The three pillars of remote communication


The problem with remote communication

The data is clear: Remote employees, managers and founders struggle with communicating remotely, but what's the issue? Some of the most common problems include:

  • Being heard and listened to in meetings as a remote team member, less influence than co-located members
  • Communicating across timezones
  • Staying in the loop on what's happening
  • Getting quick replies to questions and help with problems
  • Having casual conversations with team members

In the following article, we propose three main pillars of remote communications, which we extracted and put together by talking with some leading remote teams.

As the name says, these are three pillars, and they are all equally needed for remote communication to succeed this way.

Pillar 1: Asynchronous

The biggest chunk of your communication should happen async. What does that mean?

Let's start at the other end of the spectrum, synchronous communication. Synchronous communication describes anything, where a message is received, at the (roughly) same time as it is sent. A call, a video conference or a in-person meeting are synchronous, but so are instant messaging tools (if used "correctly"), like Slack. Anything that expects a receiver to respond as soon as possible can be considered an synchronous communication tool.

Asynchronous communication does not expect the receiver to respond directly. Ideally, it doesn't even trigger a notification or create a feel of urgency. A great example is E-Mail, but also Slack–if notifications are turned off, and people are not expected to reply right away. With the rise of remote work, more asynchronous tools are popping up too, like Doist's Twist. Like with most things, this is a mindset change, over a toolkit change though.

Embracing asynchronous communication as the main way of communication (face-to-face meetings and calls are inevitable and okay, just not as the main form of communication!), means empowering your employees to work at any time they feel productive, not when others are awake, and can help with communication across timezones, as well as keeping everyone in the loop.

Pillar 2: Remote-First

We talked about remote-first before, but even if your company is not remote-first (meaning that a larger part of the company works from a co-located office), your communication should be. Most, if not all, company-related discussion and communication should be publicly readable and not happen only amongst co-located team members

Conducting your communication remote-first in practice, usually means the following:

  • Putting all major discussions on a medium that remote employees can read, preferably also participate
    • Documenting and summarizing in-person brainstorm sessions
    • Leaving time after longer threads for remote employees to get up to speed, reply, before taking measures
    • Recording or avoiding all spontaneous meetings
  • Creating a level playing field for all employees in face-to-face meetings
    • No large meeting rooms with 3+ co-located members
    • Preferably, all members joining on their own device
    • Leaving enough time for everyone to have a word (receiving, realizing, unmuting, speaking can often take 3-4 seconds)
  • Idea exchange, strategy planning and key decisions only on async communication
    • If remote employees are part of higher level decisions, always conduct discussions on an async medium
    • Do not allow co-located team members to have a higher influence
    • Problem, discussion and outcome needs to be documented

Part of this is also being mindful and aware of the working situations of others. Make sure to not call in meetings that work only in your timezone, and assume that others are okay with being up late or getting up early (or, if you do so, don't expect them to show up). Create a working environment that is okay with people taking time off their work, and don't expect them to reply just because they are still at home.

Pillar 3: Comprehensiveness

The two prior pillars do not work, if the last and third pillar is not ensured: Giving comprehensive, possibly even exhaustive replies.

Asynchronous communication cannot work, if the individual replies lack substance and needs clarification all the time. Always assume that you'll only receive a reply in 8+ hours, you will want to make every single reply count. Even synchronous communication (video conferences or instant messaging) can not work with remote employees if the individual responses lack substance. Not only will it waste everybodys time, it also makes it incredibly hard to communicate. Take these measures to ensure that your messages are comprehensive:

  • If drafting an asynchronous message (e.g. e-mail, discussion board), don't be scared to make it overly long. Include as much detail as possible in each of your messages.
  • Before calling in a meeting, make sure you know what to talk about. Do not call in a 30min+ meeting for the sake of having a scheduled meeting. Be sure that you can fill it with usable content. Don't be scared to keep a meeting 15 minutes or under.
    • As someone calling in a meeting, make sure to moderate it too. Move longer discussions to another medium.
    • Casual conversations are okay, but don't keep up your remote employees at night to talk about the weather.
  • Prevent to get into fired up conversations on instant messengers. It's incredibly difficult to get up to speed the morning after
    • Should things get heated, make use of emojis and proper punctuation. It might sound odd, but it can be incredibly helpful for the people on the other end of the line to figure out what you mean.
  • Double-check your messages for proper grammar, punctuation and tone.

The three pillars of remote communication are an ongoing work in progress and may change a little bit. However, it is a this point the result of surveying and talking to over 100 remote team members, managers and founders about remote communication, and boiling the results of that down into 3 concrete points. If you have any additions or comments, let us know at @nohq on Twitter.

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