Communicating In Distributed Teams

2nd Nov 2022

Great communication is essential in any successful business, but it’s particularly important when teams are distributed geographically. 

We talk about communication in many of our blog posts, especially when discussing remote equipment / onboarding, managing distributed teams, and building employee engagement. In this piece, we’ve provided a quick guide to all aspects of communication that should be considered to create a thriving workplace. 

How to communicate effectively

Video conferencing (VC)

Such has been the influx of video conferencing (VC) products over the last c.5 years, it seems amazing now that we ever lived without VC. Talking to someone you can see in a time zone across the globe has become completely normalised, in a way that was inconceivable even 20 years ago.

As a result, we are now overflowing with VC software options, from free to freemium to fully paid. At Flexa, we’ve played around with probably every major VC tool on the market. We’re particularly fond of Whereby, which has a really nice interface, allows for better presentation formats than, say, Google Meet and won’t break the bank. 

Having said that, for SMEs, there’s certainly nothing wrong with using whichever VC tool comes with your software provider or even a free Zoom account. Remember not to block the actual application software in the first instance (you would be surprised how often we encounter this)!

Instant Messaging

At Flexa, we almost never email each other internally (with the exception of diary invites and, occasionally, sending larger files). Our day-to-day communication is conducted entirely over Slack. When a new team member joins, they’re reminded on their first day: “Slack, don’t email”. We even invite third-party service providers (e.g. agencies) to private slack channels. You can be more granular by dividing your Slack channels to ensure that important information doesn’t get lost. 

This is hugely beneficial when a team is distributed across the globe, allowing for much quicker and smoother collaboration between team members. If you want to nail a flexible working environment, we highly recommend using an IM tool, such as Slack, for day-to-day communications. Ditch the emails (as much as you possibly can).

Shared drives

Version control is the worst. No one likes to discover that they’re working on a redundant document. The switch away from email towards Slack has also allowed for another fundamental shift: shared drives and shared documents. 

At Flexa, we use Google’s G-suite, which covers our emails, calendar and so forth. Part of the G-suite offering is Google Drive, a file storage and synchronisation service which allows for vast numbers of files to be shared between teams (or protected for privacy reasons). We’ve found Google Drive to be invaluable in our shared work efforts, leveraging its capabilities to build documents like financial models or sales decks collaboratively in real-time.

Employee feedback

Use a tool such as 15Five to monitor employee sentiment and suggestions, but make sure that the information that you’re asking for isn’t onerous - don’t make long text fields mandatory or expect employees to engage too frequently.

We would suggest collecting quick feedback via 15Five about once a month, as it allows you to see any fluctuations in happiness, engagement, or sentiment and to rectify them quickly before things fester. This can also help to encourage those who aren’t comfortable with face-to-face difficult conversations to get used to giving feedback casually in writing. 

When and what to communicate 

There’s a fine balance to be struck between over-communicating and leaving employees - especially new employees - feeling like they’re lost. Having said that, we all know that regular and detailed communication is key to managing a distributed team. 

It can be tempting to postpone or even cancel regular catch-ups with team members when they are no longer in front of us (we all know about “Zoom fatigue”). However, ensuring we stay in regular contact with colleagues – especially direct reports – is absolutely essential in maintaining a strong workplace dynamic across a distributed team. 

Some communication touch points we strongly recommend (over VC, where needed):

  • 1:1 catch-ups with managers each week. See more on delivering feedback in our guide to “Building employee engagement”
  • Team meetings on at least a fortnightly basis
  • Daily “quick check-ins” on Slack
  • Quarterly reviews (if there’s an option to do these in person, we recommend this approach)
  • Create Slack channels for slightly less cerebral / work-based topics. This can be a great way to build morale and bonding across teams who don’t see each other often (or at all). Everyone loves a “pets'' channel…

Who should communicate

Lastly, it’s important to remember that communication needs to happen across the board, not just in small sub-pockets. This is something that can really be jeopardised in a distributed environment. 

  • In smaller businesses, try to make sure that employees talk to each other (even over Slack) without the input of founders / leadership. It’s important that those bilateral bonds are formed
  • In larger businesses, it’s great to make introductions outside of narrow teams and ensure that virtual cross-collaboration is working effectively
  • Even gentle introductions over Slack (or email, if you must!) can be really impactful in terms of broadening those communication fibres and ensuring that all teams are pulling together.
Ensuring communication flows smoothly in distributed teams is undoubtedly challenging, but it is doable if managed well and assessed regularly to ensure issues don’t slip through the net.