This guest post is by Benjamin Brandall, a British writer living in Latvia. He writes on productivity, startups and software at Process Street.
A quiet remote team is a sign that something’s up. Healthy teams bounce ideas off of each other, ask for help, and collaborate openly. Quiet teams struggle with miscommunication, become inactive at work, and are even fearful of speaking freely.
Without a culture of communication, remote teams fall apart. Without you knowing it, your employees have dropped out of the loop and context is lost.
Why bother worrying about this though?
Remote teams actually have the capacity to be more productive than when working at an office 9-5. It’s not by chance, but because special effort is given to over-communicate, create culture, and build relationships.
Conversely, the lack of such effort can leave remote workers feeling more isolated, less motivated, and all-around alienated from what should be a unified team.
Since remote teams have more wiggle room for adjustment and cooperation than their office counterparts, there are plenty of ways to build closer relationships with colleagues, be more communicative, and have fun at work.
Based on what I learned from my first year remote, here are four ways to foster free and easy communication within your remote team.
1. Say "Hello!" even when no one does
The Bystander Effect states that a person is less likely to take the first step forward when s/he is part of a bigger the group that's expected to take action.
It’s the someone-else-will-do-it mindset that we tend to overlook.
On the flip side, if you had to collaborate with another person on a project, you’re likely to start a conversation and try to get to know them, knowing that you’re going to have to work directly with them.
Since remote teams are large by nature, members tend to wait in silence for someone to start the conversation.
If this is the case, take the initiative to reach out—even when no one has.
A really simple way is to say hello in the morning and ask how the team’s doing. Not only are you in the loop on what everyone's doing, but you’re encouraging conversation and helping others reach out to one another too.
Here are other ways to spark conversation within your team:
- Over-communicate in a public channel
- Narrate your work in the open (work out loud)
- Leave a simple and short "goodbye" before signing out
I believe everyone wants to be on good terms with each other, and it begins with initiative. So go ahead and spark things off in the simplest, most human way you know: say hello.
2. Who's your favorite superhero?
During the onboarding process, a vital part is making sure your new hires are comfortable with the team.
Depending on the personality of your new member, it may or may not be a good idea to put them on the spot by introducing them to the whole team. That being said, the longer someone sits around without being acknowledged, the more awkward they’ll feel.
Here are three good ways to smoothly introduce the new guy/gal to the team:
- Arrange for a light first meeting over voice/video chat with 2-3 members of the team
- Encourage free expression, questions, and open feedback
- Ask fun questions to gauge the new member’s personality
A great suggestion that diffuses awkwardness comes from the 6Q blog, which recommends asking questions like "If you could be a superhero, who would it be?" or "Describe your favorite way to relax."
While it could feel counterintuitive to ask a shy person to reveal their personality, these are the types of questions that can set a relaxed tone and encourage fun and relaxed conversations amongst team members.
3. Keep an "open doors" video chat running
I came across a great app that helps remote teams feel less like they’re faceless names and numbers, and more like they’re part of a real office.
Sqwiggle works by linking to your webcam and taking screenshots of your face every few seconds while you work. If necessary, you can click someone’s face in the app and start a video chat with them.
Buffer—a fully remote team—use it to help everyone sync up quickly, exactly like how it would be in an office.
4. Respect everyone’s quiet time
Building a culture of communication is all well and good, but constant Slack messages, emails and video chats can get in the way of doing work that matters.
Especially for members suited to breaking work up into sprints, you should have a system for members to notify the team that they’re about to focus and will be unavailable then.
There are a few ways to do this, the easiest being a quick message before turning on Do Not Disturb mode (features found on HipChat and Slack).
Other ways include:
- Sharing a calendar with your team showing time you’ve blocked out for focus work
- Pinning a message that shows the time you’ll be unavailable each day
By encouraging your team to set clear boundaries for collaboration time and solo focus work, you’re helping everyone get more done and stay productive.
Cultivating the good
These tips may simply refer to good human decency, but the heart of the matter is that you can encourage and empower your team to interact, collaborate and come up with great ideas together.
All this begins with clear and consistent communication from onboarding and beyond.
On to you now: how do you foster clear communication and fun interaction within your team?