A Business Technology Place

2 takeaways for tools used by remote teams

A recent blog post by Wayne Turmel about tools for remote teams does a good job of breaking down the communication needs of remote teams. I liked Mr. Turmel’s approach of defining the tools by breaking them into synchronous and asynchronous forms of communication.  I work in remote work team every day with colleagues spread across the country.

Post Office

To message 1 or many. That is the question.

The communication of my team revolves more around the need for a point-to-point solution or a multi-point solution. I’ve found that person-to-person communication most often involves either phone or email depending on the required immediacy of the response. I’ve also found that point-to-point solutions are more likely to use non-standard or specialized versions of software that are shared by the two parties involved. Some common examples include video phone services, brainstorming tools, or shared directory space.

We use a multi-point solution for situations that require three or more parties to communicate. As with the point-to-point solution, email and phone conference calls are still the most common forms of this type of communication. We often use software specifically designed for groups such as Webex and GoToMeeting.

I’ve learned a few things about remote team communication over the past couple of years.  These are good to remember when trying to decide on which tools to use.

Teams must get beyond email

Email is a popular communication vehicle for a couple of reasons: everyone has it and it’s easy for the sender to create a message send it. But email is an increasingly poor choice for the best communication between remote team members.

1. Email attachments don’t version well. Team members don’t know if they have latest version of a document. This leads to confusion and wasted time trying to synchronize with each other.

2. Team members with an abundance of email or that are challenged to manage items in their inbox often don’t respond in a timely manner.

3. Some corporations now actively delete email that is older than a certain age based on legal policy. If you need to retain information or keep records of conversations then email may not be the best solution.

Use company standard tools where possible

If the software is a company standard, then everyone already has it, or has access to it. Many companies prohibit the download and installation of software from the internet as a security measure to keep out viruses and malware. In addition to having access to it, it works well because most team members probably already know how to use it. People use the tools they are familiar with and will not choose to learn a new tool unless forced to do so.  If you need to communicate with members outside of your team this concept becomes even more important. You don’t want to send a person not in your immediate work group a request to communicate with you via some tool they don’t have or in a location that they don’t have access to read.

One a personal note, I’m reallying loving my Gmail inbox from Google these days. I have access to email, chat, voice calls, and video calls all from a single location. I can even use Google docs for remote file sharing. But it’s not a company standard. So I use it now as a special point-to-point solution for certain members on my team.

photo credit:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/coba/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Six communication tips for teams with remote workers

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

  1. It lengthens decisions. How long does it take you to reach consensus or resolve issues via email?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

How does your team communicate?

How does your team communicate?

But to create better communication that will help the team be more successful and connected consider these tips:

Communication tips for remote teams

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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