As an IT services outsourcing agency working with nearshored development teams, at K&C we’ve always worked with remote teams and understand better than most how important a well-oiled remote teams communication system is. Good communication is the foundation to success in any work environment and arguably even more so in a virtual environment. Clarity of communication is far more important than frequency and achieving that rests on well designed standards, systems and, ultimately, strong team culture and buy-in.
Over the years we’ve fine-tuned our remote teams communications system. Now you can use it too. If your team has been used to working on-site, or you are personally new to managing a remote team, it may be a daunting prospect. But don’t let it be. Lean on our two decades of experience!
What are the best processes to put in place and most important things to keep in mind so everyone is clear what they are doing, how it should be done and by when? And, just as crucially, how do you promote strong, consistent collaboration, constructive inter-team professional and informal bonds and maintain company culture? Are there specific tools that stand out as the ‘best of kind’, for remote teams? How do we avoid the obvious risks like miscommunicating tone when communicating online?
K&C’s blueprint for remote teams communication standards will actually improve your organisation’s communication in a way you will keep seeing the benefits from, even when you return to the office. And the trend to more remote work expected to strengthen in coming years. Even before the onset of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic we find ourselves in the eye of as spring 2020 begins, the trend towards more remote, or semi-remote was definitive. A survey by the Global Workplace Analytics and FlexJobs found that remote work has grown 91% over the last 10 years and nobody expects that trajectory to change over the next few years, especially post-Covid-19.
Now is the perfect moment to give your organisation greater flexibility by putting in place the communication systems and tools that will stand you in good stead for years to come. Organisations with remote-friendly systems that work just as well for an on-site, remote of hybrid team will have an advantage in an evolving market.
For anyone who still considers remote teams a last resort rather than a genuinely viable alternative to on-site teams, there is now a wealth of evidence that doesn’t have to be the case.
Done well, a majority remote working environment can, if anything, boost both the effectiveness of communication and, ultimately, productivity and the progress towards organisational goals. Working remotely can help foster a greater personal sense of ‘ownership’ and self-discipline. As well as cut out a lot of the distractions and ‘time-sucks’ typical of a bustling office environment.
This Harvard Business Review study looks at an experiment in a Chinese call center, that offered employees the opportunity to volunteer to work remotely for nine months.
Half the team worked remotely with the rest remaining in the office as a control group. Survey responses and performance data collected at the conclusion of the study indicated the remote group were not only happier and less likely to quit but also more productive than their peers in the control group.
WordPress, the software that powers a huge 26% of all of the websites on the internet, is one of the best examples of how remote teams can be made to work for even large enterprises. Automattic, the company behind WordPress, pulled down the shutters on its beautiful, sprawling 15,000 square-foot (approx. 1500 m2) office in San Francisco in 2017.
The decision was not a financial one – WordPress is hugely profitable. But having introduced a policy of majority remote work for any employees who preferred to not come into the office, it had reached the stage that the elegant office space had an average of 5 employees using it on any given day.
Even for a company as financially secure as Automattic, it was obviously pointless to maintain a major overhead that meant employees who did work from the office had around 3000 square feet of space each!
Remote work environments are no longer limited to start-ups trying to be ‘on trend’ or forced into making concessions to attract scarce tech specialists. Corporations with a big enough name and able to pay salaries at a level that allow them to set the agenda are realising remote teams offer advantages across both employee satisfaction and retention and broader company priorities like productivity gains.
The fact that a remote working environment can be advantageous for organisations on different levels doesn’t, of course, mean that it doesn’t present challenges. Like any system it has to be done right for it to be effective.
If you are from an IT or software development background, just consider the push-back and teething problems you may well have witnessed around the implementation of Agile or DevOps processes. These systems have been proven to be extremely effective at improving communication, productivity and, most importantly, end results. But only if done right – which means sticking to the system as a whole and not cherry picking some elements while rejecting others.
An effective system for high performance remote work is no different. And, like any other productivity system, excellent communication is at its heart. Productivity and communication are tightly connected and interdependent in the context or remote work. In this article our focus is on remote team communication.
The sister article to this one focuses on our remote team productivity systems so be sure to check it out also. There’s an intrinsic degree of overlap but reading both will give you the deepest insight into our 20+ years of experience of managing the workflow and ensuring the quality of output of remote teams.
“Homo sapiens conquered the world because of its unique language. The Cognitive Revolution occurred between 70,000 to 30,000 years ago. It allowed Homo sapiens to communicate at a level never seen before in language. As far as we know, only Homo sapiens can talk about things we have never seen, touched, or smelled”. – Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
In Sapiens, his bestselling non-fiction book on the cultural evolution of humanity, Yuval Noah Harari describes how it was the cognitive revolution that, without any biological evolution, suddenly transformed the fortunes of humans.
Language-based communication allowed ever larger groups of humans to collaborate. This collaboration was the rocket fuel for the development of knowledge and understanding. History shows that the pace of scientific and cultural progress has closely tracked the expansion of communication between more and more people. That exponential gains in human knowledge and capabilities coincides with the birth of the internet is no coincidence. Fast, cheap and easy collaborative communication between the whole world was suddenly possible.
Why, then, organisational success relies on, more than anything else, strong communication systems and standards, and by extension the fostering of common culture, is immediately obvious. It’s the foundation of humanity’s unique trajectory – one not based on biological evolution.
Let’s keep this brief as it isn’t new knowledge for anyone but still worth quickly drawing attention to. We know, at least in theory, that verbal communication, the actual words spoken, is actually a minority component to overall human communication.
Non-verbal behaviour like body movements and posture, facial expressions, eye contact, hand gestures and tone of voice all contribute to how we communicate and understand each other.
We’ve all experienced how easy it is for tone and sentiment to be misconstrued through purely written communication. Especially when we don’t know the other person intimately. And it is still a danger even when we do.
Contemporary communications technology and systems go some way to compensating for the stripped back ‘functionality’ of communicating remotely. Audio tech means we can speak to each other with intonation and tone and adding video feeds mean we can see facial expressions and posture to a degree. The latest tech means remote communication gets closer to face-to-face communication with each passing year. New VR and AR tech means even complex surgery is now being performed by remote teams.
Technology, systems and standards to compensate for shortcomings can culminate in an even more effective end result. Most of us have some difficulty with mental arithmetic beyond relatively simple calculations. An even smaller minority can comfortably solve equations mentally, or even with a pen and paper.
But the invention of first more rudimentary technology like the abacus, then electronic calculator and finally computers allowed us to overcome those limitations. Can the shortfalls of remote communication not be compensated, and the end result even improved, with the support of technology and clear systems? Our 20 years of experience managing teams based in our offices but in the majority remote from our partners, suggest they can.
We now also use systems developed for remote communication between our own team members working from the same office space. Because they have been specifically designed to cut out the danger of miscommunication, communication breakdown and, also important, inefficiencies resulting from over-communication, they now form the blueprint for all of K&C’s internal and client communication.
This is how we do it and what we’ve learned over the years and countless client projects. What you won’t find here is recommendations for specific business management/productivity system brands or communications tools because what works for us is not necessarily what will work best for you. And there is a large element of subjectivity in choices between specific tech and branded business management/productivity systems.
What’s important is having a strong process and defined system in place. Choosing exactly which brands and tech is matter of your organisation’s needs and preferences:
Different organisations work to different productivity and achievement systems. At K&C, we use OKR (Objectives & Key Results) system, so good communication standards form part of that framework. It doesn’t matter what your organisation’s preferred system happens to be as long as you integrate communication goals into it.
As part of the OKRs system, the team communication objective would be something like:
“Create an Awesome System For Remote Team Communication.”
Sounds great but not very substantial, right? That’s where the key results come in. They are there to add measurability to the objective.
Examples of key results that measure whether or not inter-team communication is indeed awesome could be:
You will of course have to set starting numbers against which to measure key results. OKRs are shortish term, usual for a quarter but there is no reason that timeframe can’t be shortened to start with. The shorter life cycle of the system also makes it agile and flexible to new directions taken or priorities set.
Whether you are using OKRs or another system, there is usually a clear distinction between goals, measurables or KPIs that indicate progress towards those goals and tasks that have to be completed towards achieving first the KPIs then overall objective/goal.
Examples of specific tasks that might need to be assigned and completed in setting up an awesome team communication system would be:
As remote work, including remote teams from the same company, those comprised of members from different organisations and partner and client-side cooperation on a particular project, becomes more common, the number of tech solutions also grows quickly. Many of them are very good and make a real contribution to effective remote communication and productivity.
That’s obviously a good thing. But there’s also a danger that lurks – ‘shiny new things syndrome’. The term might be tongue-in-cheek but can be a real issue that hampers communication and productivity. Those afflicted by shiny new things syndrome can’t help but want to try out or be early adopters of the latest new bit of SaaS or digital solution.
The problem with management with shiny new things syndrome is that even if the latest remote communications product to be released is great, exploring it and then implementing it costs time and energy. Constantly updating your system with the latest, trending digital tools is likely to take more away from productivity than it will add.
That doesn’t mean your organisation should never update its remote team communication, or any other, system from time to time. New products that genuinely move the needle in some way will occasionally come to market. But most of the time improvements on what you are already using are likely to be incremental and chopping and changing tools used in your system for new variations will cost you more time to adopt than they will save you by improving communication and ultimately productivity.
Take the ‘keep it simple’ approach here too. If what you are using already is working well, don’t be in a hurry to make changes or updates. Review things periodically, annually for example, and focus on new alternatives only when your communication measurables indicate something is deteriorating or no longer working. Don’t be tempted into regular or sweeping changes inspired by shiny new things syndrome.
Set communication rules. For example, at K&C, we have a hard and fast rule that all task-based communication is documented in Jira. That doesn’t mean a task can’t be discussed via Zoom or Skype. But it does mean it can’t just be discussed via Zoom or Skype without a task then being set, and completed, in Jira.
Setting and monitoring communications rules is one of the simplest but also one of the most crucial tips we can offer when it comes to effective management of remote teams. It goes a long way to minimising the opportunity for miscommunication and, ultimately, conflict between team members.
As with any kind of system, the most effective communication system for remote teams will be the one that is stripped back to the bare minimum without compromising the functionality of what it is there to do. Not adding unnecessary layers, rules and complications is a very valuable piece of advice to keep in mind.
the Jevons paradox refers to technological progress making it more efficient to use a given resource leading to more of that resource, not less, being used overall. Increased efficiency leads to more economic opportunities and more incentives for using the resource.
The paradox can easily make its way into workplace communication – especially those between a remote team. Because it’s so efficient to exchange messages now, we send more messages. We schedule more video calls and spend all day emailing and discussing things over instant messenger. As a result, we’re spending more time than ever on communication—and less time on the tasks and projects most important for our long-term goals.
There are clear benefits to instant communication, especially in the context of managing remote teams. But there is also the risk of distraction and falling productivity resulting from too much communication. So, while treating team members like responsible adults and being careful not to discourage informal communication, it is also important to structure communication so that it is lean and effective.
When designing your own remote teams communication system, and when revising it, consider carefully what the result of removing each individual element would be. If it wouldn’t obviously hinder the overall system from working – remove it. Or at least A/B test the system with and without the element and then remove it or don’t based on the practical evidence.
While we are 100% of the belief it is possible for organisations to run effectively, productively and profitably in either a 100% remote environment or one in which remote work is common, our experience also shows us that it’s not an environment that works for everyone.
Professionals who work remotely must have good levels of self-discipline and initiative. They have to be, or learn to be, good communicators in the sense that they contribute to making communications systems in place run smoothly rather than disrupt them. And they have to be experts in what they do if they are to function both autonomously and as part of the whole of the team without the need for constant support.
The reality is certain individuals will do better in an office environment, others in a remote environment and some will thrive and be comfortable in both. If remote team work will be an ongoing requirement, your recruitment processes and criteria should reflect that.
Setting strict communication rules also doesn’t mean cutting out informal communication. Remote teams bonding through informal communication is just as important as it is in a traditional office setting where everyone is in one place.
It fosters empathy, friendships, professional respect and also lets team members let off steam, or arrive at constructive suggestions on improving things, by griping to each other.
Those are all crucial to the kind of social cohesion that leads to effective and widespread collaboration. And its that collaboration that delivers the kind of outstanding results that are almost impossible for one person, even an expert, to achieve working in isolation.
There should, therefore, be established informal communications channels. That doesn’t mean management should establish those channels. They probably shouldn’t even be included in them, or at least not all of them. But helping nudge them into existence, or tacitly supporting them by not interfering in them or suggesting they are frowned upon, is certainly recommended.
In K&C’s case, our teams often work remotely from our clients and it is common for us to have teams of members split between our nearshored Kiev and Krakow offices. In most circumstances people still come into our offices so it’s predominantly a ‘hybrid remote’ model that we operate. #
But we do occasionally have fully remote team members, team members who are on-site with our clients for a period but need maintain communication with the rest of the team who are working on the project remotely or teams where only one member will be based in one office with the rest in another.
When a new team member joins the company and is not in the same office as other team members, or with only a couple of members of a wider team largely based elsewhere, it is important to make an extra effort to introduce them to the rest of the team and integrate them.
There doesn’t have to be a big song and dance about it but it’s important for new remote team members to quickly feel part of the collective effort and company culture. That ranges from the obvious first step of introducing them during the daily video conference to injecting as much collaboration with other team members, and different team members, as possible into their early responsibilities.
We’ve found that working together on tasks with other team members is the most effective way for them to get to know people and quickly integrate. Managers also take additional care to get to know new team members and check in on them in a personable way, as well as making sure they are comfortable they know what they are doing, why and its value to the project’s bigger picture.
Finally (10 tips would have been a nice round number but we’re sticking to the ‘keep it simple’ rule by not adding padding to get to 10!), at K&C our golden rule to successful remote communication is that meeting in person is also extremely important.
Yes, good systems, processes and tools mean remote work can be hugely effective. So effective we, as mentioned at the outset of the post, use the same processes, systems and tools, with the exception of video conferencing tools that facilitate remote meetings, for team communication when members are physically in one place. Our offices or on-site visiting clients.
But nothing truly replaces the positives of occasionally getting people together in person. Live video conferencing can make up for some of the vital elements that are part of human communication lost through written communication. But not entirely. Especially when several people are on a call together.
It’s hard to get a ‘feel’ and establish a bond, whether friendly or amicably professional, with people we’ve never met face-to-face. Regardless of tech advancements, that’s always likely to be the case.
The good news is, even meeting someone once, preferably periodically, in person goes a long way to bridging that shortfall in what digital communications technology can achieve. So, if you are managing an entirely remote team or teams, or your team is working remotely with a client or partner, make an effort to bring them together if at all possible.
It could be a day or two in the office every quarter or even an annual company event that brings everyone together. If it’s a remote project with a client, their main point of contact in the organisation going and spending a day or two onsite at the outset, can be invaluable in establishing a strong working relationship that can then be maintained remotely.
There will always be those at the extremes. Die-hard advocates of the advantages of remote work that would never go back to going to an office most days or even regularly. And those adamant that the advantages of in-person communication will always mean fully or majority remote work is a compromise too far and insist on an in-office and onsite working environment.
Most, especially as the modern economy continues to evolve, will find themselves somewhere in the middle and see the pluses and minuses of both set-ups. For the majority who find themselves in that group, the important thing is to make sure an effective communication system is in place for when remote work is either a practical necessity or, on balance, preferred to a traditional in-office environment or offered as a flexible alternative to it.
We hope this post will genuinely help you design the remote team communication system that works for your organisation and circumstances. Over more than 20 years now, we’ve seen the approach work for us at K&C.