How to Build Community within Your Remote Team

Woman smiling while on a conference call

Are you considering building a remote team for your business? If so, you'll face a series of unique challenges. How do you create a sense of community within your remote team, and how do you ensure open communication. A united team is a productive team, but how do we achieve this?

Below are a few of the areas we'll look at to help you build a successful remote team:

  • Why strong teams are necessary
  • Communication is the foundation
  • Synchronous vs. asynchronous communication
  • Tools for improving communication
  • Time zone concerns for remote teams
  • Generations communication differences
  • Why You Need to Build a Strong Remote Team

It’s easy to focus only on the work and ignore the art of connection. Your agency is busy, and your team is spread apart, but as long as everything gets done, you’re okay, right? Wrong. As Zapier says, “Most of your time at work is going to be work, so the work has to be rewarding by itself.”

As a distributed team, Zapier has learned what they need to emphasize in their communication. We want our team to love coming to work, so how can we do that? By building a system of communication and methods that bond a team together.

Communication Is the Foundation of a Strong Remote Team

In this article you'll find that we keep coming back to communication. Even if you hire the best talent, your agency will suffer if you lack strong communication. (This is true for any team, remote or not.)

So let’s get back to basics. What is communication?

“[Communication’s] primary function is to coordinate, control, motivate and disseminate information to workers. Leadership and management cannot be performed without effective communication. Effective communication requires the ability to listen, to frame the message in a way that is understandable to the receiver, and to accept and use feedback.”

Gone are the days when we had to rely on the fax machine or phone. Instead, we have instant messaging, email, texting and video. This advancement over the last decade, along with general technological improvements, have made remote teams possible.

When a team is outside of a single office, it’s important to instill other forms of communication. We need a virtual replacement for traditional gathering spots like the kitchen, ping pong table, or coffee pot.

Communication for a Productive Remote Team

To increase your remote team’s productivity, you need to assess your communication. If a team member doesn’t understand the messages sent to them, productivity decreases while they work to discover the sender’s intent.

We focus on project management to keep our deliverables on time. But how can we better meet the deadlines placed on us? By using effective communication, we can not only meet deadlines, but also exceed them. Exceeding deadlines and expectations is beneficial for everyone, and is key for company growth.

4 people working in a creative agency

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Communication

With a remote team, it can be hard to replicate the communication that typically takes place in an office. Emails may be flying back and forth in regards to upcoming deadlines, but what about other conversations? There’s still a need for lighthearted, friendly banter and talking about the day. Build your remote team's rapport through random conversations.

In this case, creating synchronous communication can help your remote team bond, even if they’re across the country or the world. Programs like Slack or Hipchat are key for developing a community-wide rapport.

Non-sensical conversations are as important to a company's culture as client conversations are.

Synchronous Communication Creates a Community

Synchronous communication offers a community where there typically isn’t one. Working remotely offers many advantages, but it can also feel isolating. Once the novelty of working from the couch wears off, remote workers often need something else. Many head to coffeeshops or coworking spaces for communication and camaraderie.

Synchronous communication offers community for remote workers.

Coworking spaces are ideal for a remote team, and can help connect them with others in their community. Local coworking spaces are filled with creative people, which can often be the best way to get motivated. Yet, it’s even more important to help foster community within the company itself.

Developing synchronous communication can help build stronger relationships throughout your team. Laughing over the latest goat video or a pet’s antics can be a great stress-reliever during a busy day. But this is often missing when a team moves to a remote setup!

Creating a synchronous communication system:

  • Create channels for relevant teams or topics
  • Create a “random” channel
  • Emphasize expectations for the team’s behavior
  • Encourage its use!

remote team - coworking space

Create Channels for Relevant Teams or Topics

If the whole team is chatting in a single channel, it can quickly become overwhelming. Instead, create channels for each team or topic. For example, you could have channels for marketing, IT, and finance. If there are side projects with members from different teams, you can set up rooms for them, as well.

This system can help organize your team’s communication, making it easier to find answers. The goal is to make the app as easy to use as possible. When your remote team's communication is well organized, your team is more likely to use it.

Create a “Random” Channel

Creating a “random” channel is more important than it may initially seem. This gives your team a space for non-work related questions or talking about the next big movie release.

This is the key to creating a welcoming, office-type environment for your remote team. Working remotely can be lonely at times, so do whatever you can to foster a community. It could be asking a random question, posting your new favorite GIF, or celebrating a team member's accomplishment.

Zapier, another remote company, has a music Slack channel where the team shares their current work jams. What would ordinarily be happening in the kitchen or at a friend’s desk can now happen in Slack. There are some benefits to extraneous channels and conversation.

Emphasize Expectations for Behavior

While we’d like to think that there will never be a problem, it’s important to set expectations. Tone is vastly different in text than it is in verbal communication. If one team member intends for their comment to be sarcastic, but the other doesn’t realize it, you have an issue.

Communication is crucial in your agency, which is why clearly sharing your expectations is important. While this is unlikely to happen to us, Sony was hacked and embarrassing emails released. We need to follow the Golden Rule and remember to speak with the utmost respect. Jokes are okay, but there is a line we need to respect.

Okay, enough of the serious talk!

Encourage Your Remote Team to Use Synchronous Communication

Synchronous communication is ideal for quick questions, instead of using email. If your team has never used a program like Slack before, there will likely be an adoption period. Some team members may be excited, but others may be a little reluctant.

We don’t want to force teams to use the tool, but we do want to encourage its use. Focus on the benefits, and hear team members out if they have concerns. After the adoption period, though, you may find that many forget what the pre-Slack time was like because they're enjoying it so much!

Using Asynchronous Communication as a Remote Team

While synchronous communication is helpful, there is also a time for asynchronous communication. This offers the chance to respond when we’re able to, rather than immediately. Asynchronous communication includes email, messages on your project management platform, and, yes, apps like Slack.

Github focuses on asynchronous communication, and Zach Holman describes it as this:

“Asynchronous communication means I can take a step out for lunch and catch up on transcripts when I get back. Asynchronous communication means I can ask my coworker a question in-chat and not worry about bothering her since she’ll get back to me when she’s available. Asynchronous communication means I can go to rural Minnesota and feel like I’m working from the office like normal.”

Asynchronous communication offers a number of benefits. Most notably, the chance to reflect on the message without making a gut response. Gut responses can cause miscommunication and hurt feelings.

A downside of synchronous communication is that many times a team can get so caught up in the conversation that they are unable to truly focus on the day ahead. Asynchronous communication, though, gives your team uninterrupted work time.

Slack, while a great tool for creating an “office” environment with a remote team, can also be great for asynchronous communication. Users need not respond immediately, and it’s easy to look back to see what you’ve missed in a room.

Choosing the Better Communication Method for Your Remote Team

So which is better? That’s not a simple answer. Remote teams vary in structure and communication strategies, so there’s more than one solution.

Synchronous communication offers a sense of camaraderie as your team goes through their day. It can help make an otherwise lonely work situation more enjoyable. But, asynchronous communication gives your team a chance to respond when they’re able. It also limits hurried responses that can cause some interpersonal issues.

It’s important to find what works best for your team. To do this, consider some of the following:

  • The subjects you discuss as a team
  • The team’s communication preferences
  • The other methods of communication available
  • The time zones represented

There is more than one way to improve community within your remote team.

The Subjects You Discuss as a Team

The projects you currently have will help determine the communication style you adopt. Some communication may need to be asynchronous, like emails for a graphics approval.

Other communication can be synchronous. If you're sending emails to each other and responding immediately, that could be in an app, instead. Or, do you have regular client communication that needs to include their point of contact?

Considering how you communicate and what you discuss will help you determine the ideal communication strategy.

Your Remote Team’s Communication Preferences

There is little point in developing a new communication strategy if your team doesn’t use the tools available. Some teams are very email-focused. Others, though, prefer to do everything in their project management system.

Different messaging apps offer different benefits, and there are a number available. By considering your remote team's communication style, you can find the ideal app that will help build community.

When considering a change in how your remote workers communicate, realize it's a change that's going to take time. Give yourself a chance to create a plan that they’ll embrace. A plan that causes more tension or confusion isn’t one that will succeed.

Consider your remote team's communication style when choosing your messaging app.

Other Methods of Communication Available

When considering a new communication system, you’ll need an overall view of how your team interacts. As mentioned above, some may rely exclusively on email, while others prefer a project management system.

Others may prefer Google Drive or Dropbox, when needed. This can help keep your remote team’s communication organized per client or project. Though this also means communication is spread throughout various apps and emails.

Once you take a look at your team’s current communication style, you’ll be better situated to find a solution. Your situation is unique, so you can create a unique solution. It may be that you need to combine a few different apps, but the beauty of the technology available today means that this is possible.

remote team

The Time Zones Your Remote Team Represents

As a remote team, chances are your team is spread across several time zones. This means that asynchronous communication may be the best choice. Your team will respond when they’re able, and it’s still an excellent way to effectively communicate.

As one remote worker writes, oftentimes the most effective communication for remote teams is a mix of synchronous and asynchronous communication. The period of the day when everyone is online is when meetings and collaboration occur.

“[Then] 'the big overlap'… comes next. This is where the magic happens with our team and the other people we collaborate with in the company. It’s reserved mainly for strategic meetings; we’ll have five to eight or so people on a call to discuss higher-level objectives.”

By blending communication styles, you can build a strong remote team while communicating effectively.

Effective communication across time zones means special considerations.

Schedule Regular Meetings with Your Remote Workers

The strongest teams are the ones that put effort into building a relationship. It can be easy to become disconnected when working remotely, so scheduling regular check-ins can help.

This includes both employees and freelancers, as they both contribute to the agency’s culture.

How to hold a beneficial meeting:

  • Discuss the past month’s projects
  • Ask specific questions
  • Address concerns
  • Encourage conversation

Remote Team Meetings

Some members of your team may be less likely to talk when in a team meeting, but this is still an important way to connect. This meeting can include the typical questions, but they can also be a way to decompress from the week.

One way to do this is to begin every meeting with a time of celebrations, both work and personal. Maybe one of your developers passed a certification they’ve been working towards, or someone else began playing on a club sports team. No matter how big or small, these celebrations help your team bond.

These team meetings don’t need to be long, because each member is busy and has their own work. But this should also be a priority, because a strong team is a strong company.

Focus on the agenda at hand, and keep the conversation moving.

“Create an agenda that lays out everything you plan to cover in the meeting, along with a timeline that allots a certain number of minutes to each item, and email it to people in advance.”

Focusing on quick, effective meetings with your remote team gives you more time for the actual work. And this work can help build community. When a team works towards a common goal, they're more likely to be in sync and ready to take on the next challenge. Creating a united team should be your primary goal. Without a united team, your clients' accounts will suffer, which will hurt your business in the long run.

Individual Remote Employee Meetings

It’s also important to hold individual check-ins. This is especially helpful for sensitive topics and for any behavioral issues. Listen to your team member when they discuss any concerns. It could be you, or it could be another team member, but it’s critical that your team knows they are heard.

Celebrate their accomplishments, and ask them questions. Taking just 20-30 minutes once a month to talk through joys and frustrations with your team can help improve rapport and connection. Open up the floor, so to speak…

Over time, this can turn into a valuable way to create a connection with your remote workers. And this connection can build a powerful team, even if it's spread throughout the country or even the world.

It's important that your team knows they are heard.

Encourage Networking with Other Freelancers and Remote Workers

It’s becoming more common to encounter other remote workers. This means we have a built-in support system in our city. Even if they work with another company, collaboration is a great tool for innovation.

Encourage your team members to find other remote workers and setup work and coffee time. Sitting with a friend at a coffeeshop can create community in an otherwise isolating work experience. Even if both are working on something completely different!

Team members will need to be careful with confidential information, especially if they’re working with customer data. But, confidentiality shouldn’t impede community.

Schedule Team-Wide Meetups

Planning team-wide meetups can be a valuable tool for fostering community. These may not always be possible. But if you have a small team, it’s definitely something to consider.

Pick a city, find a coworking space, and plan a long weekend that’s a mix of work and play. Even if this happens only once a year, it’s a great opportunity to build stronger community within your agency.

One startup, Buffer, is known as a company that truly cares for their fully remote team. They’ve held regular company wide retreats, and you’ll see pieces of the team meet up across the globe. Even though they don’t have a conventional office, Buffer has built a strong sense of community within their team.

This isn’t always possible, but if you’re interested in creating a retreat for your entire team, this can help you out.

Consider planning a team-wide retreat to give your company a time to meet in person and build stronger relationships.

Give Your Remote Team the Power to Organize

If team-wide meetups aren’t possible, you can encourage team members to meet up with each other for a few days. For example, if you have a developer in London and one of your designers is heading on vacation to Europe, they can meet up and work together before or after.

This isn’t meant to make them work on their vacation. Instead, it helps foster community throughout different parts of your team.

Empower your team to take initiative in planning these meetups. Whether it’s department specific or because someone is traveling through another’s city, this is a great way to build community in a remote team.

remote team

Generational Differences in Communication

Chances are, your agency is home to at least two generations, if not three. This means that communication styles will vary greatly between the generations. Especially with the rapid development of technology over the last twenty years.

When building a strong remote team, it’s important to remember the diversity that exists. The diversity within your team, while a beautiful thing, can affect team building and communication. A good way to communicate is in the way that your teammate prefers. As a leader you need to focus on your own communication skills first.

“As a leader, it is your job to wade through the distraction, improve your verbal and non-verbal communication skills, and focus on validating the other person’s experience in that moment. Validation helps to stop the fight before it begins and takes the defensiveness out of the equation. That builds trust.” - Michael Seaver

For example, your lead developer prefers a phone call and you’re more of an email person. When possible, take the time to sit down for a phone call. Your team members will appreciate the effort, and will set a good example. If your team realizes these communication preferences, you’ll have a team willing to meet others in the way they prefer. This can create a kinder, stronger team at your agency.

Diversity is beautiful, but it can cause communication differences. We need to recognize and adapt to how our diverse team prefers to communicate.

Generational Communication Differences for Remote Teams

The differences in generational communication can be challenging enough when the team is in the same building. And adding distance can exacerbate the issue. Giving your team the benefit of the doubt is valuable, as is patience when implementing a new system.

If you’ve decided to begin using Slack, but you have a few team members who are unsure of it, take the time to sit down and discuss the pros and cons. This can be a tricky balance, because, as stated above, it’s important to meet people where they’re at. But it’s also important to bring the entire team on board. Balance is key.

Stephen Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, once wrote:

“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships together.”

Building trust means focusing on quality communication, which can vary company to company. Research is great, but ultimately you need to try a system and get feedback from your workers. They may have ideas that you might not have thought of.

A united, powerful team can create amazing things. Even though remote teams have some unique challenges, it’s still possible to build a united team. You can be united in your goal, productive on projects, and communicative with each other and stakeholders.

Consider how you can improve your remote team’s communication this week. Can you discuss adding an app like Slack, or are there ways to improve your meetings? Working through each of these points with your team in mind can help create a connected team and increase productivity.

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