Establishing office-like, in-person communication is a challenge for most teams who have resorted to remote work. While working remotely brings back the work-life freedom that perpetual office-goers crave, it can reduce the team’s ability to stick together.
Buffer’s State of Remote Work 2021 states that communication and collaboration challenges (16%) have significantly impacted remote teams. The change in ways of collaboration (41%), however, is by far the biggest change remote teams have experienced.
Image source: Buffer
Most remote teams are at the mercy of virtual communication tools for achieving their best collaborative alignment. Something that can be tough for teams who are neither ready nor trained for a change this big. So, how can remote teams make the transition to remote communication without the hassles?
The answer lies in understanding team psychology and re-calibrating it to better suit remote environments. It all starts by being aware of how different communication media affect team dynamics and what strategies can managers adopt to enable free-flowing, smooth team communication.
The article presents ideas from group behavior experts and researchers to make virtual communication less of an effort and more of a regular thing in your team.
Communicate in Bursts
Christoph Riedl (Northeastern University) and Anita Williams Woolley (Carnegie Melon) present the radical idea of “burstiness” in communication, in their Harvard publication – Success teams communicate in bursts.
Their research highlights that the teams who communicate in bursts – quick, comprehensive meetings scheduled alongside quiet hours of focused-work time, end up being pretty darn good collaborators.
The authors oppose the idea of talking all day with your remote team. They suggest that planning and collaboration should occur in planned meetings when everyone is on board with the agenda, contrary to when one feels like it.
This way the individuals can develop ideas in peace and work without distractions, before achieving goals collectively in the burst meeting.
In order to hold bursty meetings the right way, the authors also suggest;
- Keep meetings very focussed. Discuss one agenda per meeting and schedule multiple meetings for multi-faceted topics.
- Use smart calendars to find overlapping availability across the team for the meetings.
- Promote bursty communication in your remote team by aligning work patterns in a similar way.
- Collaboration thrives on audio calls where it isn’t necessary to see each other’s faces.
- Video calls are effective when the conversations must prioritize emotional and body language cues, such as team celebrations.
Rebuilding Team Affinity
Team affinity, or the team’s mutual trust and psychological bonding, is deeply affected in remote work settings. Much like other social factors that bind a team together, trust and empathy need in-person communication backed by a sense of belonging. Sight, touch, and idiosyncrasies – each thing has a role to play in the process.
You would have noticed this firsthand – it’s generally hard to establish trust with a person whom you have never met or don’t meet that often. In the same way, when you’re communicating mainly on chat, email, and audio calls, the team affinity somewhat begins to fade away.
This phenomenon is called Virtual Distance. Harvard Business Review describes it as the psychological and emotional disconnect that creeps up when digital devices become the prime mediators of our communication. It affects everything from employee’s job satisfaction to project success.
Image source – virtualdistance.com
One possible solution to rebuilding team affinity and reducing virtual distance is by interacting as contextually as possible. Video calls rank the best for this use-case because you can notice the person’s expressions and body language, which helps you communicate at a deeper level.
Expanding on team video calls and keeping the context alive in conversations could be a remote communication strategy that managers need to consider.
The more life-like each team meeting gets, the better the team will bond.
The Power of Asynchronous
Asynchronous communication refers to conversations that are not held in real-time. Email threads are the perfect example of communicating asynchronously. You mostly don’t reply to emails instantly, and they usually don’t carry any information that needs urgent action.
Chat (Slack, Skype), Project Management Software (Asana, ProofHub), Intranets (Yammer, SharePoint) – are all examples of async tools.
Asynchronous communication doesn’t pressurize the team members to sprout into action, especially when they’re working from home. It helps create more context without disturbing the safe work boundaries. Managers can actively use it to send out project updates and enable the entire team to stay on the same page, without having to stay on a group video call all the time.
Distributing the Minutes of Meeting after an hour-long Zoom call, announcing the week’s plan on group chat, and leaving a follow-up comment on the project tracker, are some examples of fruitful asynchronous communication.
Remember to not use async tools for important updates, as it can gravely backfire. At the same time, it’s important to moderate the volume of messages being sent asynchronously. Good asynchronous communication is usually backed by a comprehensive real-time video or audio call. Not the other way around.
Over Communicating to avoid Under-communication
Do you tend to speak less on group calls? A lot of people do. And this is a great strategy to create confusion among your team members.
Virtual setups tend to undermine the effects of “just-enough communication.” If you’re speaking just as much as required in meetings, you’re probably speaking less. Therefore, you can try and push towards overcommunication, to ensure that you’re heard sufficiently.
Overcommunication doesn’t mean that you’ve to be repetitive or lengthy in your sentences. You just have to be elaborate, so much so, that your team members don’t have to use their own imagination to compensate for your ideas.
Let’s try to understand overcommunication using the Who-What-When-Where-Why-How Rule. It basically tells us about the key elements of a sentence that one can use to pack more information without being lengthy. Covering all the 5 W’s and 1 H in your sentence will clear things out in the most natural way.
So, you could start replacing sentences like, “I’ll get it done!” with “I’ll get the marketing project task done today by 5 PM using the data from the past discussion!”
You’ll not have to explain the same sentence twice ever because you’ve covered everything that there was to know, in one go.
Laying Some Ground Rules for Communication
Even when you’re co-located, you may constantly find yourself getting hold of the wrong end of the stick with your team. It just happens. But workplace confusions are easy to resolve as one can quickly judge the intent behind a said statement.
When working virtually, any such confusion has a tendency to stretch and cause issues. Therefore, laying some ground rules for communication in your team could help avoid any unintended misunderstandings.
Merck, a life sciences company, has some interesting examples of this. They use terms like 4HR (4 Hour Reply) and NNTR (No Need To Reply) in their emails which helps the recipients be fully aware of how to drive the conversation.
Similarly, you can have ground rules regarding the cut-off time for work emails or the kind of colloquial terms to avoid in chat. You can have separate groups for discussing work issues and casual chit-chat. Some teams may also want to enforce a status update message if they aren’t available for calls or chat, such as, “At Lunch, returning at 2 PM”, which will avoid unnecessary anxiety.
Virtual celebrations are all the rage now as more employees embrace remote work. In the past year, if you sliced your birthday cake with your team members in front of a webcam, you know how refreshing it can be.
Apart from important events, there should exist a dedicated fun space for the team to celebrate small wins also. Anything from achieving a successful milestone to getting a positive client review is worth celebrating in the team.
Never shy from getting on a Zoom call for the celebrations but at the same time, it’s an equally great idea to hand out appreciation on your project portal.
Celebrating with your team sows the seeds of camaraderie and nourishes the collaboration potential among team members. It’s a great stress buster and lets the team members discover the non-work sides of each other. The effects of collective celebration eventually germinate into greater patience and empathy while working.
Enabling your team members to communicate effectively in a remote setup doesn’t require a paradigm shift. It just needs a little awareness of how group behaviors may be affected by virtual media and isolation, and what responsibilities can everyone take to cope with them.
Balancing communication habits, using virtual tools wisely, and understanding how much to communicate can massively boost your team’s ability to gel well from a distance. Be conscientious of how your team responds to the tips mentioned in this article, and adapt, as you masterfully handle the mute button.
Vartika Kashyap is the Chief Marketing Officer of ProofHub — a project management and task management software loved by thousands of teams and businesses across the globe. A noteworthy personality in the global marketing community, Vartika writes to create awareness about new trends in marketing and business management. She has been a regular contributor to platforms like Business2community, DZone, and Business.com. An undeniable ideal figure, Vartika has also been one of the most influential LinkedIn Top Voices for 3 years in a row. Her inspiring stories have generated a considerable following on these platforms. When she is not keeping busy with managing a talented marketing team, she likes to draft spirited write-ups that focus on building a winning team and using the team’s talents to run a successful business.