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5 communication strategies to boost productivity in distributed teams 1

5 communication strategies to boost productivity in distributed teams

  • Competitive advantages of globally distributed teams include access to experienced, international talent cost savings, a reduction in reaction times and delays, and faster product development.
  • However, for globally distributed teams to work like a well-oiled machine, effective communication is critical.
  • Collaboration and communication within and across teams can be improved by motivating team members to interact with each other, and inculcating a sense of camaraderie.
  • The success and efficiency with which a project is executed depends on how the individuals in a team are managed. Project supervisors have to establish channels for team communication, humanize their dialogue, while setting a common goal for everyone to work towards by holding them accountable.

Whether progressive start-ups or global giants, the transformation into an agile organisation is only possible with the advantages that a global network of teams can offer. 

Indeed, a recent survey by FlexJobs points to 45% of companies already offering flexibility around working from remote locations, with Fortune 500 companies such as Amazon, Cigna, and Dell leading the way by setting up globally distributed teams. Competitive advantage lies in hiring team members located in different countries and time zones. Access to experienced, international tech talent is, of course, a primary gain, as is cost savings, and a reduction in reaction times and delays, resulting in faster product development.

With these outcomes becoming crucial to all firms, the question then is about how to boost your distributed team’s efficiency and productivity. Quality, speed, and accuracy of information exchanged within teams, and among team members, now directly impacts the bottom-line of the organization. In other words, communicating clearly and constructively has never been more important.

Practical strategies to improve workplace communication

1) Set up centralized communication channels 

Given that the team is distributed across different countries and timezones, identifying communication channels for different purposes, such as Jell for daily standup, is one simple way to align communication. 

Addressing time-zone related issues though requires the right mix of synchronous communication through video conferencing tools, and asynchronous communication through tools such as email or Slack. Almost all conversations in Zapier for instance, take place on public Slack channels. Wade Foster, Zapier’s CEO, looks to the tool to help keep all team members in the loop commenting “[It’s] especially helpful when working as a team across different time zones. When team members wake up, they can easily gain context and pick up where others left off instead of not knowing what went on while they were sleeping.” 

2) And then set ground rules

Just because you can message someone on Slack doesn’t mean that you should. Collaboration between distributed teams becomes easier when managers establish which tool is the most appropriate to accomplish a specific communication goal. 

For instance, it’s a truth often unacknowledged that receiving one-sentence emails can be an exercise in frustration. Instead standardize that emails can be used for updates that are not time sensitive, while an instant messaging service or platform is best for when quick collaboration is necessary. The most important factor is that all team members follow the same guidelines for communication.

3) Transparency improves accountability

CEOs be warned: a lack of transparency can decay the distributed work model. When workers feel isolated and excluded, communication suffers, and trust breaks down.

The greater the transparency in communicating both challenges and successes, the easier it is to encourage an open dialogue, which results in greater agility and accountability. For instance, at DevOps unicorn HashiCorp, the weekly all-hands is held at Thursday mornings PST so that team members across a wide range of timezones can attend.

For some companies, prioritizing transparency means using asynchronous communication to achieve greater buy-in; team members can keep track of key changes and decisions, and contribute ideas and perspectives when they’re online. Others use workflow management systems such as Github or Trello to encourage transparency between team members. It works because having clear targets and reporting against them makes it easy to track productivity and progress. 

4) Humanise the discussion

While written communication dominates the workplace, it doesn’t benefit from the nuances of tone of voice or facial expressions, making miscommunication more likely. Schedule real-time media interactions such as FaceTime, video conferences, web calls, or phone calls. People feel more engaged as they can pick up on verbal or physical cues, which immediately humanizes the conversation.

This can also help to build connections between distributed team members, says Srini Koushik, CTO for Magellan Health. ““I may have only seen you on Zoom but when paths finally cross, iit no longer feels as if I’m meeting a stranger. We recognize one another.”

5) Provide opportunities for social interaction

Without the traditional Christmas office party to rely on, distributed teams need to structure creative ways for team members to interact socially, build connections and foster friendships — no matter how far apart they may be. Gitlab, for instance, pairs its team members up to take virtual coffee breaks together, while startup Help Scout encourages its employees to share video tours of their workspaces at home. 

Buffer is a perfect example of creating a positive working environment for its distributed team. With a strong backbone of distributed work tools, the company has built its culture using annual retreats, where the entire team spread across the world meets and interacts face to face. This is supported by mini-retreats for smaller teams and specific departments, Buffer has managed to extract the best out of its distributed team.                                                                            

Taking cues from Buffer, Github, and other globally distributed organizations, it is obvious that implementing communication and collaboration strategies results in better business outcomes. Open communication is the key to success, supplemented by a strong backbone of internal collaboration tools and workflow management systems. Having clear expectations from your employees with the same KPIs from distributed teams as those in place for teams working HQ can bridge the gap too. By being an active partner to distributed teams with your employees’ support, these teams can yield real value.

Ashwin Kasturirangan

Ashwin Kasturirangan

Entrepreneur & strategy consultant with experience in building & scaling up new businesses and executing large-scale complex cross-functional projects.

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