As communication and team collaboration technologies continue to improve, more and more employees are reaping the benefits by working remotely a couple days per week, or as a full time arrangement. Employees love this. It allows them to skip that brutal commute every day, take care of their sick child, or avoid having to relocate altogether to work in that one cool startup that’s many miles away from their house.
Employers use the option of working remotely as a tool to attract the best talent – regardless of where they live. The end result is teams composed of local and remote members. Let’s call these hybrid teams. As more of these types of teams are formed, it’s important to recognize some of the unique communication challenges that present themselves, and try to find ways to make communication between all the team members as effective as possible.
Thanks to tools like Slack and Stride (formerly Hipchat), the day to day communication between team members, regardless of their location, has improved tremendously. However, in hybrid teams, some communication will naturally take place through in-person conversations, which means that the remote team members will not have an opportunity to contribute or listen in.
This is not good for the remote employee, as being left out of key decisions lowers morale, and could also inhibit the employee from becoming more valuable to the team, which limits opportunities for growth. It’s also not good for the team in general, as the remote employee could have a unique perspective on the topic being discussed. In the worst cases, the relationship with the remote employee ends up becoming more like that of a contractor that just gets assigned work.
Since in-person and serendipitous conversations will naturally occur, what can be done? If the entire team is expected to be available during the same hours, and the local team works together in a common team room, they could try asking the remote employees to always be connected to the room through a permanent video call. In this way, the remote employees can always listen in while also allowing the local team to know who is and who isn’t currently at their desk.
In my own experience, as a remote worker, this does not work. Audio quality is usually less than ideal, and the volume of the different voices changes depending on the local team member’s proximity to the microphone. Even assuming an unlikely perfect technical setup in the team room, the remote employee is expected be in an “always listening” mode, since not having the contextual awareness of the team room makes it more difficult to subconsciously tune-in or tune-out certain conversations. This can be very distracting, and it makes it hard to focus.
A good alternative is try to start all conversations online in some way. This would give the remote employees an opportunity to participate and express interest in the topic. From there a quick video chat can be set up and everyone can join in. This would undoubtedly take some getting used to, but the benefits are worth it. In addition, any decisions made during in-person conversations should be posted online for all to see, so that remote employees are aware, and at least have an opportunity to give their opinions and weigh-in on the subject.
The latter is not ideal, but at least the remote employees can be more engaged and informed than they would be otherwise. Written online communication also provides a searchable and referenceable source of information for the future. Decisions agreed upon verbally can’t be referenced when we inevitably forget how we arrived at the decision, and written communication can help employees that just got back from vacation get up to date on what happened while they were away.
Adopting Asynchronous Communication
If some employees work during different hours, it’s critical for the team to fully embrace asynchronous online communication. This is a fundamental change in how team members communicate with each other. They can no longer expect immediate replies or synchronous conversations, except during scheduled meetings. It’s important to not see this entirely as a negative. While it may inevitably slow down certain interactions, the change in expectation is helpful because it allows each employee to reply and communicate when it’s most convenient for them.
It’s important to note that asynchronous online communication is not only helpful for remote employees on different time zones, it also allows all team members to work in their preferred schedule – even if they work locally at the office. For instance, some may prefer to work very early in the morning because that’s when they feel more productive, or perhaps even put some hours in late at night after they put the kids to sleep. This helps employees maintain their focus on their current task since they understand that they are not expected to reply right away. It also encourages more employee autonomy which can help motivate and keep team morale high.
Having effective scheduled meetings is another key part of the team’s communications. A general rule of thumb is that, the larger the group meeting locally, the harder it is for remote employees to participate effectively. This is due to the lack of contextual awareness of the other team members in the room, plus the usual audio lag, that makes it much harder for the remote employee to find an appropriate pause in the conversation to speak up. With that said, it is the responsibility of the remote employee to be actively engaged by asking questions, and voicing their opinion – even at the risk of inevitably interrupting someone else.
The local team can also help out in that way by purposely engaging remote employees and giving them the floor to voice their opinions or questions. Having some time where the team can come together and touch base is very valuable, as it can help keep the team in sync and focused towards a particular goal, or just for employees to reconnect with other employees they don’t usually work with in their day to day.
Remote employees are also responsible for ensuring good day-to-day communication with their teammates. It’s important that remote employees lead by example in online communication etiquette by ensuring that conversations happen in the appropriate forum. Private chat messages, for instance, are even more secret than one-to-one, in-person, conversations. Nobody can listen in, so it’s essential to be aware of the topic, and ensure that all possibly interested parties in the topic have an opportunity to participate by moving some of those conversations into public groups or channels.
Also, it’s beneficial for remote employees to avoid long periods of time without communicating with teammates. Keeping the communication lines reasonably active helps to avoid feeling disconnected from the general day to day activities. Even the most casual conversations can help keep the remote employees engaged.
Different strategies will work for different teams. There isn’t a one-size fits all solution. Different teams will need to find what works for them, but the important common principle is that it’s a team effort. Both local and remote employees have a role to play in ensuring that all team members feel engaged and connected. Once a local team makes the decision to add remote employees, it’s vital that they understand the challenges it presents, and that they are willing to change the way the team communicates in order to allow everyone to be successful.