Communication is essential while working remotely. Let's see the main challenges, best practices, and tools to help your remote team (or organization) communicate effectively.
In traditional companies, communication happens synchronously: everyone is working at the same time and employees are interrupted all the time. Your day is split into several chunks of 15, 30 minutes. This makes harder to get meaningful work done. Remote work encourages asynchronous communication: forget working from 9 am to 5 pm. In remote teams, people should be are free to work whenever they want. Decisions are written down, as well as most of the communication. Say goodbye to meetings When a company is starting to remotely is very common to use the same old practices. You can't make it work if you don't change your habits. One of the first steps is saying goodbye to meetings. Most meetings are useless. They're interrupting people's real work while the decision process could be done asynchronously. You don't have to embrace email. There are tons of other useful tools to get your job done. Besides, when you start writing things down, everything is clearer and more transparent. Everyone knows what has been decided, and how we reached that decision. If a new employee joins your company, they can have the whole thread about how (and why) a decision was made in the past. By avoiding meetings and using asynchronous communication, your company can have a culture of non-linear workdays where you can work at multiple intervals throughout the day. Say goodbye to whiteboards People love whiteboards. They like it so much that's one of the first things they'll ask when transitioning to remote work. We've even created a lesson for online brainstorming tools. But don't fool yourself: whiteboards aren't the best tool for remote work. They don't allow you to work asynchronously. Everyone has to be there at the same time. They're also bad for indexing, preserving, and retrieving information. Have you ever tried to find something a colleague posted on an online whiteboard? It's a nightmare for documenting things as lots of information gets lost. Of course, they have a time and place to be used and might be useful sometimes. But remember: you're working remotely. Don't try to replicate your on-site practices. Avoid chats Tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams offers an easy to chat with your team. However, those conversations just bring offline practices to the online world: everyone has the feeling they need to be always available and checking out their messages all the time, reducing productivity and increasing the chances of burning out: > Letting Slack pings dictate your working life is a recipe for burnout. It's also a terrible way to work. Messages are siloed outside of public channels, so it's impossible for others to transparently see what others are working on. Prefer keeping your formal communication to project management tools where you can easily find the whole history of a conversation and it's easier to keep it asynchronous (if someone replies a day later it wouldn't make a difference). To avoid this some companies even disable the history of chat tools. GitLab, for example, pays for a chat plan that retains messages for 90 days or less. Their intention is to force people to use the right tools for the job and keep chats for informal communication only. Nothing is urgent When you switch to asynchronous communication, you'll realize something: nothing is urgent. Most things can wait until tomorrow or maybe even next week. We got used to interrupting others to get our stuff done. By embracing asynchronous communication, we just communicate our colleagues when we need something from them and we move on to our next task. When they unblock our previous task, we get back to it. No drama required. Someone could disappear for a week and nothing would change in the company because everything was planned ahead. Of course, there are urgent cases sometimes (e.g. servers are down), but they're the exception not the rule.
Great remote companies have channels for where people can about . GitLab advocates for companies to be explicit about informal communication. This means creating channels and practices to encourage people to "maintain social connections and trust". Usually, those practices are explained in the company's handbook. It's important to encourage informal communication. It helps to creating a better working environment for everyone while improving performance. In all-remote environments, there should be a greater emphasis placed on carving out time to get to know one another as humans. To connect and bond as empathetic beings with interests, emotions, fears, and hopes — people, not just colleagues. In a traditional organization, informal communication might be easier because you have random interactions throughout the day. For remote companies, you need to create proper channels to encourage that kind of communication. Some practices might include: Chat channels It's common for companies to create channels in their official communication tool (e.g. Slack, Microsoft Teams, etc.) to encourage random communication. Some ideas for channels include: , , , , , , , etc. Please, make it a safe, inclusive space. Don't judge or make fun of your colleagues' preferences. Group calls Create channels to facilitate group calls. They can be spontaneous like having a Doodle where people can schedule social calls in their own time or you can have a fixed time slot for those calls (e.g. every Friday at 4 p.m.). Either way, make sure your group calls are really about socializing and not about work. Talk about your interests, what you have done, anything that you like. GitLab has a "take-a-break call": it's a weekly call where they choose some topics for team members to discuss. You can talk about hobbies, sports, travel, family, etc. But not everyone enjoys group calls, so don't make it mandatory. It has to be a fun activity for those joining it. Make sure your team knows it's an optional activity. Some companies will have "optional" activities that are actually mandatory. If some people don't join them, they're seen as "bad team players." Don't be like that. Everyone is different and have different needs. Celebrate diversity. Be human You can encourage informal communication even during formal work. Just be human. Sometimes, we'll get interrupted by our pets, kids or even a noisy neighbor. Welcome those interruptions. This is an opportunity to bond and to humanize the work experience. Take a few minutes to talk to the person if they are open to it, or ask the team member to share more about their pets/family. Also, don't be afraid to use emojis and GIFs. They're fun!👩🎤 Visiting grants GitLab offers a travel grant of up to $150 to cover for transportation expenses while visiting coworkers in their city. It might be an interesting idea to encourage coworkers to know each other and their cultures. However, global companies having coworkers in multiple countries would probably need a higher budget for this activity. Team events Some companies have team events during the year where everyone travels to spend some time together (usually one week). If your team is organizing such events, make sure you're paying all expenses. It's also important to make sure it won't conflict with other personal appointments team members might have already scheduled. Ask your team Don't take this guide too seriously. Remote organizations are always evolving and so are their practices. Make sure you're always transparent with your team and ask them how they feel about it. If you develop a cool new practice for informal communication, please come back here and edit this page to share your experience with other people.
Even though video calls should be the last resort, they're necessary sometimes. It's important to understand the best practices and video conferencing etiquette. Mute your microphone You're in the middle of a big presentation. Suddenly, Lady Gaga's Bad Romance stops playing in the background because someone forgot to mute their microphone. It's a best practice to always mute your microphone while you're not speaking. Otherwise, some background noises might interrupt other people and it becomes harder to understand what's being said. Use your own webcam Hybrid calls are common on remote-first and remote-friendly companies. It happens when some people are in the office and others are working remotely. Those in the office, then, decide to use the same webcam, dialing as a single participant, and the remote workers end up seeing themselves as inferiors. By having everyone using their own equipment, you also avoid common issues with hybrid calls: * Can't hear the sharing people well. * Background noise since the microphone of the sharing people on all the time. * Can't clearly see facial expressions since each face takes up only a small part of the screen. * Can't easily see who is talking since the screen shows multiple people. * Hard getting a word in since their delay is longer than for the sharing people. * Can't easily screen share something themselves. * Trouble seeing details in screen sharing since the screen is further away from them. * Can't scroll through a slide deck at their own pace. * Sharing people can't easily participate (view or type) in a shared document with the agenda and meeting notes. Raise your hand to speak Some tools have a "raise hand" tool where the call's organizer can see who wants to speak next. This way, you avoid interrupting other people while they're talking. Tell others when you're finished Sometimes, there's an embarrassing silence when someone stops talking as other people don't know if you have something else to say or you're done. It's courtesy to end your talk by stating you've finished speaking. Saying something like "next, please" can help with that. --- Do you know other best practices? Then, update this page to share them.
Asynchronous communication is very important while working remotely. People don't have to be working at the same time when we get rid of meetings. Fortunately, we have enough tools to eliminate most of our meetings. So, before you schedule a new call, please read this post and ask yourself: "Do we really need this meeting?" Why should we get rid of meetings? Most people present in meetings don't care at all about what's being discussedIt's a blocking work: people have a feeling they're being productive but it's blocking them from getting real work doneIt's useless: most decisions could easily be done by email or using other collaboration toolsIt's synchronous: it requires everyone to be present at the same timeIt has a lot of bullshit: people focus too much on appearances and politics rather than getting to the pointIt leads to miscommunication and conflicts. For example, Brian says: "I think we should be cautious about this supplier." Next week someone says: "Oh, Brian said lots of bad things about this supplier during last week's meeting. We shouldn't trust Brian." When you write things down, it's clear and transparent who said what and how decisions were made.It's less inclusive: as mentioned on GitLab's guide, "while decisions made around office water coolers may be familiar in traditional workplaces, the input is limited to those present. Those who are not present feel left out, and you're missing an opportunity to hear different perspectives."You can have non-linear workdays. How to get rid of meetings? Writing things down is a great practice for asynchronous communication. People can loop in their own time. You don't need to care about timezones or if you have to take your kids to the doctor. Everyone is free to join the discussion when they have time to do so. Fortunately, there are some great tools available for asynchronous communication that will help you to manage your projects. Tools like Google Docs are excellent for real-time collaboration. GitLab's guide explains why they prefer docs over sketching things on whiteboards: By brainstorming in text instead of drawings, we're forced to clearly articulate proposals, designs, and ideas, with less variance in interpretations. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it's also open to as many interpretations as there are people viewing it. Decline useless meetings Make sure a meeting has an agenda, a clear proposal, and it will have a better outcome than if it was done asynchronously. GitLab, for example, encourages team members to decline meetings lacking a clear agenda: This will force team members to think long and hard on whether a meeting is necessary, and the burden of adding an agenda shows those who are invited that the organizer is proactively thinking through the meeting's purpose. It's also respectful, as it allows those in different time zones the opportunity to contribute questions and topics in advance, asynchronously. Make the organizer document all takeaways All information discussed in meetings should be available for those who couldn't attend it or weren't included. Some companies have a person responsible for writing down the takeaways. However, it might be more useful to make the meeting organizer do that work. This will force them to think twice before scheduling a meeting. It's also important to give some context: It's not enough to merely document the call. The meeting organizer must also contextualize key takeaways using low-context communication and add to relevant handbook pages. This ensures that decisions and progress are made public to the entire team. This added burden forces team members to consider approaching work asynchronously first. While this may seem absurd, it's a key example of going slow to go fast. Dealing with excuses Some people don't know how to express themselves in written communication. Because we can't hear their tone, they might come off as rude or impolite. It's important to : Understand that not everyone communicates so well. If you think someone is being rude, try to clarify their point before judging themPractice written communication whenever you canMinimize politics and manage your ego: go straight to the point when communicating to others Some of those issues might happen in verbal communication as well. So, it's not a problem coming exclusively from writing things down. Not every organization is open. Some discussions might have to be held privately, but even those could be done by asynchronous communication. You can just create specific channels for your team or workgroup. Most collaboration tools offer that possibility already. --- Do you have any other practical examples for getting rid of meetings? Then, update this page to share them.
When working on a globally-distributed team, dealing with time zones might become an issue. Companies deal with this problem in different ways. Let's cover here what they do. If you have a different approach, please edit this page to share it. Asynchronous communication By embracing asynchronous communication, dealing with time zones becomes a minor issue because people are not expected to work at the same time. Everyone do their own thing at their own time. If your work is blocked by someone else's task, you send a message and work on something else while you wait for your previous task to be unblocked. This allows work to be really asynchronous: > If a company pulls too hard in the direction of one time zone (oftentimes the zone where most company executives live), it signals to the rest of the company that asynchronous workflows aren't taken seriously. By working asynchronously, you never have to care on what time zone your colleagues are working. Overlapping hours Some companies have a policy of overlapping hours. Even though you can work from any time zone, you'd need to overlap some working hours among team members. Basecamp's Remote book, for example, recommends four hours of overlap. They think this avoids collaboration delays and it helps members to feel like a team. InVision also uses this approach: they've set core hours to be between 10am-6pm (Eastern Standard Time). During those 8 hours, team members should aim to have, at least, a 4-hour overlap "to keep everyone on the same page and feeling connected with the rest of the company." To manage that overlap, you might need to work on weird hours for your time zone.