There can be many benefits in employing a team of remote workers, but some elements of managing such a team can be difficult. Despite the advances in technology that make keeping in touch easy, the nuances of communication across distance can still be full of pitfalls.
In addition to the usual advice about regular calls, emails, news bulletins and group chat rooms, we’re offering five tips for successfully keeping your remote workers in the loop. In addition, we’ve spoken to an organizational psychologist to shed light on the importance behind such comms.
If you work in or with a remote team, have a look at our tips below and let us know any communications strategies that have helped you interface more effectively in the comments below.
“Effective communication becomes even more essential in a virtual organization. New forms of virtual communication may arise from a change in culture. To aid this, employees should be encouraged to communicate via electronic means,” says Hilary Blackmore, a chartered organizational psychologist at Mendas.
However, the digital written word, be that email, instant messaging or group chat conversations, can easily be misinterpreted from afar. It’s important to ensure that you keep your missives clear of ambiguity, and even more importantly, clear of causing any offense.
This is obviously also the case with “regular” staff or colleagues too, but it becomes more important if your primary form of communication is written. You may wish to consider updating your skills in this area.
“Training may be required to improve employee and managers’ ability to communicate electronically. By developing an email culture, group email notification can be used to minimize the risk that someone will be left out of the communication loop,” says Blackmore.
It might sound a little dour, but if there is any doubt that a non-essential comment could be taken the wrong way, then don’t add it. It’s better for your written communications to come across a little dry than to cause offense. Unless you’re certain you will achieve the right reaction, save your wit for a phone or video call, where it’s easier to gauge meaning and tone.
As well as company news, be sure to share personal news from within the team — such as birthdays, relevant family news, other celebrations and even amusing stories from head office, if applicable. This can make coworkers separated by distance feel much more part of a “proper” team.
“For many workers, the social interaction and communication in the workplace is highly important. A study by Mann and Holdsworth in 2003 highlights the psychological stress of separation from professional colleagues and the social banter and buzz that constitutes an office environment. The sense of feeling left out can be as basic as not being up-to-date with informal news,” explains Blackmore.
“Often, remote workers feel that once they are out of sight of their office-based colleagues they are no longer in the loop. Remote workers can feel irritable at being physically distant from the source of any problems. Social isolation can restrict the ability to sort out issues, leading to frustration, and can restrict the availability of the emotional support from fellow workers to deal with situations.”
Water cooler gossip is one thing, but when carried out across distance, such gossip can mutate like the worst game of telephone. In addition to sharing company success stories and positive news, be sure to communicate less positive developments with your staff as openly and honestly as possible.
If your product gets a bad review, the company gets a negative write up, your sales figures slump or if someone gets let go, be sure to communicate this to your remote team along with a suitable comment or explanation.
Don’t think that because they are distant, remote workers won’t catch wind of the news. One way or another, they will, and it’s your responsibility to keep your workers appraised of both good and bad developments. It’s much better if they hear such news from you, along with a confident comment from someone relevant in the organization, rather than via other means.
There is nothing more isolating for a remote worker who needs information to complete a task and can’t continue because that information is not available. It’s one thing to share staff changes, new policies or systems in a group call, but not everyone is good at absorbing information on the fly, and emails can easily get lost in busy inboxes.
Ensure any and all relevant information your staff could possibly need access to is available, securely, in the cloud, 24/7. This way the data is accessible for anyone to refer to (for anyone who needs a recap, may have missed a call or meeting, works part-time or in another time zone) when there is no one around to ask.
One of the more difficult things about virtual meetings is that although a lot of matters may get discussed, sometimes in the midst of a busy call — or even a lengthy email thread — with lots of input and suggestions from various sources, actual actions may be left undecided or lost in the noise.
As someone in a management position, it’s your responsibility to ensure that everyone is clear on the results of a call, virtual meeting or emails. After a group call, send out (or delegate someone else to send out) brief notes and, most importantly, action points, so that everyone is clear on who is doing what, and therefore, stays firmly in the loop, especially if such matters get further discussion in smaller groups.
Alternatively, if you’re CCed into an email chain that’s going nowhere, step in and help bring some clarity to proceedings. Even the most capable people need a little direction keeping on top of developments when they are discussing them remotely with others.
Finally, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for keeping your> remote workers in the loop. It’s crucial to monitor how effective your company’s communications are and adapt your methods accordingly.
For example, if you know your team is not very chatty, you may find a weekly call about as useful as a philosophical discussion with Harpo Marx. Switch it to a monthly call and increase other methods of communication. Similarly, if your weekly email news letter is sparse, then just send out news on an as-needed basis.
Most importantly of all, beyond analyzing how things are going from your perspective, be sure to ask your remote workers for their input and suggestions (“Remote workers should be able to contribute to the organization with suggestions,” advises Blackmore), whether that’s on an ad-hoc basis, or a more formal, company-wide communications audit.
The Digital Careers Series is supported by Elance, where businesses tap into the human cloud for immediate access to the talent they need, when they need it. Elance offers the flexibility to staff up or down, and is faster and less expensive than traditional staffing and outsourcing. Check out Startup Cloud to learn how to hire and manage in the human cloud.
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