How to make communication work in a remote team

It's hard to make sure your team stays up to date when they're located all over. Here's a step-by-step process for building a communication flow that works.

Mathilde Collin, CEO & Co-founder at Front
19 October 20206 Min Read

It's hard to make sure your team stays up to date when they're located all over. Here's a step-by-step process for building a communication flow that works.

Lesson #11 of CommunicateBetter is provided by Zapier‘s CEO: Wade Foster.

Communication is hard for all organizations. In fact, most organizations live or die based on how quickly they can communicate and then execute on the communication that happens. For remote organizations, it can be twice as hard.

So how do you make communication work in a remote team? It comes down to three things: access, direction, and filtering.

How to make communication work in a remote team

1. Access

Communication works best when everyone has access to everything. When everyone has access to communication there’s never a question about a teammate “not getting the memo.”

There are two types of communication that teammates need access to: the pulse and the references.

  • The pulse is information that gets shared on a day to day basis about projects that are ongoing. It’s fast moving and always changing.

  • The references are internal documentation about things that rarely change but are important to know. This is things like passwords to login to systems, how reimbursements work, how to setup your development environment and other guides that will help you do your job.

As you might see, email is a bad channel for most internal communication because it’s too easy to leave someone out of the pulse and it’s definitely not a good place to store reference information.

For pulse communication, it’s best to use team chat tools like Slack, HipChat, or any of the other best team chat apps out there. These tools are great because most communication is public and it allows everyone to get a picture of what's going on in the organization.

For reference documentation, you’ll want to use tools that are good for documentation. This could be Hackpad, a GitHub wiki, or even Google Docs. The key for good reference is good search and organization so that teammates can find information without having to ask others where it might be.

Most companies don’t have great reference documentation, so an easy way to build up your reference material is whenever someone on the team asks about something that should be in the reference documentation and a document doesn’t exist, then write up the document and share a link to it as your answer.

2. Direction

Once you solve the access problem in your organization, you’ll quickly create a new problem: people trying to drink everything from the firehose. Once an organization reaches a certain size, likely somewhere around ten people, it’s impossible for everyone to keep 100% up-to-date on everything. If you try to drink from the firehose you’ll end up spending all your time consuming information instead of actually doing work.

"If you try to drink from the firehose you’ll end up spending all your time consuming information instead of actually doing work."

The two ways to solve that are with direction and filters.

Direction will help teammates know what information from the firehose is most important for them. There’s a few ways to provide good direction to the team.

  1. Strong job titles and descriptions. If it’s clear what responsibilities are for each person that will help them make good choices about what information they need to pay most attention to. Make sure that job titles and descriptions are public as well so that if there is an area that isn’t under anyones domain it’s easy to tell.

  2. One-on-ones. Project priorities will shift, needs inside the company will change and goals will come and go. One-on-one meetings are a key way for a manager to give specific direction to each teammate on a regular basis. Doing this at least once a month is important and depending on the roll, weekly or daily might even work better. It’s also important to document one-on-ones. A shared (between manager and individual) document that has the items chatted about in each one-on-one is a good way to keep a living, breathing document for what’s most important. This is one area where it might make sense to keep some information private from the whole team.

  3. Team meetings. A once-a-week team meeting to quickly sync up on priorities and goals will help make sure that no project wanders too far off the road. A weekly meeting provides a good checkpoint to show off work, make sure goals are progressing and to provide direction for where the team is heading. They are also good for seeing each other (via video) which is a nice personal touch when you are used to communicating via chat. Make sure to document your meeting notes and share those back to the greater team in a public manner latter.

3. Filtering

Lastly, with all this communication flying around left and right, it’s important that teammates know how much they should drink from the firehose and how much is alright to ignore.

"It’s important that teammates know how much they should drink from the firehose and how much is alright to ignore."

The good thing is that you’ve already setup your communication channels (a team chat tool for staying on the pulse and a documentation tool for reference information). You also have vehicles to give direction to the team so it should be pretty obvious for folks to take a stab at what they should be paying attention to and what they shouldn’t. But it’s nice to make things easy on folks and that’s where filters come in.

Within your team chat tool the easiest way to setup filters is to have different channels (Slack) or rooms (HipChat/Campfire) that discuss different functional topics (i.e. engineer, marketing, support) or projects (feature 1, feature 2, feature 3). That way if someone is a part of that functional team or project team they know they should pay attention to communication happening there and communication happening in other channels/rooms is safe to filter out.

Here’s where you need to be careful, though. With team chat channels/rooms setup it’s easy to become so siloed such that people have no clue what’s going on in other areas of the organization.

An easy way to mitigate this is to set up an internal blog or reddit style tool that is open to anyone to post to. Then heavily encourage people to share work with the team.

Things like feature progress, monthly support and marketing stats, new design mocks, and projects that are shipped are great examples of reports to put on the internal blog. This provides a way for each functional team or project team to summarize what’s happening in their channels/rooms and filter them up to the whole team in a way that isn’t overwhelming.

And there you have it. With access, direction, and filtering you’ll be able to setup a communication pipeline that creates a thriving remote organization.

Written by Mathilde Collin
Originally Published: 4 January 2014
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