Distance is hurting my team’s communication

 

Inefficiency. Missed goals. Low morale. What causes massive team malfunctions like these? While there’s rarely a single (or simple) answer, poor communication is usually at least partly to blame. And that likelihood goes up — sometimes way up — when you factor in the physical distance that’s an unavoidable reality of remote work.

The good news is there’s a lot you can do to promote a healthy, multi-directional flow of information on your team.

What could be going on?

  • You haven’t let the team know their communication is a problem (or shown them a better way), so they think they’re communicating just fine.
  • You haven’t done enough to facilitate communication.
  • Some or all team members don’t see communicating with one another as their responsibility.
  • Your remotes don’t know or trust their peers, preferring to come to you with questions and for feedback.
  • The team’s communication tools are ineffective and/or people don’t use them well.
  • You’re leading project team members who aren’t motivated to establish strong communication with one another, perhaps because the project is short-term.
  • Your team spans different time zones, cultures, or languages, making communication particularly tough.

 

How to handle it:

1. Give the team feedback on their communication — and explain how doing better would benefit them.

If you’ve been stewing in silence about your team’s poor communication, then you’re equally guilty of it. So speak up. You’ll be opening the team’s eyes to how small things like alerting one another to changes, flagging redundancies, and checking in to see if someone needs help could benefit them and improve the team’s results. Your feedback will also remind them that their leader expects good team communication and is factoring it into everyone’s performance.

First, take every opportunity you see to give reinforcing feedback on effective communication habits: “Octavio, thanks for posting that client call summary. It really helps remote team members stay up to speed on the latest insights.” You may also need to give redirecting feedback 1-on-1 to help some team members overcome communication-killing tendencies — for example, a remote who doesn’t even sign onto your team’s chat tool or a project team member who thinks it’s a waste of time to update remotes whom she might not work with again:

“Yelena, I’ve noticed that you haven’t included remote team members in your updates. I know it’s an extra step. But I’ve seen the difference between project teams that communicate well and those that don’t. Those who put in the effort do better work, have more fun, and often build relationships that they circle back to in the future. What do you think?”

2. Proactively develop a team communication strategy that suits your team.

If you neglect formulating a communication strategy — and just assume everyone will figure it out — the remote who sees her remote-ness as license to avoid human contact, or the co-located who tends to exclude remotes because he resents virtual meetings, will probably just keep doing what they’re doing. Not only that, but their bad behaviors will become habitual, potentially causing a decline in the team’s culture that becomes harder and harder to rectify.

To reverse this downward spiral, you’ll need to devise and deploy communication guidelines that account for the team’s preferences and workflow dependencies. You can do this yourself or make it a team activity, depending on your team and situation. Regardless, consider plan elements like:

  • When team members should reach out to each other. Who, if anyone, should be informed about a project milestone or new information?
  • What level of detail team members should share. Is forwarding a client request or article enough? Or is it better if your direct report also provides an easy-to-digest summary?
  • Which form of communication to use and when. You may want to shepherd certain types of discussions into a single space so they don’t branch into multiple platforms and become hard to follow — for example, the team could designate a specific chat channel for urgent requests only.

Once you have a strategy in place, reinforce it through feedback and coaching. And be sure you follow the guidelines yourself!

3. Improve your skills as a communication facilitator so you (and co-locateds) can better involve remote team members.

It might not be enough to sit back and wait for your remotes to contribute their ideas, or for co-locateds to ask for them. While it may help to simply remind your remotes to speak up and your co-locateds to include remotes in conversations, it’s even more effective for you to actually make sharing easier by:

  • Learning about your remotes’ areas of expertise. Because managers tend to interact less with remotes, you may need to make a point of doing this, perhaps in 1-on-1s. The more you know about your remotes’ knowledge base, the more often you can point others toward them and pave the way for productive exchanges: “Louise knows all about that! She would be a great resource to answer your question.”
  • Lecturing less, listening and probing more. Monologuing in meetings or letting one direct report dominate the conversation is a surefire way to silence others. In either case, a simple pivot to “I’m curious what the rest of the team thinks” can do wonders. For more, see How to wake up your team meetings and get everyone participating.
  • Promoting participation in conversations (online and off) that happen outside of meetings. Let’s say two co-located team members are discussing a task that a remote excels at. You could suggest they video him or her in for feedback. Or maybe you’re following a chat channel conversation and realize that your remote Georgina could probably shed light on what to do. Calling her out by name (e.g., “Georgina, what are your thoughts?”) takes away any question in her mind about whether she should insert herself in the conversation.

4. Gather team members in one location more often — perhaps by aligning work-from-home days, or by bringing remotes to the office at the same time.

Team members who work from home three days a week could schedule their days so they never cross paths. Or if your team is partly or entirely remote, they might each come on-site at a different time of the year. On the one hand, these arrangements potentially mean fewer in-person interruptions and more productivity. On the other, they make relationship building and communication more difficult than they need to be.

Rather than dictate that every Tuesday, or the first week in April, be the time the full team is together, let the team help determine what days (or dates) work for them. This will protect the flexibility that being remote is intended to offer. One word of caution: Packing the team’s in-office days with meetings might worsen communication through meeting fatigue. Don’t be too quick to jettison the idea that virtual meetings can be effective.

5. Help the team make the most of overlapping (a.k.a. “golden”) working hours.

Even if your direct reports are spread around the globe, they likely have some overlapping hours during the workday. Encourage the team to establish those as collaborative time, when they’re expected to prioritize interactive tasks and be available to communicate with one another.

Your team may not gleefully adjust their set routines, especially given that flexibility is usually part of remote-work culture. A few ways to win them over to the idea and make those hours even more efficient:

  • Only set golden hours for applicable team members. Maybe the whole team needs to be ready to interact. But maybe not. Golden hours can be more flexible, and potentially more meaningful, if set for smaller work sub-groups or even pairings who rely on real-time communication.
  • Look for ways to limit golden hours. A more concentrated block of time within your team’s overlapping hours may be all they need to handle the work at hand — and less intrusive. (Either way, encourage your team members to put golden hours on their calendars.)
  • Specify what work is best done during golden hours. It’s obvious that some tasks, like a team training session, will be more effective if done during golden hours. But for other work, you’ll need to estimate the extent to which collaboration will improve the results then make recommendations accordingly and adjust as necessary.

6. Suggest that team members set up recurring, informal 1-on-1 meetings.

Remote work advocates often talk about the importance of re-creating the spontaneous “water cooler” moments that can lead to unexpected insights on co-located teams. By building interaction between remote and co-located team members into their schedules, you’ll at least create opportunities for spontaneous ideas and breakthroughs.

For starters, you could encourage regular chats between team members and explain why:

“Pepe, since you and Bridgett sit in different offices, you never get the chance to bump into each other in the hallway and share ideas. What do you think of blocking off a little time — maybe 15 minutes every two weeks — for an informal chat with her? If nothing else, you’ll get to know each other better. But it might also lead you to new ideas.”

7. Make giving feedback to one another part of team members’ official responsibilities.

It’s easy for a remote team member, especially one working from a home office, to see her work as independent of the rest of the team. And for a co-located team member to walk down the hall seeking input on his idea, as if his remote colleague doesn’t exist. Once these exclusionary mindsets set in, feedback becomes something to avoid and dismiss.

Not if you establish specific feedback responsibilities between team members. Are you currently giving feedback to a remote that someone else on the team could just as effectively provide? Or that a remote could provide to a teammate? If so, delegate away. Just keep in mind that not everyone is immediately going to be a feedback all-star. You’ll likely need to coach your direct reports on what to look for, how much detail to include, and how to tactfully provide pointers. Also, team members without insight into each others’ work might not be able to give helpful feedback; in cases like that, don’t force the issue.

8. Have direct reports lead a team meeting — either solo, or in pairs or small groups.

This tactic could result in some directionless, awkward meetings, and probably won’t be effective for every meeting or team member. But if your problem has been people feeling like they don’t need or want to communicate, this will force them to — or at least the threat of embarrassing themselves will.

Your tendency may be to only offer this to team members you deem already decent enough communicators and facilitators, or who already work well together. But don’t completely avoid this as a teaching opportunity for those who don’t seem totally ready for it. For instance, you could have two ordinarily taciturn remotes pair up and lead the team through an online brainstorming session or give a tutorial on a chat tool your co-located direct reports haven’t been embracing.

9. Optimize your team’s tech tools.

Managers today have access to a warehouse full of tools to help their teams communicate. Given all the options, now isn’t the time for a frantic impulse buy that you hope will magically solve all your team’s communication woes. The newest chat tool, despite its cool features, might not be worth the time necessary for the team to transition from their existing tool. And if you rush into it and it flops, you could kill your team’s appetite for virtual communication.

Instead, think through your team’s needs carefully — and get their and possibly even your peers’ input (particularly if your peers have remote teams with a similar function). Your team will likely be more amenable to using tools they’ve had a say in selecting. For example, maybe team members need more insight into one another’s workflows and suggest a certain task or project management tool they already know and like. Maybe a peer manager recommends a chat option with channels grouped by topic to avoid info getting crossed or lost — and offers to swing by for a lunch-and-learn session to train people on it. Or maybe someone begs you to stop piling on more tools and instead get rid of some; you may be better off eliminating any duds to reduce clutter, confusion, and cost.

10. Arrange for team communication training.

Maybe your team’s problems are due to a skill gap too large to fill with your own coaching. Don’t assume it will get better over time, especially since distance between team members is an ongoing roadblock for building rapport. Plus, if your team continues to communicate in dysfunctional ways, asking them to communicate more might just create more frustration.

Thankfully, outside resources abound — talk to your manager or HR for ideas and options available at your organization. Depending on your situation, you could assign a favorite book of yours on communication, sign the team up for off-site training, suggest struggling individuals enroll in an online course or workshop as part of their professional development, or invite a speaker to come in — maybe a peer who has worked effectively on remote teams or, if your team is international, a trainer who specializes in communicating across cultures.