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Lessons from Leading Remote: Communication

remote work Jun 01, 2022

“The problem here is communication!” I can’t tell you how many times I hear this criticism when working with teams. Long before many of our teams moved to working remotely, communication was already a challenge. Often when people say there is a communication problem it’s the mismatch between two different styles. Communication styles are all about the needs we have and how others naturally approach communication based on their personality. However, there are even more nuances beyond “different styles'' in the lists of concerns teams express about communication.

What did we learn about communication gaps at work?

The quick move to working remotely during a pandemic revealed significant gaps in how communication happens in the workplace. As teams figure out whether they are staying remote, going hybrid or returning to co-located, applying lessons we learned about communication in the last few years might increase the chances of building and sustaining a healthy work environment.

What contributes to communication challenges on a team?

The number one reported challenge with transitioning to remote work is communication. Yet, it’s not a new challenge for teams. While each team is unique, communication challenges typically fall into three categories:


  • Who needs to know


A common complaint when teams say, “the problem here is communication” is the missed communication loops. A decision is made in a meeting and people start taking action, forgetting there are people outside the meeting that need to know BEFORE you make a move. Remote meetings have the positive impact of getting more people in the room to tighten that loop. Even so, every meeting should end with 5 minutes to clarify: “who needs to know what we discussed/decided today?”


  • When do they need to know


A partner to missed communication loops is the timeliness of communication. Decisions are made in the meeting, yet the follow through communication might not happen in time or maybe the word leaks out too early to one group before another. In a remote work environment the spontaneous stopping by an office and sharing info in a quick chat doesn’t happen. Mapping the sequence of communication with dates and “who will do what” actions can prevent missteps, hurt feelings or the creation of mistrust.


  • How do you share information


This is not only communicating with the other person’s communication style in mind, it’s also about the mode of communication and the method you use. With the advent of remote work, people need greater access to information electronically since they can’t walk to a file cabinet or stop by your office. Flexible schedules require “on-demand” access to meeting notes, documentation and potentially more access to key people outside of “normal” business hours. You may think “on-demand” access is less critical in co-located work environments. However, it can improve workflow regardless of where the team works and will future proof your organization if a quick pivot to working remotely becomes required once again.

“No one can whistle a symphony. It takes a whole orchestra to play it.” ~H.E. Luccock

How can you address communication challenges to cultivate a healthy team?

Recognizing the who, what and how of communication requires specific attention, establishing protocols and delivering communication consistently regardless of being remote, co-located or hybrid. Take some time to connect with your team and talk about your team’s protocols:

  • What criteria do you want to use for asynchronous (email, text, social collaboration) or synchronous communication (phone call, video, face-to-face)?
  • What kind of documentation or standardized methods of documentation will support your team’s collaboration as you work synchronously or asynchronously? 
  • What response times matter in your workflow as different team members may be working at different times in the day?
  • What constitutes a “crisis” that would serve to guide a protocol for an urgent response?

Tsedal Neeley in her book Remote Work Revolution discusses modes of communication that are “leaner” because they require less complex information and less social presence. These are useful for one-way communication such as documentation, email or texting. Ambiguous information that requires reading body language, higher collaboration or more social presence requires “rich” modes of communication like phone, video or face-to-face. Deciding on when to use “lean” communication tools and when there is value in the use of “rich” communication methods goes a long way in helping your team work well together.

What has worked for you or your team to strengthen team communication regardless of your work environment? Comment below! Let’s zero in on the kinds of communication that need to happen in meetings and what remote work has taught us about facilitating better meetings whether you are staying remote, going hybrid or returning to co-located.

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