How to collaborate effectively when your team is remote

The coronavirus outbreak has triggered an accelerated trial run for remote work at a previously unthinkable scale. What we learn in the coming months could help shape the future of work and drive innovation across a range of business functions and industries. However, while much of the focus has been on whether technology and infrastructure can handle the surge in demand, what’s often not considered are the communication nuances crucial to productivity.

The digital era has ushered in a revolution in communication that’s equivalent to the invention of the printing press. It’s changing how we speak and how we share information, which can sometimes lead to a jumble of information coming at us online which can lead to misunderstandings and confusion.

Remote communication can distort the normal pace of our conversations. When weekly face-to-face meetings are replaced with numerous back-to-back emails, teams are required to rethink their processes. To perform at the highest levels, remote teams have to find new and more efficient ways to operate and collaborate.

Before we break down our 6 top tips for effective remote collaboration, there are first some things to consider.

There are three kinds of distance in remote collaborations that managers need to be aware of: physical (place and time), operational (team size, bandwidth and skill levels) and affinity (values, trust and interdependency). The best way for managers to drive team performance is by focusing on reducing affinity distance. Try switching most remote communication to regular video calls, which are a much better vehicle for establishing rapport and creating empathy than either emails or voice calls. Also, design virtual team-building rituals that give people the opportunity to interact regularly.

When remote teams communicate well and leverage their strengths, they can actually gain an efficiency advantage over co-located teams. Here are some of the best practices to master:

  1. Don’t conflate brief communications and clear communications: In our efforts to be efficient, we sometimes use fewer words to communicate. But such brevity can mean that the rest of the team wastes time trying to interpret your messages (and then may misinterpret them anyway). Don’t assume that others understand your cues and shorthand. Spend time communicating with the intention of being ultra-clear, no matter the medium. Indeed, you can never be too clear, but it is too easy to be less clear than you should be.
  2. Establish communication norms: Remote teams need to create new norms that establish clarity in communication. Companies such as Merck have created acronyms for their digital communications such as ‘Four Hour Response (4HR)’ and ‘No Need to Respond (NNTR)’ that bring predictability and certainty to virtual conversations. Individual teams can also establish their own norms – e.g., to use or not use Teams, Slack, Google Docs, or WhatsApp groups.
  3. Don’t bombard your team with messages: Following up on a task by email, online messenger, text and phone can be overwhelming and unnecessary. The medium you choose to connect with team members creates different demands on the time of the receiver. Using all of them for the same message is ineffective. Choose your digital volume wisely.
  4. Consistency reigns supreme: While we often tend to regard human predictability as a defect, few qualities are more sought-after at work, especially in virtual collaborations. We are all unique, but our consistent behaviours help others predict what we do and, in turn, help them to understand us. You can make that easier for others by establishing a clear personal etiquette and sticking to it consistently.
  5. See the hidden opportunities in written communications: Being behind a screen can create new opportunities for certain team members, making space for those who might be less inclined to speak out in groups. Text-based communication places less importance on interpersonal skills and physical appearance, offering an effective way to share power and decision-making. Research shows that introverted individuals are less inhibited in online versus offline interactions.
  6. Create intentional space for celebration: Old school birthday cakes are still important for remote teams. Creating virtual spaces and rituals for celebrations and socialising can strengthen relationships and lay the foundation for future collaboration. Find ways to shorten the affinity distance. One company we worked with celebrated new talent by creating a personal emoji for each employee who had been there for six months. You can find your own unique way to create team space for social connection. How you do it is less important than whether you do.

As more and more of our interactions happen digitally, we will continue to experience new forms of miscommunication and misunderstanding. The solution will not come from new technologies. Instead, it comes from understanding the new rules of engagement and building a communication skill set that reflects the demands of our digitally driven age and humanises our approach.

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