Published 21st April 2020
For a lot of people, remote communication can feel unnatural and uncomfortable — but it doesn’t have to. I’ve been part of a remote team for nearly five years, and we’ve created a productive, supportive and friendly environment for both business and social communication.
We use a number of different tools to help our team collaborate and communicate effectively while working remotely. We meet using the video conferencing software Zoom.us, we chat online via Slack, and we collaborate directly on our work in Github. In fact, we used these remote tools to put together the following list of guidelines that we’ve found invaluable in supporting our team.
1. Camera on, always
We explicitly ask meeting attendees to have their camera on for all team calls. Being able to see the individual you are conversing with improves the quality of the interaction in a profound manner. We can employ and observe a lot of natural nuances that we subconsciously experience during in-person interactions. Facial expressions, hand gestures and shoulder posture can all inform the conversation. Observing these natural interaction behaviours also helps to build trust across the team and results in reduced skepticism between team members while working remotely.
2. Constructive criticism
We aim to avoid criticising or dismissing an idea unless we’re capable of suggesting an alternative. Teams who are quick to react defensively or aggressively to suggestions will see a considerable drop-off in the number of suggestions and questions they receive. It is also important to be aware of the challenge involved in communicating the tone of your message effectively. This can be very difficult to do in chat messages. So we recommend erring on the side of caution and ensuring suggestions and analysis are sought, well received and appreciated.
3. Ask the stupid questions
Critical analysis of any problem is essential for determining the most effective solution. It can be very daunting to ask the ‘stupid’ or obvious questions publicly for fear of ridicule — and it’s easy to stay quiet while working remotely. It’s incredibly impactful for team leads and product owners to take the lead on this and show that all questions, analysis and suggestions are valid and welcome.
4. Keep discussions public
Human nature combined with remote working tools typically results in a large percentage of communication taking place privately. Not only does this create numerous repeated conversations, it also effectively excludes people from joining a conversation that they can add value to. If there are no privacy concerns, discussions should occur in the public slack channels so everyone has the opportunity to join in and learn from the discussion.
5. Private encouragement, public congratulations
You may need to privately encourage team members to participate in public conversations on Slack. A bystander effect sometimes comes into play, especially for newer team members, who may wait for others to chime into discussions or answer questions. Privately encouraging individuals to partake and publicly congratulating them and acknowledging contributions or materials they’ve provided as a means to support others, is incredibly important and effective.
6. Keep the social chats
When people start interacting solely remotely, it can be difficult to figure out the balance between conversation to get stuff done and conversation to simply chat with others. Incorporating the watercooler into online interactions is essential for allowing your colleagues’ personalities to shine, building loyalty and maintaining trust and companionship. Spend a few minutes at the start of each call just shooting the breeze with participants. Use the #random channel on Slack to talk about your lives and interests outside of work. Emojis and reactions on Slack also enable clear expression of thoughts and emotions, and help people to express themselves more clearly while working remotely.
7. Good morning
Each morning, every team member posts a ‘Good morning’ message into the #general Slack channel as they sign on for work for the day. This has an empowering effect on our subconscious by highlighting that we’re not working alone. We are remotely distributed, but we are still a team and we still work together every day. Likewise, if a person needs to step out for some time during the day to run errands, we recommend they post an ‘AFK’ (away from keyboard) message into the #general channel. This gives the team clear visibility as to when team members are available or not.
8. Lead by example
With all of these recommendations, it is incredibly important that the management team leads by example. The use of online communication tools will only be effective if all team members engage with them. It is not sufficient to simply share documentation and guidelines with your team: promoting the ‘glue work’ is invaluable for a remote team. The individuals who promote collaboration across the team by organising meetings, sharing documentation and maintaining a high team morale should be commended publicly and often. These tasks are essential to project delivery and team happiness — and make all the difference when you’re communicating remotely.
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Sonya Hogan, Technical Director at NearForm leads one of our largest teams. Find out more about remote work and why our approach consistently delivers.