Virtual communication: How remote teams talk

Written on 
March 23, 2020

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Proactive, intentional communication lies at the heart of remote success. Without the visual cues and fluidity that comes with working in the same room, team interaction needs to be highly descriptive, structured and explicit. While that may sound daunting, it can actually foster a more considerate and effective working environment. Here’s a brief overview of what remote team communication looks like.

Getting the right tools

Remote communication requires a very specific tech infrastructure. But chances are, you’ve already been working with a lot of virtual communication tools for a while. Most businesses have already unwittingly adopted video conferencing apps and instant messaging tools. While there are a ton of tools out there to suit your specific niche – and we’ve written a detailed list of remote communication tools here – these are the core tools you can’t do without:

Slack

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This instant messenger will soon become the main site of daily communication across your company – whether in global threads or private chats. It’s ideal for solving small blockers, sharing quick updates and staying in the loop. Slack allows business-wide conversations to stay accessible and searchable, even when working asynchronously. We recommend setting up publicly visible channels for each team and project, so discussion remains visible.

Zoom

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As a light-weight alternative to Skype, Zoom acts as your main technology for heftier group discussions, problem solving and check-ins. We use it for strategy and brainstorming meetings, weekly team check-ins, one-to-ones and presentations. It’s really easy to invite people to calls and screen share, making it ideal for demos. While it’s unlikely you’ll need to host huge meetings, it can support up to 500 video participants!

Basecamp

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Billed as a project management tool, Basecamp helps you neatly centralize communication around company-wide projects. Think of it as your asynchronous communication hub, where you can link important company docs and create rich project posts, as well as assign to-do tasks to different teams or individuals. Message boards help you keep project discussions transparent, and automatic updates ensure that you stay up to date with any new comments and changes. You can set up custom automatic reminders too, prompting people to share regular feedback or ideas.

Communicating asynchronously

Every workplace uses a blend of synchronous and asynchronous communication. Synchronous is what happens in real-time (think video calls, instant messenger and in-person chat), and asynchronous is what occurs intermittently (think email, Slack, project management tools, in-app comments). When working from home, asynchronous should become your staple. By documenting everything, it keeps communication transparent. You can read through message threads and catch up on updates at your own pace, without interrupting your work to respond immediately.

To give you an idea, here’s how we balance sync and async:

  • Synchronous communication is reserved for complex or nuanced conversations (problem solving, critical feedback), emergency situations, one-to-ones, kick-offs and all-hands meetings
  • Video meetings are always planned ahead and recorded so people can review them asychronously
  • We set availability hours for checking our inboxes and Slack messages, so others know when to expect a response
  • We use Dewo to automatically mute notifications and update our Slack status when we’re deep in the middle of something
  • We “work out loud”, broadcasting our progress, blockers, expectations and requests
  • We automatically track all the time we spend on communication apps to keep it visible

Working out loud

In order for async to work, every communication should be clear and self-contained — detailing all relevant information, actions and requirements. You’ll effectively need to start narrating your work into digital tools so your progress and queries stay visible. It feels a bit intense, but this over-communication keeps things clear and efficient. Approach communication like you’re speaking to someone in another time zone: you need to provide all the right context so they don’t have to work on assumptions or request more information the following day.  

Staying aligned

Without common guidelines on how to communicate, messages can easily get lost, become disruptive or duplicate effort. Everyone needs to understand where to post and look for different bits of information, as well as feel included in discussions. Here are a few basic communication ground rules:  

  • Clarify the purpose of different communication tools and how you will use them
  • Keep all your internal team communication in public team Slack channels to maintain visibility between departments
  • Create a global “announcements” Slack thread for broadcasting company-wide news
  • Be considerate with your digital volume — try and group queries into one message, provide links to any resources you mention, qualify the urgency of requests and avoid using multiple channels for the same message.
  • Set rules for using @channel and @here on Slack (e.g. for urgent communications or company-wide messages)
  • Use your Slack status to indicate your availability (including if you are off sick)

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