Make remote teamwork better by focusing on communication and coordination

Make remote teamwork better by focusing on communication and coordination

Shifting from colocated to remote work arrangements introduces an array of challenges for intact teams, project teams, and individual professionals who need to connect with colleagues. Remote workers and remote teams can offset many of the challenges by attending to nine communication fundamentals.

With remote work arrangements come increased opportunities for misunderstandings, confusion, and errors as work gets done. When you work together in the same physical space, you benefit from a variety of communication cues, such as body language and facial indicators that diminish or disappear even with video conferencing. Add time gaps between contacts with colleagues, and problems can multiply.

Worse, without all the signals we’re used to in colocated interactions with colleagues, we run the risk of jumping to inappropriate conclusions about people’s work and intentions, by using limited, incomplete, or inaccurate data. In turn, misjudgments and even mistrust can ensue.

A shift to remote work arrangements is an excellent time to become more intentional about the fundamentals of good communication and coordination. First, however, it’s useful to understand why and how professionals communicate with one another.

 

Why and how professionals communicate

Broadly speaking, professionals communicate in the workplace to:

  • Build and sustain trusting, productive relationships
  • Discover and convey what’s going on
  • Share and develop ideas
  • Invite and influence others to advance an agenda
  • Formulate and make decisions
  • Reach agreement
  • Seek and secure support
  • Solicit and give advice
  • Develop and enact shared standards
  • Initiate and design plans for action
  • Align, arrange, and advance tasks
  • Make and maintain commitments
  • Take action
  • Learn and recalibrate
  • Address and resolve breakdowns
  • Reflect and prepare for the future

These are communication imperatives that move work forward between and among professionals. The imperatives are vital to an organization’s success.

To fulfill the communication imperatives, colleagues engage in many different communication activities. They’re presented below, clustered by how urgent and precise they are:

Less urgent, less precise
More urgent, more precise
Brainstorm
Dream
Imagine
Learn
Play
Reflect
Share
Wonder
Assess
Compare
Contrast
Evaluate
Filter
Interpret
Strategize
Understand
Adjust
Agree
Align
Coordinate
Decide
Influence
Instruct
Plan
Present
Respond
Alert
Assert
Commit
Direct
Enact
Enforce
Inform
Request

You and your professional colleagues engage in these types of communication activities with each other all the time, sometimes jumping from one to another throughout the day, and even in a single event, such as a meeting.

When you switch from co-located to remote work, your need to fulfill the communication imperatives, through various communication activities, doesn’t change. You must still generate and share ideas together. You must still make excellent decisions with your colleagues. You must still coordinate and complete action together.

The question is, how do you sustain quality communication at a distance, and often asynchronously?

 

Turning attention to communication methods

In a co-located work environment, communication activities happen naturally, drawing upon communication methods that colocated human beings have used and adapted for generations. Brainstorm sessions, for instance, benefit from a relaxed and generative atmosphere, where colleagues bounce ideas around through free-form dialogue, supported by Post-It Notes, whiteboards, and ample physical and verbal cues. At the other end of the spectrum, the urgency and precision of action-focused communication benefit from rapid, direct, synchronous one-on-one or group interactions that can be quickly confirmed, modulated, and reinforced through verbal and visual means.

Remote workers now have a plethora of communication methods to emulate how they would communicate in person: Zoom, Webex, and Microsoft Teams for live virtual meetings; virtual whiteboards like Miro; semi-synchronous text platforms like Slack; venerable methods like email and phone conversations; real-time document-editing and commenting features in Google Docs and Teams; and many more. Indeed, some of these methods offer benefits not found face to face, such as the ability to record and trace what’s been said, and the opportunity to blend synchronous and asynchronous contact.

For all those benefits and choices, however, remote workers can only approximate, and not replicate, what’s possible when they communicate face to face. To boost the effectiveness of the many available communication methods so they yield the best outcomes on behalf of organizational results, augment them with communication fundamentals. Here are nine you can use right away.

 

Nine communication fundamentals for remote professionals

  1. With your colleagues, clarify and confirm the communication imperative (the intention) for the situation, and the communication activity you’re employing together. (“We’re meeting to make a decision. First, we’ll evaluate options together, and then decide on the best path forward.”)
  2. Confirm the urgency and precision required. (“We have two hours, and by the end of our time together, we need to all agree on the direction we’re going on this topic.”)
  3. Intentionally invite participants to advocate for their positions, and to ask questions to deepen understanding. Provide ample room for people to express their views, and to ask questions for clarification and to enrich collective thinking.
  4. Pay close attention to the explicit and implicit meaning in the communication, which may be less obvious when you’re remote: Listen more carefully in live conversations and meetings. Re-read text and email messages before responding. Review comments in documents more attentively.
  5. Invigorate communication practices by mixing methods. Don’t attempt to do everything via Zoom or texting or Google Docs. Use multiple methods to change the channels of your communication regularly. That will keep the communication fresh—and be more respectful of diversity, because different methods can elicit different contributions in people.
  6. When you’re coordinating with each other, put extra effort into your communication. Coordination is the bridge between decisions and action: “I would like you to deliver the finished presentation slides to me by 5:00pm your time Thursday, complete with talking points and with the slides properly branded. Can you agree to that?” The more specific you are, the less the likelihood of mistakes and dissatisfaction.
  7. Agree on standards of excellence as you communicate: “Let’s agree that draft documents can have errors, but the final document must have no grammatical or typographical mistakes.” If you agree on standards in advance, then you’ll save time and effort.
  8. Confirm the who, what, why, when, and how of your communication more actively: Who is involved? What are we doing? Why are we doing it? When is it due? How should we communicate to achieve the best results? Doing so will reduce confusion and help you to move forward together more quickly and efficiently.
  9. Incorporate periodic feedback into the communication flow: What is working well in our efforts together? What isn’t? What do we need to adjust? Which of the communication fundamentals above need more attention? Feedback ensures learning, which leads to continuous improvement.

 

When you apply these fundamentals, you’ll be better able to close the communication gaps that remote work arrangements present among professionals. At the same time, you can attend to the communication imperatives required in your work together and get the best from your communication activities.

 

Tom Lowery is Better Still’s content creator and designer, and an expert and consultant in change management, talent management, leadership development, and team optimization. He holds a Masters degree in ethical leadership from Claremont Lincoln University. He is a dual citizen of the United States and Ireland, and consults in the U.S. and the E.U. Learn more about Better Still’s unique, tool-based Team Optimization Solution, which includes practical support for remote teams.

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