It’s not uncommon these days for work teams to be separated by large distances. My current work team, composed of five people, spans three states and four cities. A common challenge with remote workers is to learn to communicate efficiently. The challenge increases when you throw in a few different time zones, different work schedules, and varying communication styles.
Email provides many advantages for remote workers but also creates many stumbling blocks that become communication inhibitors. Back in January I posted my thoughts about about how to not use email in your company. Those communication tips were mostly focused on email use for individuals. Group communication is just as much a challenge to maintain, and individuals tend to rely on email more than it should be used because of its convenience and ease of use. Her are a few of the dangers of email, not just for remote workers, but for all work groups.
Email communication dangers
- It lengthens decisions. How long does it take you to reach consensus or resolve issues via email?
- It loses focus on the original intent. Just like projects are subject to scope creep, so are emails. As people add their thoughts, opinions, and questions the scope of the email becomes greater.
- It creates ‘versions’ of the message that the distribution list must manage. If you’ve ever checked your email only to find 10 or more messages on the same thread then you have experienced this. You can move down to the last email sent in the thread and try to work your back up to see all of the individual threads or spawned threads to different a distribution list. But this creates management overhead to try to keep up with the conversation.
So what’s a remote workforce to do? Email should have a part in the overall communication plan.
But to create better communication that will help the team be more successful and connected consider these tips:
Communication tips for remote teams
- Use emails to send notifications and ask questions (limit the number of questions per email to no more than three). Don’t use email to try to reach decisions. If you need to make a decision then you need a phone call or meeting depending on who needs to be involved.
- Email threads should be limited to three messages. If your notifications require more clarification than this, then the language is not clear or the subject matter is complicated enough to warrant other forms of communication.
- Limit the use of attachments in email. Just as multiple email threads creates versioning issues, so do the number of attachments in email. Try to use team rooms, network links, or collaboration software to manage document versions.
- Use video chat to promote remote team cohesiveness. There are plenty of tools now for video chat and portable cameras are relatively inexpensive. If your team members are remote, get’em each a camera.
- If possible try to meet in person quarterly. This may not always be practical or within a budget. But teams that meet together, stay together.
- Hey yo! Pick up the phone! In a communication world driven by email, text, and instant messages, you can still reach out and touch someone.
Communication is never easy. It requires work. It requires attention. Remote workers don’t have the option to walk to each others cubes or offices. So find time to communicate. As Rollo May said, “Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing.”
Photo Credit: Joe Mabel