4 Communication Keys for Remote Teams

Remote teams should be more productive. They benefit from an empowering sense of freedom, and enjoy a healthy work-life balance. They can also feel isolated, left out, and struggle with collaboration and time zones. Yet there are recent, newsworthy examples of companies dragging their remote workforces back to the office - citing productivity and culture issues.

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Still, the amount of remote workers increased 159% between 2005 and 2017, according to U.S. census analysis by Global Workplace Analytics and FlexJobs.

This dichotomy is based on an obvious but crucial factor - communication. A broad and general topic that requires nuance. 

Focus on these four areas of communication for remote work success. 

Remote Work Role Description(s)

Miika Härkönen was a senior IT manager in Finland. He decided to escape the Finnish winter and work remotely from Spain for six months. After speaking with his boss, the first step was to write an updated version of his job description. This document detailed his responsibilities, which included managing a team of 20, and how he would accomplish each task while being away from the office. 

The arrangement was successful, and a company first. Granted, Finland is one of the world’s leaders in flexible work. But this situation occurs often in a less publicized way all over the world. I took the same first step when I arranged a two-month remote work trip overseas several years ago (which was also a company first). 

Here’s how this role description write-up addresses company stressors. 

Situational Leverage - A remote work contract isn’t about working in pajamas or taking afternoon siestas. Build trust with employers by explaining your situation. It could be based on childcare, family member health or a brutal commute. Don’t single yourself out for special treatment, but show why remote work will improve work abilities and overall quality of life. 

Manager Anxiety - Managers who are weary about letting employees work on their own could just be missing details. Presenting a long-form report with production expectations and how your duties will be fulfilled is beneficial.  

Logistics - Lastly, and most importantly, a job description explains the operational logistics of a remote work situation. For example: 

  • Explain how your workspace covers all required technology needs. 

  • Who will “drive” recurring meetings if you’re the only remote member. 

  • How interaction on projects will change, for instance changing to a daily check-in instead of weekly meeting (as less interaction will occur during the day). 

Remote Work Policy Document 

A remote work policy is the ultimate tool for effective enablement. It must be the single source of truth. Typically, a “policy” coincides with “rules.” A remote work document is much more than that. It builds layers of trust for everyone involved. It increases transparency with the hiring process and even attract recruits who are vetting dozens of potential positions. 

The must-have components include: 

Fairness - First and foremost, a baseline of trust and fairness needs to be established. For teams that are split between remote and in-office workers, it can be an uneven playing field. In-office workers get the benefit of face time, according to University of California, Davis researchers. They found managers were 25% more likely to unconsciously attribute traits like “committed” and “dedicated” to those they see on a daily basis. Remote workers will naturally send trivial emails or engage in “status hacking” if they face this predicament. Establish a level playing field in writing to avoid these issues entirely. 

Expectations - There will be overlap with these expectations and the job description write-up. But there should be universal standards for work hours, availability, etc. Expectations go both ways. For instance, if remote workers don’t receive feedback in a timely manner, it hurts their productivity. Set specific guidelines for project management and meetings. 

Equipment - The required equipment, tools and general environment should also be documented. Some companies allow employees to be work-anywhere digital nomads with just their laptop and an internet connection. Other jobs require a quiet workstation where they’re available for undisturbed calls throughout the day. 

Productivity Communication

While a role description and remote work policy are long-form and living documents, the next two forms of communication are of an ongoing and daily nature. 

First, it’s well past time to acknowledge that there should be no productivity drop off with remote employees. Studies have shown evidence of a productivity boost. 

Ctrip, a chinese travel website, analyzed their workforce for 9 months as half of their call center employees worked from home. The remote workers completed 13.5% more calls, the company saved $1,900 per employee. Call center work is a natural fit for work from home situations given the quieter environment with less distraction. 

Another case study involving the U.S. Patent & Trade Office (USPTO) had the same conclusion. In this study, researchers looked at a Work From Anywhere (WFA) policy where there were no geographical requirements. The WFA workers had a 4.4% productivity increase which represents up to $1.3 billion of annual value added to the U.S. economy. 

These productivity boosts do not come without challenges. A study of 1,100 employers found 84% of remote workers let a concern drag on for a few days or more, and 47% admitted to letting issues drag on for weeks. Additional issues, such as a lack of trust among coworkers, are detailed in graphic from HBR.

Address these issues with management techniques for today’s age. 

Agile check-ins - Co-located teams have the luxury of being able to meet at a moment's notice. This is convenient but in practice can be unnecessary and distracting. Agile project management makes natural sense for remote teams. Put simply this means planning all team tasks for a one or two-week sprint. Use daily check-ins so everyone can report on what they’ve done, what they’re currently working on and any issues they’re facing.  

Long-form communication - Chat tools seem vital for remote teams but short form communication can lead to misinterpretation. Make sure there is a two-way stream of longf-orm communication. X-team, an agency of on-demand developers advise remote teams to keep digital journals in Slack. Team members post personal daily happenings, TIL’s (today I learned) and big questions into a channel for low-friction, high-value communication. At the same time, management should share long-form updates with the team as often as possible. This two-way steam of long-form communication is central to DocOps (and our software).  

Flexible (but sensible) hours - Most remote companies are concerned about getting things done and not that people are online during business hours. However for growth stage companies spread across different states or countries, it shouldn’t be a hassle to find people. Many remote companies offer flexible shifts but require people to work with some overlap with the headquarters. For instance, a San Francisco company would require remote workers to have 4 hours of overlap between 8 a.m. - 5 p.m (UTC-7). 

Culture Communication 

The final piece of communication for remote work relates to company culture. The isolation that comes along with virtual offices can make it difficult to create a sense of belonging, a strong indicator of employee morale and turnover rate. 

Video conferencing - The popularity of video conferencing is growing, and not just for remote teams.  A Forbes Insights report polled more than 300 executives and found  97% agree that video conferencing improves the sense of connectedness among remote workers, while more than half said video meetings are increasing among internal teams. 

In-person meetings - Scheduling in-person meetings is obvious and an industry standard, but cannot be overstated. It’s easier to brainstorm ideas and bond personally when in close physical proximity. 

Communication charter - Establishing norms for communication impacts the morale of remote workers. This includes things like time zone assistance so teams can communicate without worrying about disturbing each other at odd hours. It can establish how to set up time blocks so everyone has dedicated periods of focus during the week. Many large companies with a mostly or all remote workforce set up “pairing calls” using a Slack app for random or strategic pairings where co-workers video chat about anything and everything. 

To recap - write a detailed, long-form job description with details on remote work logistics. Create a remote work policy to eliminate confusion and attract top-tier remote talent. Use communication protocols and forward-thinking management techniques to enhance productivity. Don’t forget about occasional in-person meet ups and build company culture by making sure teams are communicating and connecting with each other. 

These four communication keys provide the basis for great remote work. 

Building a Writing Culture: Email Tips

Bad email behavior is the one thing besides personal hygiene that can ruin your office reputation. Billions of emails are sent per day. And despite the rise of workplace chat apps, email is the most common form of business communication. So it’s wise to treat email like any other skill that you work to improve. 

Here are proven tactics for better writing that apply directly to email. 

Our Email Culture

Writing better emails is a useful and practical goal. But let’s acknowledge the real problem with email today. Email has become overwhelming. People are forced to spend way too much time just clearing out their inbox. This continues despite the rise of software tools focused on reducing email loads. Chat and product management tools can increase the notification anxiety they were designed to alleviate. 

The email problem goes much deeper than just writing. With that said, these tips are evergreen and useful on multiple levels. 

Brevity

If your emails haven’t been effective, it’s likely they haven’t been getting read because they’re too long and rambly (sic). Brevity is an open secret for great writing. 

Stephen King said, “Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” (Extreme example… but it’s hard to delete our own words).

  • Re-read & revise - There’s no sense in trying to cut words on the fly. Finish a draft then re-read and look for unnecessary words or bulky sentences. 

  • Scannable - People don’t read giant blocks of text when surfing the net or when they get a “text novel” from their ex, so don’t expect them to read an email without the necessary line breaks, bullet points, bolded words, etc. 

  • Show, don’t tell - Insert a screenshot or screencast whenever the opportunity presents itself. 

Quality Assurance

Put emails through your very own QA process. The first step is obvious, but can’t be overstated - proof your email. All great writing is edited, yet some people tend to send emails without re-reading them first. 

Here are some additional steps for your QA checklist. 

  • Use “If-Then” statements: Using conditional sentences such as, “if ___ happens, then ____” is a great way to clarify your message. 

  • Avoid open ended questions: Open ended questions are better served for a chat tool or an in-person meeting. Reply-all storms are office nightmares, and ineffective for collecting information. The same goes for repetitive questions or a confusing question sequence. 

  • Subject line: Titles are highly scrutinized in the content marketing world. Even though you’re dealing with coworkers or clients instead of customers, apply this thinking  to email subject lines. As more and more emails are opened on mobile devices, it’s important that readers get the purpose of the message (and if it’s urgent or not) from glancing at the notification. 

  • The big idea: We live in a TL;DR world. Even the most seasoned workers have a tendency to scan emails. Make sure you begin and end every email with the main point, the main request or the key takeaway.

  • Delegate check: Most emails are written to ask for something or assign a task. For both of these, make sure you include the who, what and when. 

Bonus Tips

  • Automate - Something that can help with brevity and proofing is using light automation with emails. Create templates for emails that are sent regularly. You’ll save time and you don’t need to type out acronyms, time zones and other small details that add to your time spent without contributing to the meat of the email. 

  • Automation Risks - Conversely, too much automation creates more problems than it solves. Avoid creating “alarm fatigue” where triggered email alerts lose their importance because they’re overdone. Also, repetitive email templates can irk team members, which leads into the next point. 

  • Humanity - Don’t lose track of your personality when sending emails. Mix in compliments when making requests. University of Tokyo researchers found that praise triggers the same region of the brain that is activated when we receive cash money

  • Rules/Standards  - Lousy email culture might not have anything to do with writing, but instead the failure to establish protocol. Guidelines for when to use reply all, whether to reply in-line and how to deem emails urgent are a few standards that should be documented. 


DocOps in Action: Create an email guide with guidance on quality writing, formatting and expectations. This will squash any internal debates and helps new team members assimilate faster. Get more ideas for documents here.

The Art and Science of Great Note Taking

The word, hypomnema, was invented by the Ancient Greeks. It has many translations - a reminder, a note, a public record, a commentary, and similar variations. It’s no surprise that the origin of note taking goes back so far. 

Notes are an integral part of modern society. From Post-its to Evernote, every generation of humans aims to revolutionize the note taking experience.

However many people still overlook how great note can help us work. Don’t go through the motions when it comes to note taking, use this guide to make your notes a formidable tool.   

The Science of Note Taking 

Sometimes the hardest aspect of writing is knowing where to start. There’s a mix of culprits for this, but one way to address it is both practical and scientific - note taking. And if possible, handwritten notes. Not only do notes provide a reference point to get you started, they help you remember and retain information for longer. 

The support for this dates back more than 20 years ago, when UCLA researchers presented the idea of “desirable difficulty.” This showed how students improved their long-term retention when their  learning process was designed to be more challenging. Spacing out lessons, or making them less organized and harder to read actually improved learning. This principle applies when you write by hand. You’re forced to spell out difficult ideas and convert complex concepts into bite-sized notes. 

Three more studies in the past decade confirm the power of hand-scribed hypomnemas.

  •  A study published in Psychological Science showed handwritten notes allowed participants to perform better than their laptop counterparts. 

  • Research published in the Journal of Educational Psychology had a more compelling conclusion. They found that handwritten notes had no advantage for memory retention...temporarily. After the first 24 hours, participants who took the handwritten notes were able to recall the original material better and performed better on tests. 

  • Trends in Neuroscience and Education published a study that showed how children who had yet to learn to read and write, had increased brain activity in key areas when they wrote letters by hand. Researchers are now trying to confirm if this same effect can help prevent diseases like Alzheimer's and Dementia. 

Even if your notes result in a garbled mess, there’s still a strong chance you’ll retain the information longer, and get added cognitive benefits. 

The Art of Note Taking

There’s no right or wrong way to take notes - lists, mind maps, grids, etc. Use whatever method you’re comfortable with. However there are certain methods for optimizing effectiveness.

Choose your template - Create a structure for notes. Popular methods include the Cornell method which separates the page with a vertical line so one-fourth is to the left and three-fourths is to the right. The left is used to note the main topics while the right is used for sentences on each topic. Mind-mapping, which begins with a center topic and bridges other topics with lines can be effective for visual learners.  

Recap and complete - After a note taking session, don’t put everything away just yet. Force yourself to complete your notes by running through them to fill in the details and add context while the information is fresh. 

Review your notes - We’ve learned how taking notes helps with information retention but that doesn’t mean you should never look at them again. There’s an immediate loss in value if you never review notes. It’s an opportunity to improve your skill in terms of legibility and how comprehensive notes should be. 

Adjust the medium - Even though handwritten notes might be better for memory retention, that doesn’t mean you should always notate by hand. If you have to spend more than ~25 minutes transcribing notes, typing is the better choice. But handwritten notes make sense so you don’t spend an entire meeting typing notes without contributing

Follow UX Principles - An objective piece of advice for good note taking is to follow the advice of UX writers. UX writing is copy for interfaces, it must be clear and easy to understand. Apply these principles to note taking. 

Be Clear: Use phrases, words and concepts that you understand and won’t have to look up later

Stay Concise: This comes natural when writing by hand, but typed notes can become straight transcriptions which isn’t always helpful.

Make it Useful: Underline or circle to emphasize importance

Stay On Brand: Avoid doodling (unless it’s related to the subject).

Remain Consistent: Pick your layout and use the same format each time.

Use note taking as a tool to improve your memory retention and effectiveness at work. This simple but powerful method of learning has been around for thousands of years and will continue for many more. 

How to Improve Decision Making and Conversation in Meetings

There’s plenty of information out there about meeting angst and agenda guidelines. It’s the main focus for meeting tech tools and content resources. 

What about what happens in the actual meeting? There’s usually a decision that needs to be made, and there’s always a group conversation. These two skills are important for meetings and nearly every aspect of life. 

Here’s how to improve these critical elements. 

Decision Making

The most meticulous agenda paired with a fully adopted system of meeting bylaws will not help with the crucial element of decision making. Meeting software tools produce loads of training and educational content with the goal of addressing this skill. 

Google executives famously rely on data to make decisions. Former VP Melissa Mayer discouraged the word “like” in meetings and instead encouraged people to use data-backed compliments or critiques. This can be a double-edged sword. Google over-engineered this idea to the point where they were testing 41 shades of blue to see which one performed better, which irked some designers. Despite this, being deliberate about your decision making process and criteria is a must. 

Leaning on data for decision making is a popular option because it’s the opposite of an emotional approach. Emotional decision-making is usually involved with our biggest regrets. But it’s also true that the emotional side of reasoning can’t be buried entirely.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio documented cases where patients suffer brain damage that removes their ability to use emotion when making decisions. Their lives are ruined despite their IQ and other brain functions being completely normal because they’re not able to make decisions. This demonstrates the importance of considering people’s moods, emotions and maintaining a positive atmosphere within every meeting room. 

Further, relying entirely on logic (or data) leads to analysis paralysis if logic doesn’t indicate a clear winner. For example, if logo design options have divided support amongst the team and comparative A/B test results. 

Whether it’s data, an executive to serve as final tiebreaker, an algorithm, etc. it’s important to have something in place to make decisions when a stalemate is hurting productivity. Also, facilitating friendly conversation and boosting morale will have an actual impact on your decision making. 

Better Conversation, Better Meetings

You can have time to prepare, set the right agenda, use meeting bylaws and it can all still go wrong. What actually happens when you physically or digitally get together is often overlooked, at least by so-called thought leaders on the topic. 

While much of the advice about meetings is experience-driven, opinion-based and more art than science, guidance for facilitating conversation is more objective. It’s an easier topic to study and thus provides more conclusions. 

There are several techniques for managers (or any meeting leader). 

Create a welcoming environment - If employees don’t feel like they have permission to share, complain or ask hard questions, they’re likely not going to share important details about a project gone wrong. You can do this by asking permission before questioning, and asking questions like:

  1. What do you think I need to know?

  2. Where are you struggling?

  3. What are you proud of?

Be aware of questioning sequence - With that said, you should pay attention to how your questions are sequenced. In “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahneman explained how questioning sequence can alter a respondents answers entirely. 

Students were asked how their life was going, followed by a question about their dating life. The answers were independent and not related. Flip the question sequence, and suddenly they felt worse about their life if they had a negative response on the dating question (which was asked first). 

This can apply to 1-on-1 meetings or status review meetings. If someone shares a negative sentiment on the initial question, the follow up question will likely be more of the same. Counteract this by focusing on the initial answer. Understand the why and how behind the reaction, before moving forward. 

Think like a negotiator - Hostage negotiators apply a simple, but effective 5-step process

  1. Active Listening

  2. Empathy

  3. Rapport

  4. Influence

  5. Behavioral Change

What happens in many meetings is people go directly to step four (influence), or skip one of the first three steps. It’s not enough to just listen, express empathy and demonstrate rapport to influence behavior or get people to listen and take whatever action is required after the meeting. 

There are also techniques for meeting participants. 

Mimic Appropriately - People are influenced by our movements and nonverbal reactions. MIT professor Sandy Pentland published an entire book dedicated to this topic. In one study, a presenter who purposely mimicked the movements of listeners was found to be 20 percent more effective. This isn’t something you would want to forcefully do, but understanding the movements and reactions of your teammates during a meeting will lead to more listening and togetherness. 

Active and Constructive Responses - Practice active and constructive responses whenever responding to someone. This means you are active with your body language i.e. maintaining eye contact. And constructive with language i.e. repeating part of their statement, then building on it.  

Compliment and encourage - If you want to be heard and listened to during a meeting, make other people feel good. Research shows that flattery is effective even when it’s obviously insincere. Being insincere isn’t the best habit to pick up, but find ways to compliment team members. 

Check out our other meeting-focused content to learn more about issues, solutions and how Topple fits in.

Meetings: How to Build Smart Agendas and Bylaws

Meetings without agendas are like hospitals without doctors. You might get something out of it, but there's a good chance you’ll end up hurting more than when you went in. 

Even those who recommend an agenda-less approach note the need for outcome statements and goals. If you’re able to diagnose and treat the issue on the fly, then go for it. But for the rest of us without our PhD in Meetingomics, here’s how to make sure your agendas and standards are effective. 

Beyond the Agenda 

Want to have a good meeting? Create an agenda. It’s been written a million times. But if having an agenda was the answer, we wouldn’t have so many complaints about meetings. The actual first step is align a purpose with your agenda. There are generally six categories. 

  • Decision making - Deciding on a new hire, event planning, selecting a prototype, etc. These meetings require a decision following discussion. 

  • Correct a problem - Responding to an incident, fixing a customer complaint, disciplinary actions, etc. These meetings bring an issue to the attention of a team and identify the best possible action. 

  • Brainstorms - Collecting creative information for client deliverables, marketing content or new feature ideas. Brainstorms can have their own bylaws and standards. 

  • Broadcast information - All-hands meetings, company structure updates, PR and news updates, etc. These instances are reserved for when the information is too important to risk an unread email. 

  • Collect feedback - Reviewing A/B tests, feature reviews, team performance reviews, etc. These help managers and team members collect feedback that would not be shared through other mediums.  

  • Status review - Team cadence meetings, project reviews, one-on-one reviews, etc. These meetings examine the progress of something. 

Defining an agenda category is a great first step. The difficult part is when there’s not enough time to pick a category, let alone create a detailed agenda. Enacting meeting bylaws can help with efficiency when preparation is inadequate. 

Meeting Bylaws

These are some of the meeting rules applied by successful organizations. They’re backed by experts and social science. 

The Intro - American Express Executive Christopher Frank popularized a series of questions to begin meetings: 

  • What is the purpose?: If you’ve picked one of the agenda categories above, this question should be known by everyone on the invite. 

  • What is the issue…in five words or less?: Asking this question to everyone in the room immediately creates a roundtable effect. Most issues are complex enough where you won’t get the same answers, which kicks off discussion and reduces the chances of off-topic chatter and confusion. 

  • Who has already weighed in and what did they have to say about it?: This question also kicks off proper discussion. You’ll find out if the right people are present: those who developed the initial issue, the stakeholders, and the decision makers. Ineffective meetings don’t get this question out until near the end, which brings more discussion. 

Short and Serviceable - The worst default setting in software history is calendar apps that default to a 30-minute or one-hour meeting time. As if every meeting should be 14% of our day (with lunch) and two meetings should be 5% of our week. It may sound insignificant until you factor in conversations with team members, dealing with customers and all the unforeseen happenings of a given day. 

It’s worth noting that there is no scientifically-proven sweet spot for meeting length. Studies that attempt to prove that our attention spans are 10-15 minutes have been inconclusive. And it’s just not true that we have goldfish-like attention spans of 8 seconds (actually, the goldfish thing isn’t true either). Anyway, the point is that it’s not about an exact length of time, it’s about setting the principle that meetings will be short without being rushed. And ramblers shall be cut off (politely). 

No tech - Create a digital coat check or assign a single laptop note taker. It’s a simple, powerful concept that isn’t applied universally. The most common objection to banning smartphones and laptops is, “I need to answer customers!” Solve this by limiting meeting length. Don’t forget that handwritten notes stick to our memory more than typed. 

No spectators - Everything above encourages participation and purpose. Usually meeting spectators are the ones who feel justified bringing their laptops and multi-tasking. If you don’t have a follow-up task, are not impacted, and don’t need to weigh in - there’s no need to be there. At best, the spectator might contribute something vaguely useful, at worst they’ll discourage someone who needs to weigh in from doing so. 

Assign tasks

Steve Jobs and Apple are known for the D.R.I. (directly responsible individual) standard for meetings. Every member of the meeting is assigned a task at the conclusion of the meeting. If someone doesn’t have a task, was their presence needed? If it’s a broadcast-type meeting or team announcement, the D.R.I can be replaced with D.I.I (directly impacted individual), everyone should confirm how they are affected by said announcement and what changes, if any, they will make.

The DocOps Culture

These ideas about meeting agendas and bylaws are only useful if they’re shared amongst a team. Team members assume certain bylaws are common knowledge. Creating documents with an organization’s meeting philosophy and protocol is how everything above can be implemented. 

Relevant documents for better meetings include: 

Meeting Agenda Guidelines - If teams sync up on meeting agendas, it’ll make cross-department transfers smoother. And give new meeting leaders a headstart on how to run their meetings. 

Meeting Bylaws - Determine which meeting bylaws should be used throughout the company. This can be a standalone document or one section of a comprehensive overview. 

Meeting Tools & Resources - One team might be using a SaaS tool while another relies on their calendar functionality. Allow everyone to use the same resources by documenting what’s available. 

Team Charter - Anticipated team and department meetings should be included within a team charter document. This allows team members to prepare and coordinate while giving executives a better look into how everything works. 

Smart agendas and thoughtful bylaws are important, but other organizational factors impact meeting effectiveness. Collect feedback from management and individual contributors to build a comprehensive overview of the status quo. You can then begin to implement these guidelines.