How to make communication with remote teams really slick
Well – what a difference a week makes. It feels like the world has shifted on its axis. The outbreak of Covid-19 is accelerating changes in our daily lives as quickly as it’s spreading through the population. Following government advice, many UK companies are now asking their teams to work remotely, some for the first time. This is likely to be challenging, particularly if it’s unfamiliar. Remote teams need to adapt to new ways of working and leaders need a new approach to get the best from their team.
It’s important to remember that change is very unsettling. Humans are creatures of habit and we prefer to stick with what we know. The rapid intensity of change brought about by the coronavirus is causing fear and panic. This could morph into resistance and low productivity – an equally deadly infection creeping into the heart of your business. The solution? Communicate. Communicate. And communicate some more!
Never has there been a better time for reviewing communication with your team. Or putting in a new rhythm around conversations. This could be the difference between weathering the storm or sinking without trace.
So how do you best communicate with remote teams?
Choose the right communication tools
Video-conferencing all the way. Whilst there’s no real substitute for face-to-face communication, video comes a very close second. Ditch any teleconferences – you want to pick up on body language and see the whites of people’s eyes. But you need to find the right communication platform.
Some teleconferencing systems can be just awful. One of my clients uses an archaic system for remote work where you have to type in a nine-digit number and six-digit passcode. This really slows things down and makes communication difficult. Your remote team will have smartphones – get a platform that supports multi-dial-in video calls. Zoom and Google Hangouts are my personal favourites but there are many other options.
There can be issues using these remote tools for the first time. Not with the tools themselves but with the various devices and connections in individual homes. Microphone quality varies wildly across smartphones and laptops, leaving some people sounding crystal clear and others sounding like they’re mumbling in the middle of an empty tunnel miles away. Equip remote teams with headphones and a microphone, instead of relying on computer microphones. This will avoid staff asking you to repeat things over and over.
Camera quality can be equally rubbish, though phones are often better than laptops. Just making sure there’s enough light can make up for a low-quality camera. If you’re new to video conferencing, one common mistake is not spending time trying to find the right lighting. People settle for any old angle as long as it doesn’t reveal the mess in their office or their pyjama pants. That can lead to a grid of dark rectangles filled with furrowed foreheads or brilliantly backlit co-workers!
Set up a daily remote rhythm for communication
There’s a reason this is high up in my recommendations. It’s even more vital to set up a virtual daily huddle when staff are working remotely. See the current disruption as a fantastic opportunity to get this up and running. Now that everyone’s at home, your staff are likely to be uncertain and unsure of themselves with plenty of questions. A daily check-in will take a lot of this away.
Maybe arrange the remote huddles to roll up. This is a great way to ensure that you, as CEO, have a true finger on the daily pulse of your business. Suggest that front-line staff have their huddle first thing, maybe at 8.45 or 9am – or a time that works for all of them. Follow this with a remote huddle for the managers and then a remote huddle between execs and managers. That way, any issues or stucks can flow right up to the top for resolution. By 10am, you’ll know what’s going well and what needs to change today.
There are some key principles for successful remote huddles. First, start with good news for everyone – but make sure it’s snappy. There’s nothing more draining than listening to someone dribbling on whilst everyone else loses the will to live. One of the team needs to be nominated as a remote time-keeper so they can call time and move things on. Some companies use a yellow card that anyone can wave. A remote daily huddle should last no longer than 15 minutes.
Then whip through what needs to happen today. If you have an OKR approach, there should be clear organisational and individual priorities that are closely linked. Even if you don’t have this, each remote team member needs to be clear on their KPIs from their job scorecard and what they need to get done that day. This is the time to discuss progress against these. Where are they stuck? What got in the way of making progress yesterday? But try to stop short of discussing what’s in their diaries. This discussion isn’t about what they’re busy with all day. It’s the three to five things they’re going to do to make a difference. Suggest they prep the night before so they can answer this quickly. And if they’re on track, that’s all they need to say.
Acknowledgement is even more important for remote teams. Managers should call out when someone’s done a great thing. Then get everyone to close with how they’re feeling. Maybe in one word. If they’re sharing and showing vulnerability, that’s a great sign that you’ve got psychological safety, a key facet of high performing teams.
A short remote huddle every day should give you a 5x or 10x return on the 15 minutes it takes – emails you don’t need to send or read, conversations you don’t need to have. The whole point is to make sure everyone’s spending their time wisely and communication is flowing.
Encourage bottom-up communication
Now more than ever, it’s important for your remote teams to feel their voices are being heard. They’re likely to be feeling isolated, so encourage regular feedback and ideas. It’s important for them to feel you’re concerned for their well-being. You’re all in this together so make sure you keep listening.
There’s been an explosion of new platforms to help companies gather and measure employee feedback and engagement. Many of my clients use Office Vibe, TINYpulse or fridaypulse.com to get weekly feedback and typically review the results in monthly management meetings. In response to the Coronavirus outbreak, Friday Pulse are offering free access to their platform for three months to all my clients. As your staff begin to work remotely, this tool can measure the impact. By tracking positive and negative emotions, and collecting ongoing communication and feedback, Friday Pulse gives real-time insights into how individuals and teams are coping, as everyone faces a new reality.
As MD of IT Lab and later Peer 1, I stole an idea from Alexander Kjerulf, the Chief Happiness Officer and got my development team to code it. Every Tuesday at 9 am, emails arrived in staff in-boxes with simple, thumbs up (‘Yay’), middle (‘Meh’) or down (‘Nah’) graphics. I wanted to measure how they were feeling that week and results came only to me. This quick and easy communication told me who had taken part, their responses over time, whether they normally responded but had stopped etc. Every non-response was treated as a negative and I made a point of calling or popping by the desks of unhappy staff to see what was up. Occasionally people would click the ‘Nah’ button to test me out (particularly new hires). Pretty embarrassing when I called them!
Why not also set up an email address for feedback? This has worked brilliantly for me in the past. I introduced an open email address (stupidrules@CEO your company.com) and gave a £10 Amazon voucher to anyone who flagged up stupid rules or suggested a way we could improve. Similarly, you could set up a remoteworking@ address for ideas and suggestions to make things work better.
Weekly, monthly and quarterly communication rhythms
To maintain momentum, it’s important to retain the usual meeting rhythms that you’d have if everyone was in the office. Weekly 1:1s with managers are vital as this is where any personal issues can be discussed and ironed out. Staff will feel supported if these happen every week. Normally in these meetings, team members would bring their results for their 1-3 daily or weekly KPIs. Are all your people able to still access their KPIs in real-time remotely? If not, do you have a plan to make that a reality?
Longer team meetings should also happen weekly to discuss progress against 90-day objectives and don’t overlook the monthly all-hands and management meetings. The danger of the current crisis is its potential to blow your strategy off course. Now, more than ever, you need to prioritise regular strategic sessions with your executive team. These will ensure you can react in an agile way to the peculiar challenges you’re facing and keep on track with your overall strategy.
It can be tricky to keep your team engaged, inspired, and focused during remote meetings, which is why it is important to streamline your agenda and make sure they’re on-point. There are great templates and examples that you can use in formulating the agenda for your regular meetings. With the agenda-writing out of the way, you can focus on making your meetings substantial and productive.
I’d also suggest a weekly communication from the CEO, ideally using video. You can’t communicate too much through something like this. Reassuring words from the top will go a long way.
I recently saw a quote – ‘When you can’t control what’s happening, challenge yourself to control the way you respond to what’s happening. That’s where the power is’. This really chimed with me. Use the current disruption as an opportunity to improve communication in your business. It will make you stronger and more resilient in the face of the challenges ahead.
Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about him here.