How to Support Healthy Communication Loops in Distributed Teams

Internal communications strategy always required a delicate balance between delivering an engaging presentation, getting the main message across, and ensuring it’s interpreted correctly. With so many organizations working with distributed teams, all these considerations are still crucial, but a new set of obstacles and opportunities appeared.

If you and your team members are feeling the stretch of shifting abruptly from a more traditional internal comms setting to the workplace of the future, you’re not alone. But stretching is a reliable way of growing beyond the limitations of the past.

So, as you continue to stretch your internal communications strategy to meet the modern workforce, here are some helpful things to consider.

Communications, Large and Small

We tend to think of Internal Communication as a one-to-many relationship, like an update from the CEO about the next quarter’s direction or the rollout of a new health plan. In cases where the phrase is capitalized, that expectation still stands.

While crucial, that carefully cultivated communication only represents a small fraction of the body of internal communication that goes on across an organization on any given day. This dynamic remains true whether you're working in a distributed team or the same physical campus; however, the venues continue to evolve.

That’s why it’s vital to consider the full range of internal communication for remote employees, and especially distributed teams.

The Watercooler

It may seem like remote work killed the watercooler, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The watercooler is alive and well, but instead of occupying a single physical space it grew, shrank, and moved simultaneously—and it continues to as we adopt new tools and ways of working.

The new watercooler is in the social channels of Slack workspaces and Microsoft Teams tenants. It’s hiding in the waiting room of your Zoom calls, and across social groups and apps on your company intranet.

The content of watercooler conversations and activities can range significantly, from recent news to kids, pets, and anything else under the sun. And while that sort of internal communication can seem frivolous at face value, it’s vital to the development of working relationships.

The Conference Room

There may still be a conference room in your office that gets a good amount of use, but for many organizations, the local conference room shifted to accommodate distributed teams.

Instead of bringing every stakeholder into the same physical space, it’s common to see at least one member of the meeting joining from a different location through a video conference tool like Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

But don’t assume that because it’s easier to attend a remote meeting that they should become the de-facto communication channel. Virtual meeting fatigue is real, and if there’s a way to communicate something important asynchronously, most teammates will likely appreciate the break.

The Auditorium

There was a time not long ago when messages had to be delivered in person. Senior leaders would travel across the country or the world to address large groups of team members face-to-face.

Large scale Zoom and Microsoft Teams meetings often take the place of the auditorium for distributed teams, but they’re still an important factor for hybrid and even co-located teams. As travel restrictions lift, in-person events are becoming a more common practice, but even these presentations need to be revamped to accommodate distributed teams.

As you work to plan in-person events, it’s more important than ever to consider the experience for distributed employees who will be attending remotely. Do they have an effective way to have their voices heard?

Cultural Considerations

Remote work offers the benefit of bringing on talented new teammates from across the globe with diverse skills and perspectives. That diversity can be the source of significant, measurable advantages for an organization. Results from a recent BCG research study on diverse leadership reflect that:

“Companies that reported above-average diversity on their management teams also reported innovation revenue that was 19 percentage points higher than that of companies with below-average leadership diversity—45% of total revenue versus just 26%.”

An expansive talent pool doesn’t come without thought and effort, though.

Managing diverse, distributed teams hinges on communication. The quality and content of that communication can mean the difference between building an inviting, inclusive environment, and one that’s prone to churn. There’s no magic communication formula that works for every distributed team, but there are a few themes that are always relevant.

Inclusivity

Internal communication should never feel like insular communication, and it’s easy for that precedent to be set for—and by—distributed teams.

Distance can be a barrier to relationship building, and the more avenues you have to close it, the better. Each of those avenues requires opening or broadening, and as such, there’s never truly a finish line when it comes to fostering a more inclusive experience for distributed teams.

In many cases, providing equal access to information and some scaffolding for team members to connect through can help foster a more inclusive environment. If you have an intranet that supports groups, this can be a great way to bring people together across great distances—whether social or geographic, or both.

Psychological Safety

Whether you’re in a distributed team or a co-located team, it’s critical that you feel comfortable being yourself and sharing ideas without the fear of ridicule or dismissal. For a remote worker, this is particularly important because many of the collaborative social cues we rely on are absent.

Authenticity

It might seem as though authenticity transcends communication mediums, and will shine through no matter how it’s delivered, but that’s not necessarily true. In “Communicating Authentically in a Virtual World,” Andrew Brodsky explores multimedia authenticity in depth. As part of that exploration, he found:

“...communication media often relays more than we realize, whether it’s due to emotion cues leaking through or recipients making evaluations based on our choice of communication mode.”

So, even if it’s authentic to the individual expressing it, perceptions of authenticity in that can vary. Think about how the mediums you and your teammates use to communicate regularly, and how well they match the situation.

For example, a CEO who is sincerely excited to share some light, good news might benefit from sharing it with their team in an off-the-cuff video format, rather than an email. If, on the other hand, that news is sensitive, that delivery method might feel inauthentic or inappropriate.

Practical Considerations

In addition to all the cultural and strategic considerations communicating within a distributed team requires, there are numerous practical considerations. From how you set your status to how you use emoji, each element adds up to a complete picture of your distributed team comms ecosystem.

Heads-up

One of the benefits of remote and distributed work environments is the flexibility they can afford; however, that flexibility can lead to confusion about who is available and when.

Agreeing on working hours is a standard expectation, but unlike in an office setting where people are physically present during those hours, members of remote and distributed teams often need to communicate more explicitly about their availability. When you can’t see your team member across the office or across the hall, it’s hard to know whether they’ve stepped out for a minute to grab a cup of coffee, attend a meeting, or if they’re on an errand.

Status settings. Tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom have varying degrees of fidelity when sharing status. Some can even automatically update your status based on what’s in your calendar. Take advantage of those built-in tools, but also consider other ways you can communicate context with the team when life happens and you won’t be available during those agreed-on hours.

Sharing that information can be very helpful for some teammates, but just noise for others, so it’s a best practice to corral it into a dedicated place.

A Heads-up or Out of Office (OOO) channel (or sub-channel) can make it easy for teammates to share their status and some brief background with those who might otherwise expect them to be available on short notice. For example, unexpectedly picking up kids from school, running time-sensitive errands, or lunching with a friend—all of these you could normally relay to teammates as you step out the door.

In a distributed team, that communication takes a little extra effort.

Collaborative communication

For a remote team, effective communication is the foundation of collaborative work, and even though we’ve all gotten better at it, there’s room for improvement.

In GitLab’s 2021 Remote Work Report, respondents echoed a similar sentiment:

“While 4 in 5 would recommend remote working to a friend and 81% of people are satisfied with the level of productivity, teamwork across organizations is struggling. Just over a third (37%) report that their organization does a good job of aligning work across projects.”

Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and other modern tools opened up quick, engaging communication in a way that changed established norms. While these tools have so many advantages, they’re not a panacea. Most teams still require a way of capturing and collating all the information they need to work together. In the case of remote work, this is doubly important.

Project management tools, company knowledge bases, and other dedicated tools can help organize company knowledge and bandwidth in a way that is difficult or even impossible for distributed teams to manage through messages and emails alone.

Time Zones

It’s important to consider time zones as a key factor in building healthy internal communication practices for remote teams. In inexperienced remote and distributed teams, it’s unfortunately common to see a pattern of the home office taking on the role of ‘standard time,’ and scheduling meetings and other communication based on that standard.

Deliberately or not, this can communicate that workers at the HQ are more important, leaving members of the distributed team feeling discounted and frustrated.

But it’s hard to expect workers at your HQ to regularly take late or early calls either. For many, setting that expectation isn’t conducive to healthy boundaries around work and home—especially in the case of remote work. For the same reason most leaders wouldn’t expect employees to show up at a physical campus at 10pm to attend a meeting, it’s equally problematic to expect them to show up to their home office at the same time.

Set aside the notion that “their office is just down the hall, so it’s not that much of an imposition.” It is. Sure, there are meetings and comms that must be synchronous, but those truly critical comms are probably fewer and further between than you think if you can level up your asynchronous comms skills.

So, instead of forcing the notion that meetings need to be attended in person all the time, focus on improving asynchronous communication in your distributed team. That shift in defaults can have reverberating effects. As Arc’s Christine Orchard explains in a fantastic post on working across time zones:

“By setting a clear expectation that communication won’t always happen synchronously, you can take the pressure away from people in different time zones to always be “on-call” in case someone needs their response.”

There are numerous ways to go about doing this. For example, whether you’re a Slack or Microsoft Teams user, it’s important to add small bits of context to messages. By their direct and instant nature, these messages can carry a false and unintended sense of urgency.

Emoji can be a helpful way of categorizing messages, and relay their level of urgency. For example, leading a message with 💤 can communicate to the recipient that there’s no major urgency.

In Closing

Healthy communication loops are crucial to the success of any team, but they’re especially important to build when working with distributed teams. Since every team is different, it may take some trial and error to find the channels and cadences that work best, but the payoff is worth the effort.

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