From the infamous Zoom wave, to mic muting mishaps, remote communication is rife with awkward moments.
But even if you can laugh off these silly accidents, effectively communicating with remote employees has its challenges.
Poor remote communication can lead to exclusion and isolation. Without a careful approach, it can stymie brainstorming sessions. And some experts say going remote may hinder career growth.
Yet bad in-person communication can also result in all of the above. So it’s not that remote communication is worse than in-person. It’s just different.
And that means effectively communicating from your virtual office requires you to learn new lessons, practice new methods, and adopt effective remote team tools. All of which you can find in the sections that follow.
- <li-toc>What Does it Mean to be an Effective Remote Communicator?<li-toc>
- <li-toc>Obstacles to Effective Remote Communication<li-toc>
- <li-toc>Best Practices for Effective Remote Communication<li-toc>
- <li-toc>Best Tools for Remote Communication<li-toc>
<h-circle>2<h-circle>What Does it Mean to be an Effective Remote Communicator?
You know you’re communicating effectively when people understand and can act on your insights and ideas. And when you can understand and act on others’ insights and ideas.
Simple enough. But simple ≠ easy.
In person, misunderstandings are common. Virtual teams are often distributed across not just space, but multiple time zones, too, and that can obscure context and exacerbate these miscommunications between team members. For instance, body language cues often don’t come through on video calls even with great video quality, and they’re absent in email or phone conversations entirely.
And as author and entrepreneur, Keith Ferrazzi explains in HBR, virtual office meetings don’t contain cues revealed by the arrangement of the meeting room; who’s at the head of the table, who sits next to whom, etc.
Being an effective remote communicator means recognizing these sources of potential miscommunication and adjusting to make sure you're on the same page. So that’s where we’ll start.
<h-circle>2<h-circle>Obstacles to Effective Remote Communication
In the following section, we’ll list and describe obstacles to effective remote communication. After that, we’ll go through both the best practices and the remote team software that help to remove or mitigate these obstacles.
Lack of empathy and trust
In the office, you get more information about your coworker’s mental state. Even if you don’t talk to them, for example, you might notice their phone ringing off the hook. This gives you a clue as to why their last email may have seemed a bit snippy.
Similarly, when distributed teams don’t have space to get to know each other, Ferrazzi explains, they lack the necessary context for empathy. Lack of empathy has a knock-on effect because empathy facilitates mutual trust.
Reduced access to managerial communication
Remote team management poses numerous challenges.
In remote settings, employees can’t simply walk down the hall and knock on their boss’s door. So if the proper channels aren’t open, this can cause issues.
As Executive Professor of Management at Northeastern University, Barbara Z. Larson writes:
Many employees struggle with reduced access to managerial support and communication. In some cases, employees feel that remote managers are out of touch with their needs, and thereby are neither supportive nor helpful in getting their work done.
Lack of access to information
Larson and her co-authors also point to the difficulty of finding information in a remote work environment, especially for new remote workers.
Whereas in-office employees can tap on their colleague’s shoulder, remote employees may find it more difficult to find guidance. Particularly if there are no virtual office communication tools, such as an internal help desk or wiki.
Remote teams also face physical barriers to sharing experiences and establishing mutual knowledge. This is important because mutual knowledge makes it more likely that communication will be understood.
Exclusion in hybrid teams
Hybrid teams face a unique obstacle in remote communication in business because of proximity bias. When proximity bias strikes, leaders excuse the poor performance of employees that are close to them and fail to properly value the expertise of employees they don’t interact with as frequently.
But it’s not just leadership that can cause exclusion in hybrid teams; on-site employees do it as well. Best-selling authors and VitalSmarts execs, Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield polled 1100 employees and found that remote employees are more likely to feel left out and ganged up on than their on-site colleagues.
This lines up with other findings of remote workers being excluded from meetings or brainstorms.
<h-circle>3<h-circle>Best Practices for Effective Remote Communication
Reduce affinity distance
Author Erica Dhawan and Professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic break down three kinds of distance in remote collaboration:
- Physical (place and time),
- Operational (team size, bandwidth and skill levels)
- Affinity (values, trust, and interdependency).
“The best way for managers to drive team performance is by focusing on reducing affinity distance. Try switching most remote communication to regular video calls, which are a much better vehicle for establishing rapport and creating empathy than either e-mails or voice calls. And design virtual team-building rituals that give people the opportunity to interact regularly and experience their collaboration skills in action.”
You can also reduce affinity distance by encouraging informal communication, which studies show is positively related to job satisfaction.
Be mindful of channel choice
The media richness theory (MRT) was introduced in 1986. And it holds up as an effective framework for selecting the ideal communication channel for any given message. The idea behind MRT is that certain mediums (such as video calls) are more information-rich than others (such as email). And therefore, you should choose mediums suitable for your message.
Founder of Asamby Consulting, Benjamin Lander says to choose the right medium based on the MRT framework, look at the nature of the information.
Ask yourself how familiar your recipient is with your message. Is it routine and unambiguous? Then email—a leaner medium—can work. Perhaps the message is more ambiguous. In that case a video call makes more sense.
Finally, it’s also critical to think carefully about when and how to use asynchronous vs. synchronous communication.
Establish regular manager:employee one-on-ones
As I’ve written before, regular one-on-one meetings help managers show their direct reports that their contributions at work matter.
In remote settings, regular one-on-one’s take on a renewed importance. By creating an opportunity for managers and direct reports to communicate more intimately, you mitigate the tendency for proximity bias.
The ideal cadence for these one-on-one’s depends on team size, worker autonomy, and the effectiveness of your communication outside of meetings. In my experience, bi-weekly meetings (i.e. every other week) strike the best balance.
And of course, make sure you’re using an agenda to maximize your one-on-one meeting time.
Engage managers to help fight employee burnout
According to Gallup, the five factors most highly correlated with employee burnout are:
- Unfair treatment
- Unmanageable workload
- Unclear communication from managers
- Lack of manager support
- Unreasonable time pressure
These factors directly relate to how a manager leads. Managers can eliminate or mitigate every one of these factors if they can learn how to engage their distributed team. And as Gallup explains:
Yes, adjustments to how leaders engage their teams will need to be made. They'll have to get creative in how they inspire connectivity and collaboration and develop their employees.
But the fundamental human needs of employees remain the same.
Embrace new rules and tools of engagement
Maybe you’ve heard the famous phrase, “The medium is the message.”
For remote communication, it rings true. The medium of your communication changes everything about how you deliver your message and how it's received. And while remote work isn’t new, the technology, mediums, and scale on which it’s being done certainly is.
You can’t expect your team (or yourself) to thrive in this new paradigm without some guard rails. You and your team have to rethink ingrained practices such as meeting cadence, communication channel selection, team building, and more. Special situations such as hybrid meetings also require new rules to prevent exclusion.
Plus, you’ve got to get yourself set up with the best array of remote team software… which you’ll find in the next section.
<h-circle>4<h-circle>Best Tools for Remote Communication
Make sure you check out these collaboration tools to enhance your team's productivity. Even if your team members aren't in the same room at the same time, there are a lot of tools that give remote workers that virtual workspace to collaborate effectively. Whether it is to communicate visually, engage via video chats, or collaborate online about any of your ongoing projects, remote work tools have your back.
Virtual whiteboards: Miro
Miro is a virtual whiteboard that does a whole lot more than an ordinary whiteboard. Sure, virtual teams can draw and write collaboratively. You can also add images, text, links, stock graphics. You can create flowcharts, Kanban boards — the options are nearly limitless — perfect for replicating the whiteboard experience in a remote setting.
Screen and video recording: Loom
Loom’s simple desktop app or browser plugin allows you to privately record your screen and send video messages to your remote team members. This can replace in-person discussions in many ways, just send a link to a video instead of walking by someone's desk or calling a meeting. People love the lack of interruption in this form of asynchronous communication. And best of all, Loom videos upload as you're recording them, so as soon as you're finished, they're ready for playback—essentially no upload time.
Project management: Trello
You might be tempted to go for a robust project management tool, and products like Asana, Jira, and Monday.com do have a lot to offer. But if you’re just starting out, Trello combines simplicity, flexibility, and essential features in a way that makes it easy to start using on Day 1 vs. other project management tools.
Honorable mention: Clickup. Clickup shot up on our radar in the last two years and has quickly become a fan favorite to manage projects because of its all-in one approach.
Collaborative documents: Xtensio
Xtensio is a collaboration platform that every distributed team and worker needs to create those beautiful presentations, reports, documents and more. While note solely remote work software, Xtensio nails it as far as remote tools go. These documents, called folios, can even be shared and managed by collaborators simultaneously.
Instant Messaging: Slack
Despite Microsoft’s recent updates to Teams, Slack remains the reigning champion for workplace chat, with several enhancements that keep it ahead of the curve. Robust, reliable, heavily integrated, and well-understood, Slack is incredibly important to a remote team because it helps fill in the gaps between your other apps.
Video Conferencing: Zoom
With its best-in-class video and audio reliability, Zoom has stood out in front of the competition for years as the leader in video conferencing. There’s nothing more disruptive than having glitches with your virtual meeting, having trouble hearing people, having video cut out. Zoom’s high-quality Zoom call experience makes other web conferencing platforms feel like they’re back in the 90s by comparison.
The best feature for remote work might be automatic background noise removal, which make virtual meetings on Zoom sound much better than most other ways of doing remote conference calls.
Honorable mention: Teamflow. For a video conferencing, screen sharing, and file-sharing experience that feels a little less like a conference call and more like an office, check out Teamflow, which allows multiple simultaneous screen shares in its permanent virtual office (no need to schedule every virtual meeting).
Meeting Docs: Hugo
Everyone working from home understands the need for reliable video conferencing to enable remote meetings. But the conferencing solution only solves for the transmission of information during the meeting. What about meeting preparation, note-taking, and follow-up on tasks and action items?
That’s where Hugo comes in. This meeting management solution gives users a secure and collaborative place to set meeting agendas and take notes. With 20+ integrations, the system also passes meeting information to your other tools, like your CRM, project management software, and chat.
Google Workspace & Microsoft 365
Whether you're a Microsoft fan with Office and its various apps (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Microsoft Teams, Meet, etc), or you're running on the Google App family with Gmail, Google Docs, Google Drive — these productivity suites are a category of their own. Both give you a virtual space to save and organize all your files and docs, and give you all the tools (at least the basic ones) to complete your average tasks. More important than which one is best for working remotely (they're both good) is that your entire team is on the same online platform and you're using the same remote tools.