Remote teams and communication

Communication for remote teams : a reflection on some points to consider.

One person I follow on twitter passed me this recently :

Good communication in a remote team:

I think that’s quite true. From experience I think those points are very important to keep things smooth within and around a remote team.
As many in the thread noted : it’s also a good advice to give to teams that are not remote.

The following are my take at giving more meat to some of the items in the list based on my experience as remote and in house Software and Infrastructure engineer.

Communicating the obvious

When I started working with hardware (system administrator) and software (software engineer) I noticed that very often issues we encountered were rooted in very simple causes, simpler than what we thought.
So when I face a bug or an issue these days I push myself to look first at the most simple and dumb cause I can think of and make my way up through the scale of complexity.
I try to pass that habit on to juniors I train or people I work with by communicating the obvious or asking about the obvious.

Here is an example :

Charlie : “oh, my screen isn’t starting”
Me: “is it plugged in ?”

If you do this, be aware that some people might offended. But it’s often worth the check.

Format the writing effectively

This is important : don’t just put words one after another and hit send. Take some time to read what you wrote, format things a bit by adding space, reword to make things clearer or more detailed. You’ve got time.
The thing is : you will often save time in the long term if you take a bit more time first to properly organise your thoughts and your words.

Offer conclusions in long discussions

It’s very helpful when talking with someone or several people to take a minute to rephrase what the other person as said. This has at least two benefits actually. It gives you the opportunity to put back in your own words what you have heard and understood thus improving your understanding of what was said. It gives the other person the possibility to check that you understand each other.

In bigger meetings this can be done by someone chairing the meeting. Call that person a catalyst, a coach, or something else, but the idea is to have someone acting neutral in the middle. Not only should that person rephrase and provide regular overviews of the discussions but the catalyst should also help more opinions to be heard.
This can also be used inside discussions threads in tools like Instant group chats, mailing lists, and forums (Discourse, Reddit, Github issues, ...).

Make decisions transparent

This one is tough to sell in “traditional” houses but it tends to be a very powerful way to communicate and organise a team.
It’s not always the case but often remote teams are composed of more senior professionals with experience in many fields. Having decisions made “in the dark” by a subset of the team is very risky in such teams as it will tend to give bad signals to the ones left out. Nothing new there : non remote teams suffer the same symptoms when there is no transparency in decision making. The effect is just stronger in the remote setting as you can’t see or talk to all your team as easily.
That doesn’t mean you can have someone leading and making decisions, but it needs to be done in the open.

I am often advocating for the use of tools similar to Reddit or bulletin boards. I read a few difference posts about this in the past and I keep referencing one by Ryan Carson, co-founder of Treehouse : How to use a reddit clone to boost company culture.
In such messaging board things are a lot slower and everyone can take time to express their opinions and ideas. They can give the team a good place to do all of the above and develop such a culture that will start to affect how other mediums are used (IM, video calls, group chats).

Ponder on this

Yet, coming back to the tweet itself and the point raised by many in response : all teams, remote or not, should make use of this.
Many teams would do great with more context expressed during meetings and chats, better writings, better chairing of meetings, more transparency and more responsibility entrusted upon team members.

Remote teams are somehow "forced” to face these issues because they directly define how the team will operate since written communication is central to team dynamics.
In house teams have the luxury of being able to hide those issues by using ad-hoc interruptions, on the fly hijacking of attention and permanent humming of the project and company context at every corner of the office.

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