How to Communicate Clearly and Effectively in Remote Organizations

Gideon Koh
Marketing
March 24, 2020
11


If you haven’t noticed yet, the number of remote work and organizations is on the rise. More remote job listing websites are coming up, and the list of jobs advertised on each of these sites are growing as well. Not to mention, even organizations with physical offices are slowly allowing their staff to work from home. Remote work and flexible hours are perks that people are on the lookout for; goodbye foosball and pool tables.

I’ve worked in both office and remote settings, and I have spent an equal number of years in each environment so I would say that I have a fairly balanced experience when it comes to the two. While working remotely is the future, it does require extra effort and focus, especially when it comes to communication. 

Let’s take a look at an obvious difference between working in an office and in a remote setting: the amount of face-to-face time with your team. 

In a physical office setting, you can grow relationships face-to-face with your team members. You are able to reach out to your colleagues and your boss at any time for any situation. You can hang out, have a drink, or play foosball with your colleagues after work hours. You can read your team member’s emotions better through their voice and body language.

In a remote setting, you won’t be able to see your colleagues everyday — at best, you’ll see them through a video call where the internet is somehow always wonky and one person will have to shout, “Can you hear me?!”. Your hangout time is limited or non-existent because your colleagues are possibly located all over the globe and working different hours. Most of the time, you communicate through a chat system where it’s difficult to decipher their emotions through text where you can’t see their body language or hear their voice tone.

With this in mind, working remotely does require extra effort since it takes initiative and commitment outside of your work responsibilities to ensure you and your team members are communicating clearly and effectively. It requires you to go the extra mile to say hello to someone so that your colleagues can get to know you better. 

Since I’ve started working at Nightwatch, I’ve gained knowledge and experience on how to communicate clearly and effectively in a remote organization.

How do remote teams communicate?

Let’s start with the very basics. Since you won’t be able to see each other face-to-face, the best way to keep in touch is to chat online and have video calls. 

Generally, remote organizations agree that the most cost-efficient way for online communication is to use the following tools: 

- Slack

- Google Hangouts

- Zoom

Principles of communication

Most people won’t be able to hold video calls throughout the entire working day, so the best choice for daily communication is to chat online. Yet, we all have to agree that when it comes to chatting online, everyone has a different style of communication. Some prefer to write lengthy messages while others prefer to give one-word answers. Some may take offense at the way someone writes while others aren’t as affected by that. 

At Nightwatch, we have created a list of principles to standardize our communication:

A) Have clear intent

For every message, you should create it with a specific goal in mind. Do not beat around the bush and leave the point of your message until the very end. 

If you’re discussing an important task, which of these examples below would you choose? Spoiler alert: I choose the second option!

Option 1:

Hey! You know, today I was thinking really hard as I stared out the window of my own room and then I came up with an idea - why don’t we tell the potential customer that we generally do not give out discounts


Option 2:


Hey! Why don’t we tell the potential customer that we do not give out discounts?


B) You should avoid negative assumptions and drama.

If there isn’t a message that is explicitly written against you, do not assume that the specific person has any ill feelings towards you. It’s also important not to build up these assumptions into office drama, especially when you aren’t sure of the details. Reflect if you are merely assuming, or if you have hard evidence of a certain situation.

It can be easy to feel some distrust towards colleagues when you don’t communicate face-to-face daily which is why it takes an extra effort to build up that trust!

C) You should avoid giving short replies.

Giving short replies, when it comes to feedback especially, isn’t effective because you aren’t providing insightful comments to improve a colleague’s work. Always put yourself in your colleagues’ shoes and reflect if your messages are helpful to your team’s work.

Here’s an example:


Colleague: Hey, this is the structure that I have came up with to potentially increase the number of subscribers to our website. Could you check and let me know if you have any feedback?

You (5 hours later): Okay.

You (12 hours later): Not good.

Colleague (the next day): What do you mean by “Not good”?

You (two days later): Not good. I don’t like it.

You should be clear with your answers so that minimal time is spent on deciphering the meaning behind your messages. To illustrate, let’s say the original task could be completed within a day, but due to the lack of clarity in communication, the task will have to be extended to another few days before it can be finished. In summary, always give detailed feedback.


D) Remove clutter words

Imagine coming into work the next day to find your chat inbox flooded with messages that you need to review. It doesn’t help when a lot of these messages are cluttered with noise. For example, these messages may contain repeated words or words with the same meaning:


I think we should go ahead and talk to the customer. I think we should tell the customer that we will not offer an incentive. Just a thought.

We can remove a lot of words to eliminate noise to make it easier to the eyes:

I think we should tell the customer that we will not offer an incentive.

Here, I’ve removed a total of 14 words from the original 28-word sentence. Imagine if the length of all your messages at the start of your day were cut in half — you’d be saving 50% of your energy which you can now use on other tasks.

The question is, would you want someone to spend a lot of time reading your messages that could have been reduced by half?

Here at Nightwatch, it is in our culture to use the information writing approach whenever we communicate.

What does this mean?

We focus less on adjectives that may dramatize and take away from the key point of the message. Instead, we focus on passing on information — similar to how news articles, class lessons, and journals are written. For example:


I am so incredibly, exceedingly grateful that the customer complimented me greatly!

Versus:

I am so grateful that the customer complimented me!


This way, we are able to make sure our sentences are minimal, yet effective.

I am not denying that at times we do need some drama, but we should know when and where to bring drama to the team wisely. It does not help when it clutters an important message.


E) Make sure it is positive

I’m not sure about you, but I tend to think about the worst outcome in situations. It does not help when these negative thoughts creep into my communication; making work gloomy and doubtful for the rest of the team. Everyone has the power to destroy a positive team spirit by just saying one negative sentence.

There’s no foosball table in a remote organization to cheer the team up after sending these negative messages. Our best option is to think and observe if our messages can tear people down or build people up before we send them out.

As for our negative thoughts, it is in our culture at Nightwatch to not use negative words or phrases like “impossible”, “bad”, “doesn’t work”, etc., especially when it’s not accompanied by an explanation. Instead of turning to these words, we should always check with our team to make sure if tasks really can’t be done, and if so, we should find out what’s the next best alternative. This helps to cultivate positive thoughts that can be channeled through our messages which spreads the overall positivity to the rest of the team.


F) Make sure everything is documented

It is extremely important for a remote organization to have a culture of documentation. Documentation helps to standardize truths that everyone on the team can refer back to and follow. This helps everyone to always be on the same page and minimize any confusion.

At Nightwatch, everyone works on their own flexible schedule, therefore it is highly possible that an important conversation is missed by someone outside of their working hours. Hence, we ensure that there is a summary of the conversation posted in the appropriate Slack channels to keep all team members in the loop.

There are a few ways we document conversations at Nightwatch:

• Public channels

We have as many conversations as possible in a public channel so that there’s accountability in what we discuss, and to make sure that everyone is aware of the conversation. Not to mention, anyone can always trace back to a specific conversation if ever need to refer to it in the future.

• Daily-handovers and recaps

It is important for everyone to keep track of key points in a conversation and to provide a summary in a daily handover format so that the whole team is aware:


For personal 1-on-1 chats and calls, we post a recap on relevant public channels so that everyone knows what is being discussed. Here’s a good example of a recap where I had an hour of 1-on-1 call with my colleague, and she posted the summary of it in a public channel:



• Weekly Reports 


For each department, there's a person responsible for posting a weekly report. Here’s an example of how it looks like:


• Documentation pages

We have multiple Notion pages where we will constantly update our work processes. For example:


Example of our "Submitting Invoices" process


By writing these details down, team members will have access to these processes and can refer to them whenever they need it. In the end, if you can't find any information anywhere, ask the team for help and clarification. Once you have an answer, remember to document it.


G) Get to know your team

Working remotely is different from the start in that you will never be brought around the office by HR or a team leader to meet everyone in the company. At most, you’ll only be introduced to your direct leader and your team. Other than that, it will depend on your own initiative to get to know everyone else.

Get to know people and their roles

It is important to talk to other team members, especially the ones in other departments you will inevitably need to communicate with in the near future. You may need to approach them to help you with your projects or tasks, and it doesn’t help if you need marketing input but you have no idea who works in marketing. It certainly doesn’t help when you have urgent things that need to be discussed with someone, but you don’t know what time zone the person is in, and then you end up waiting the whole day for the person to come online just to have a discussion.

If you get to know your team members and their roles, you will be able to manage your tasks efficiently because you won’t spend time finding out who and when someone can help.

At Nightwatch, we have a page specifically dedicated to documenting every team members’ role and responsibilities. This makes it much easier for us to know the team, and know who to contact for help on certain topics.


H) Do not avoid responsibility

At Nightwatch, we have banned people from using the word “someone” and “somebody”. In fact, we have a Slack bot to remind people not to do this:

Saying “someone” or “somebody” is too broad and usually leads to no replies since no one is tagged in the message. Therefore, we always make sure a specific person gets the memo. We will mention @ mention or tag the right person to help in a public channel.


I) Communication is teamwork

In the end, communication involves effort from both sides. It may involve you coming online outside of your working hours for a short while to suit another team member’s schedule. It may involve you coming online late at night just to meet the team on a weekly call at the time you’re about to go to bed. 


Conclusion

I shared all these principles and guidelines because I want to show you that achieving clear and effective communication in a remote organization is possible.

There’s a famous quote by Mark Sanborn saying “In teamwork, silence isn’t golden, it’s deadly”. This speaks truth to remote organizations where no one can truly walk to their desk and demand conversations. Silence defines our work environment. If there are no efforts taken in the area of communication, it will kill a team.

Plato, too, has a quote about communication - “Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something”. This is why we have principles in our communication, to ensure that everyone is wise and informed.

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