10 Leaders on How to Effectively Communicate Remotely
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How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?
Authority Magazine interviewed more than 100 business leaders who shared the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team even when they are not in the same physical space.
Kamal Janardhan, Microsoft
Stand up and move around. I encourage my team to turn on videos, stand up and move around so there is a sense of space. It is cognitively not normal to see our own face every time we talk to someone, so finding ways to ensure you are interacting with others more than yourself.
Share an intention. Set the intention of the conversation at the beginning of a meeting and provide an agenda to guide the discussion.
Check in and infuse humor. We get so transactional, and it wears on the human spirit. I always make sure to check in with my team before diving into work. My go-to formula is to share a positive piece of news, something that invokes humor and a sense of community, and something personal since it sets an example for others to do the same. This creates a similar environment to what we would cognitively get from impromptu office conversations.
Relax and play together. In addition to finding levity, my team and I started meditating together for five minutes at the start of meetings and it was so impactful for us that it led to the integration of Headspace within Teams. We also like to incorporate music into meetings and rotate the person who picks the song. There is something about accommodating someone else that builds camaraderie.
Take your meetings outside. Knowing that physical activity boosts cognitive function, my team and I often take meetings on walks together to help reduce video fatigue.
Rob Herman, Lenovo
Be sympathetic . The pandemic has changed my life and the life of every single person on my team. I used to travel often. Some of my team members are balancing work and toddlers, others are now homeschool teachers, etc. Through this process, we’ve all learned to be more sympathetic and less of a machine. We now purposely take time to ask personal questions before diving into work and it’s helped us feel like we’re still a close-knit team even though we can’t physically be in the same room.
Engage in roundtable discussions. As a manager, it’s important to hold regular round table meetings and/or personal one-on-ones with your team members. Think about all the time in the office that you stop by someone’s desk to talk that’s now lost due to remote working. Scheduling intentional time to strengthen personal relationships pays huge dividends in keeping your team close together. When leading these round tables or one-on-ones, keep your camera on and don’t worry if the employees don’t, but you want to be able to let them see your face as you provide updates or guidance.
Use visual cues to expedite fact-finding and problem-solving. Whether it be virtual whiteboarding, Excel data, graphs, or actual pictures or images of products, use all the tools available to create a visual workflow.
Create opportunities for your employees to share how they are adapting to working remotely. It’s amazing what some employees will share with you in terms of their workspace environment or how they are dealing with family issues during the day. It keeps that personal touch woven into a work community.
Be spontaneous when the opportunity arises. Reach out to colleagues that you may not have spoken to in a while. Just a simple ping over chat might be enough to get a conversation going.
Isis-Rae Goulbourne, DEUIT
Alignment calls. These have been vital for me during this time. My the development teams working on projects across different time zones and things can easily get lost in the sauce. I must be dialed into things at all times and recognize the red flags and then make sure we are getting back on the right page. Having someone that is looking at things from the birds-eye-view and making sure that everything is staying on track and when it isn’t bringing it back to the center is so important.
Pivot faster. Abandon waterfall! Waterfall is a decision-making methodology that is old and antiquated many companies are still using. This is where the decisions are made from then top and then decimated to everyone to carry out. The work is completed and then reviewed from the top once again. This method is not ideal for remote working environments. More companies need to start switching to Agile and in this environment, can’t afford not to. This is an iterative decision-making process that requires flexibility, adaptation, and efficient collaboration. This stops teams from going too far down the wrong path and being able to pivot as new information becomes available.
Accountability. As I said before, much of communication happens from a non-verbal place. It’s important to remember that there are underlying interpersonal communication barriers that tech can’t solve when working remotely. Enter accountability. DEUIT has a teamwork and collaboration workshop where we talk a lot about this. The individual team members need to take action when resistance arises, or if there is a communication that brings up negative feelings for them. Also, giving constructive feedback is one thing but being able to take it is another. Everyone taking accountability for the role that they are playing is crucial.
Boundaries. Understanding different working and behavioral styles and setting communication expectations is important. Learning the best way of how everyone can work best together. Not everyone responds to being communicated with in the same way. I learned this lesson the hard way when I was managing marketing and communications for a non-profit in Virginia. I was having an email exchange with one of the administrative assistants and it became evident that my tone was being mis-interpreted. I got up from my desk, walked down the hall and asked her in person what was wrong and tried to smooth things out. What I felt was a direct way to get to the bottom of the issue, she took further offense and it went downhill from there. My error? I didn’t understand the way she liked to communicate. With her, I should have picked up the phone and not gone in person. Ever since then I ask people how they best like to be communicated with beforehand so that I can set the expectation and respect their boundaries. Now, more than ever, we need to put this into practice. How people want to be communicated with is important. Zoom calls that could be emails, emails that should be conference calls. Conference calls that should be zoom calls and around we go. Asking for communication preferences and setting expectations can really change the group dynamic in a positive way.
Let personalities shine. Little can take the place of good-ole-fashioned people skills. Take the time to get to know the team in this new world. Work life balance is gone. People are working from home and need to feel like they can show up as themselves, this works better when they feel they can BE themselves. Empathy is a huge part of the group moral staying high.
Sam Levy, Oracle NetSuite
Believe in your staff. This should go without saying but as a leader it’s incredibly important to believe in your people. At NetSuite, we encourage our employees to work through challenges on their own when they feel confident but also make help easily available when needed. We’re always looking for talent who are eager to learn, are looking for limitless opportunities and excel at working towards common goals — which is what our team environment is all about. While I’m not able to meet with my team physically, we now meet more frequently so that there is more opportunity to ask for help.
Be deliberate and honest. When working remote, communication is key. The tenants of good communication include being deliberate and as prescriptive as possible with feedback to support employee development. Encourage your team to ask as many questions as necessary to solve for the challenges that might be in front of them, even if it isn’t physically visible.
Look for genius. Remember that not everyone works or learns in the same way, and this is especially true for those who aren’t used to working remotely. As we continue to adjust to this environment, it’s important to support your teams in different ways depending on the skills and strengths they accelerate at.
Be deliberate about opportunity. Even in a virtual environment there is opportunity to help your team grow their careers. Offer your staff space not to just do their work but try out new roles, skills, and solutions to support them as they look to create more career opportunities. I make it a point of showcasing career growth amongst the entire organization.
Multiply good behavior. Focus on multiplying the good elements in your teams and learn how to scale this for maximum success. The more you reinforce good habits and team dynamics, the more you diminish the negatives that can come with working in a physically distant environment. When I see something that works, I communicate it widely. The more we can share these good ideas, the more we will see them in practice.
Jen Grogono, uStudio
First, implementing a system of communication accountability is important. As a business professional managing remote teams, it’s important to know that your messages are being received and how it’s resonating. It’s no secret that you can’t measure the consumption of print and email, but with an audio or video stream, you can see who played your content and for how long. This information can help you understand employee preferences and improve the nature of your content.
Second, communicate regularly and consistently. Establishing a series of schedule communication delivered regularly sets expectations for your team and makes it easier for you to be proactive. Over time, you’ll find that the more often you check in, the more transparent and aligned your teams will feel. Several digital communications tools support group functionality which allows you to set schedules and target messages to specific teams.
Third, convey emotion. It’s hard to be seen as human when employees are no longer able to meet with you in person. A typed or written message can only carry so much meaning. As Mehrabian’s research noted decades ago, audio increases the meaning of a message by more than 500 percent. That’s a lot of weight! And it’s fairly intuitive; not only can employees receive your words, but they receive the tone and cadence of your voice which has all sorts of effects including a stronger ability to inspire cultural alignment and action. This past year, a client of ours produced a heart-felt podcast episode describing a fundraiser where an employee raised money to buy iPads for nursing home residents during the pandemic. The connectedness and kindness came through in ways a print notice on the company intranet or even email wouldn’t have.
Fourth, be adaptable. We are all busier and more distracted than ever — especially balancing work from home and children. There’s a high value on organizations that can make company communications and training more convenient and adaptive to life in a post-Covid world. Select tools that allow for multi-tasking and micro-learning without being burdensome to employees. Fit and adjust your messages so that they fit within systems and tools that are already being used. Again, here, we’re big proponents of enterprise podcasting and training series on-demand because the use of these technologies at home is already natural for the workforce. There are no new devices needed or behaviors to learn when your team can receive and consume work shows, episodes, and recommended playlists.
Fifth, don’t entertain drama. This one doesn’t need much explanation. We’ve all been on the receiving end of emotional email threads where intentions and messages are lost in a sea of pointed language and ‘reply all’ antics. There are very few replacements for direct and open voice dialogue.
Howard Sublett, Scrum Alliance
Make online communication about something more than just work. Allow time for people to get to know each other in ways that would happen organically if we were all together in a physical space. One of our teams does a weekly “Humans on Our Team” Zoom meeting. They spend 15 minutes together on a Miro Board, where they add a picture of something that would help people understand who they are. Some weeks it’s all puppies and babies, other weeks it’s pictures of them with someone they lost, or someone who is sick or suffering. By sharing these moments with one another, they build camaraderie and even friendships. Attendance and participation isn’t required, but it’s a well attended and much anticipated time together every week.
Leverage and utilize cameras in most distance-based communication. Turning cameras on for meetings is a far better experience than audio only. You can tell a lot about emotion and how people are feeling just by the look on their face. Plus, sometimes you get insight into shared interests and experiences. Just the other day, I was in a conversation with a teammate and happened to notice something different in their background. I asked about it and it turned out that she had bought a blanket rack to display some antique quilts that came from her great grandmother. I shared that we had a quilt rack for my wife’s family quilts as well. We found something in common just because our cameras were on. Simple things like that help people connect.
Respect a timebox. In remote work, the line between home and work is blurred. We are all on our computers much more than we wish to be, which can lead to online fatigue. To help fight this tendency, keep meetings fairly short and to the point. Build in opportunities to get up and move. And while I still think cameras are important, it is a good idea to schedule one of your meetings each day as a walking meeting, either outside, or just around the house or yard.
Schedule in a little chaos and fun. Invite teams to social events on a regular cadence. Our company had a once a month trivia night and has occasional happy hours. When someone leaves or joins the company, we still do all of the fun and meaningful traditions we used to do in person. Laughter is one of the best things you can do for your teams. Make time for fun.
The stories we tell are even more important when we’re remote. When you’re remote, it’s easy to feel isolated and alone in the work you are doing. Leaders need to actively seek out ways to help team members feel connected to the larger story of what we are all achieving together. One way to do that is by sharing a virtual information radiator of the organization’s goals via Slack or a shared document. Another way we do this at Scrum Alliance is through a storytelling channel on Slack. People use that channel to post or share stories, such as a customer impact story they have experienced or a time when a teammate went above and beyond the call of duty.
Tracee Aliotti, CBT Nuggets
Don’t skip the small talk. We’re busy professionals. We’re known for cutting to the chase and gettin’ down to business. And there are times when maybe we’re on a tight deadline or in some kind of crisis when that is absolutely necessary, but let’s be honest, those times are the exception and not the rule. Take the time in your remote interactions to just connect as humans. Honestly, it doesn’t matter as much what you talk about as much as that you do talk. Give people the time to share about their weekend, kids, hobbies, dog, plants, dinner plans, or what’s up next on Netflix. You’re not wasting time, you’re making time. And, chances are you’re still probably spending less time than you were when you were commuting.
No agenda? No problem. You know you’ve done it (I’m guilty!), “I don’t have any agenda items, do we need to meet?” Um, yes . . . in the remote world you do. In the office you could still count on those casual encounters, but you have to be intentional when you’re no longer in-person. Leaders, especially, need to keep your team check-ins. If you’re cancelling all the time, your team will start doing the same. So, if someone says they don’t have any agenda items, you say “no problem, I’d love to just hear how you’re doing.” A daily standup can be a great option for creating a standing, no agenda, time to connect.
Keep those goals on repeat. This is actually really important when you’re in-person as well. But, in-person, you have more opportunities to reiterate and repeat the overarching goals. People feel anchored and united when the goals are clear and repetition of those goals helps keep them top of mind. Leaders will do themselves and their teams a solid by taking every opportunity to state what we are ultimately trying to achieve and ensuring individuals are clear about their role in helping us get there. The more autonomy we have the more clarity we need in order to stay aligned.
Choose the tools and use those tools. Building a thriving remote community and culture requires leaning heavily on communication tools. It’s not enough just to say, “here are the tools, have fun.” You need to take the time to establish how you’ll use them. People need to know where to watch for what and need to be able to trust they’ll get a response in a timely manner. It’s tempting to just let different groups use whatever tools they want and however they prefer to use them. Resist this temptation. Over time it leads to more silos, isolation, and patchy communication. Even if the tool being used isn’t your favorite (and believe me, I’ve experienced this first hand), lean in and suck it up for the sake of building connectivity and community. It’s worth it.
There are no monsters, just people. Earlier I mentioned the book my kids love called “There’s a monster at the end of this book,” and how in the remote world that can manifest as “There’s a monster on the other side of this Slack message.” We have a tendency to villainize those on the other side of our digital communications, or sometimes become villains ourselves. It’s easy to do in an increasingly digital world where the moments that humanize us are constantly being minimized if not stripped away completely. You’re going to slip up from time to time. You’re going to overly read into that comment in your Google doc or be a bit short in your email response and others are going to do the same. It’s not because we’re monsters. We’re just people. Be quick to give grace and forgiveness to others as well as to yourself.
Sean Kramer, the Diabetes Research Institute Foundation
Communication is the key. The first challenge to overcome is to eliminate the appearance that there is an inability to communicate. As the pandemic hit and we went remote, we immediately moved to daily all staff meetings. We met every morning at nine for 15 minutes to discuss topics of the day and relevant business information. As the time went on, we found that these morning calls were impacting those families with children who were being home-schooled, so we modified to a 9:30 call. We continued to evolve and now have settled at meeting three days a week with one meeting extended to 30 minutes to dive into specific business topics or training sessions.
Maintain the pulse of the organization . Without connecting with individual team members to understand what’s happening in their lives, we formed a sunshine committee to celebrate life moments. For example, we learned recently that a team member had a close relative in the hospital. The sunshine committee immediately worked to send the family a small basket to let them know we were thinking of them. When another team member adopted a new puppy, the committee sent a box of puppy toys. Small but meaningful interactions help with employee retention. Equally, as a leader, I, along with the rest of the leadership team members, will reach out with check-ins to see how the team are doing and if there is anything they are lacking or see areas for improvement.
Know your culture . When we found that there was conflict on the team, we developed a core values committee to help the organization understand what we wanted our culture to be. The committee has focused on not only compiling the core values, but have implemented training to ensure that we are all living up to the values that we espouse.
Provide the tools to get the job done. To be an effective member of a team, you need to have the required tools to do your job. When one of our team members working remotely wasn’t able to print needed accounting forms, the team ensured that a printer was delivered to their home. The same can be said of ensuring that team members’ internet access or phone lines are up to par and able to connect effectively. This notion is paramount for a team member to not only complete their work to be able to excel at it.
Transparency is a must. Not being in the same space can lead to rumors spreading quickly via text or email. When a team member was recently let go, we immediately convened a call to discuss what took place and allow time for questions and answers. It’s an important element of ensuring open lines of communication that builds and maintains trust with the team. They need to be able to understand and trust that the decisions being made are for the betterment of the organization as a whole. Not communi
Carolyn Moore, Auth0
Have empathy for team members and colleagues. With a remote team there is a need for empathetic leadership, management, and communication. It is important to have a deeper understanding who people are and what they need. Having empathy in communication allows for teams to feel heard, appreciated, and overall, be more productive.
Be open to new communication styles. There are myriad ways in which teams communicate with each other on a daily basis. Some better than others. For remote teams, it’s best to try a few communication tools to see what works best. From personal experience, asynchronous communication is ideal for remote teams as much of the content is written or recorded allowing for team members to review and take in on their time.
Set boundaries. Something that is easier said than done is setting boundaries in the workplace. With a remote team, boundaries are an important piece to how the group functions. Communication is essential in setting boundaries and can be used in many ways. For example, telling your manager when there is too much on your plate or setting definitive times for when team members can and can’t ping you.
Be flexible. With a remote team it’s easy to slip into a form of communication that can translate as micromanaging. A key thing to remember is to be flexible when communicating with a remote team. People are working in their own spaces and have their own unique lives, which comes with unique distractions and priorities. As long as the work is getting completed to the expected standard, it’s not necessary to have all team members respond immediately.
Focus on results, not chair time. There are many factors with remote work that can cause team members to not be immediately responsive or be online for the standard nine-to-five. At Auth0, we’re flexible with schedules for a reason — as long as the work is getting done then there’s no reason to be strict with hours. Communicating the status of a project is imperative to have this work well. Overall, placing more focus on results rather than time spent in a desk chair is great for having success with a remote team.
Justin Goldman, RenoFi
In person matters even for 100% distributed companies. Ensure that you do get together with your full team physically at least once per year, and ideally once per quarter at the department level. I’m a big believer in remote work, and always have been, well before this pandemic happened. But we had never planned to be 100% remote 365 days a year. While we wanted remote work to be the de-facto mode of working, we always had a week long off-site for the whole company, monthly founders meetings, and maybe quarterly department off-sites. It is just critical to get together with your teammates and really know them on a personal level. Being in person means having fun, and getting to know each other more as humans and not just talking squares on your computer screen. Remote culture is the future of work, but don’t overcorrect and go 1000% remote. Remote doesn’t mean never meeting in person. Add events and retreats into your plan. While of course COVID has prevented this recently, as a company we have our sights on a week-long team offsite trip as soon as it is safe to travel.
Clarity is key. We’ve taken the framework from the book, The Advantage, which we’ve found to be an awesome guidepost to ensure everyone is on the same page. This lets everyone in the company know what’s the single most important thing right now for the business. With this, the team ensures their priorities tie back to the most important thing for the company. We have full company All Hands every other week and try to keep them casual. People can get really siloed off into their own work and their own departments, and these meetings allow us to connect, re-align, and motivate ourselves toward a common goal. When you’re working at a startup, things are changing all the time, so this connection is important. At its core, this is just clarity. I advocate for supreme clarity at all times.
Find what works for your team. This one is hard because it’s unique for every single company, and it may take time to figure out what works for your people. The only thing that doesn’t work at all, is not being thoughtful about it. While we have a few things that we are trying and that work for us, we are always striving to learn more from other companies and do more ourselves. We try not to be complacent. One thing we do is “Insta RenoFi,” which is a Slack channel that we use as our own company Insta feed. People are free to post photos throughout the week of whatever they’re up to, and especially after a weekend. This is a casual way to stay up to date with each other’s lives, especially since a lot of us live in different countries and continents. The differences in holidays, climate and even social issues have sparked interesting conversation and connection for all of us.
Manufacture connection. In a traditional office, conversations and connection are organic. Being in the same physical space fosters communication with very little effort. When you’re working remotely, you’re going to experience a lack of communication and connection, naturally, so you need to manufacture that. That doesn’t mean you need to force people to talk for the sake of talking, it just means you’re going to have to devote time, money and company resources in general to manufacturing that connection. Don’t think you can get away without building that into your plan and your budget. One thing we’ve done recently was a virtual board game tournament. What was fun about this is that it was an organic idea that was personal to me — we used a board game I’d enjoyed with my family, and I wanted to share it with our team. We had a lot of fun with it. Just because I’ve made a special effort to foster this connection, that doesn’t mean it’s not genuine.
Empathy acceleration hack. This last point is really important to me. Zoom meetings make one-to-one conversations and deep connection difficult. As a founder, you’re juggling so many things at once, and so getting to know someone on a more personal level, via Zoom, feels really difficult. One way that we try to connect on a personal level, and not just a work level, is through what we call "spotlights." Spotlights are these stories that we publish internally about each new employee that joins our company. A writer that we work with will take time to interview every new employee before they start about their whole life story: their family, their hobbies, their career history, whatever is important to them that they want to talk about. Then, our writer will craft an in-depth story for everyone else at the company to read, based on that interview. In person, you might be able to get this information about a person’s backstory during lunch or over beers after work. Remotely, Spotlights allow everyone the chance to learn more about each other’s lives at their leisure, in a pretty non-intimidating way and it happens immediately, so you feel like your new teammates already know you. The better you know your teammates, the more empathy you’ll have for them in your day to day work environment.