch and body language help us see whether our audience looks engaged by our presentation. These signals also give us context. Without them, we can easily misinterpret an email or text message and jump to conclusions based on our own fears or assumptions.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Worst case, employees have an entire working relationship with someone they only know by email. Reduced engagement, limited communication and unstructured time for knowledge sharing can all slow down career growth and decrease motivation and loyalty.

The Solution: A well designed internal communication strategy

A 2017 study by the Harvard Business Review revealed that many remote employees feel isolated, left out and that coworkers wouldn’t communicate changes to projects that involved them.  

While remote and flexible working is here to stay, simply returning to the office and sitting at a desk amongst team members is not a solution. In fact, remote employees are as productive (or even more productive) than their on-site counterparts.  In-person teams also face workplace communication challenges when there’s an over reliance on email and lack of interpersonal connections.

So, what’s the secret? The most successful and high-performing remote and dispersed teams all have one key trait in common: they know how to build solid relationships and retain engaged employees through impeccable communication. They are aware of the pitfalls and dangers that come with working remotely and consciously set up structures for synchronous as well as asynchronous communication.

5 Effective Communication Practices for Remote Teams from Industry Leaders

Acework spoke with People Ops Specialist Sara Bent at Hotjar, a fully remote and leading SaaS company; and Andrew Gobran, People Operations at Doist, a global, distributed team that creates productivity software.  

Here are their top tips for staying connected that go beyond video conferencing.

1. Establish set hours each day when everyone will be online

Hotjar is a fully remote team of 72 team members working across multiple time zones. To maximise overlap, each team member works within specified times and all employees are online for three core hours each day. This ensures everyone is included for company-wide meetings and is available on Slack when quick responses are required.

2. Stay informed with quick daily briefs and weekly meetings or status updates

“When I started at Hotjar two years ago, there were 18 of us. Now, we’ve grown to 72. So the bigger we get, the harder communication becomes because you are split across more teams and departments,” explains Sara.

She meets with her team for a short daily check-in by video call on Google Meets and is aware of what her immediate team members are working on every day. This leaves no room for speculation or misunderstanding.

As a wider company, the whole team will gather on a Zoom video conference weekly. One spokesperson from each team will present what each has worked on for the week, so everyone is informed of the most pertinent issues. All meetings are recorded, so if someone is unable to join, it’s easy to log in and review.

“When the team meetings end early, we tend to stay on for the full time and use it as an opportunity to chat and have some social time together,” says Sara.

For Doist, weekly status updates replace daily briefs and weekly meetings. Each team member posts what they’ve accomplished the previous week, what they’ll be working on in the current week and any challenges they are facing. “This allows us to be on the same page about what our teammates are working on and make sure that we are mindful of each other’s workload,” says Andrew.

Tip: Stick to technology and tools that are designed for remote and distributed teams. ZoomGoogle Hangouts or Skype for business can accommodate small and large groups and offer video and screen sharing. Seeing your colleagues faces will give you much needed visual cues and will increase bonding, while synchronous messaging and communication is faster and more expressive.  Zoom’s recording function ensures no important information gets lost, which is crucial for teams with a large timezone spread.

Learn how Zoom helps the distributed company Remote Year create a bonding culture with a team spread across the world.

3. Meet in-person at a retreat or mini-meetup

Photo: courtesy of Doist

Doist, a fully remote and asynchronous team of 63 people, is on a mission to make work calmer, more balanced, and more fulfilling with simple yet powerful tools like Todoist  & Twist. Although Doist’s team members are physically separated for most of the year, “real” facetime is still important.  

“Every year we host a company retreat to get the whole team together in person, where we bridge work and pleasure,” says Andrew. Doist has also started hosting some mini-retreats where individual teams can meet together for work and team-building.

Hotjar also shares the same beliefs. Twice a year the entire team meets up in-person at company retreats for both work and fun. “We feel it’s really important to have that facetime because you get to know your team members a bit better and learn about their communication style, which helps when we’re communicating over Slack,” says Sara.

Photo: courtesy of Hotjar

Workplace retreats and mini-meetups amongst colleagues and smaller teams are an  easy way to improve team building, productivity and company culture because they offer a new and neutral setting that combines relaxation with business.

Retreats are not only integral to building the culture of a remote team, they can also serve as an opportunity for high productivity. It comes at no surprise that they are quickly becoming a common practice for remote companies. BufferZapier and GitLab are well-known for their well-planned and elaborate retreats.

4. Take a 15-minute (virtual) coffee break with a colleague

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Just because you’re not sharing the same break room with your colleagues, doesn’t mean you can’t step away from the screen and share a cuppa with someone. At Hotjar, team members are encouraged to take virtual tea breaks together.

“When you’re in an office, you’ll often go for tea with someone on a break. What we like to do is schedule 15 to 20 mins with a colleague to chat and have tea, using an online chat tool such asGoogle Meet or Zoom,” says Sara.

5. Get Social

The team at Doist use Twist, their own app designed to help teams cultivate more mindful communication and collaboration. They have set up social groups within Twist, focused on creating community around shared interests such as music, gaming, book, and parenthood. “At Doist, we’re already deeply connected by our mission and work, but social groups give us the opportunity to connect over everyday interests which also have a way of enriching our work.”

For Hotjar, on Wednesday the entire team meets for a weekly bonfire chat.  This call is open to team members who have the time for a fun, mid-week social call. “Sometimes it’s just us chatting for an hour, other times there’ll be a topic, or we’ll play games, and other times we’ve done a brainstorming session,” says Sara.

Create an Internal Communications Strategy  

Finding the right balance of synchronous and asynchronous communication is critical for distributed teams. Synchronous communication helps employees to develop interpersonal connections organically. Asynchronous communication serves to make knowledge easily available to everyone in the organisation.   

To ensure top-notch communication amongst your team, develop an internal communications plan from the get-go. This evens the playing field so all dispersed team members are following the same standards. It provides them with the structure and tools to feel connected, heard and productive.

What are some best communications practices that your team employs? What has and hasn’t worked?

At acework we are warriors for greater flexibility and happiness at work. We are always curious how the rest of the remote work community gets this done. Get in touch and let us know your ideas and best practices (hello@acework.io).

Category remote hiring, remote work