How to communicate when you’re part of a distributed team

2nd Apr 2024

Great communication is essential in any successful business, but it’s particularly important when teams aren’t all working from the same place. 

You might be working in a fully remote set up - where you spend no time in person as a team, a remote-first team - with a little in person time, or in a hybrid set up - where you spend some time in person and some time working remotely. 

Whatever your set up, if you aren’t all in the office full time, you need to learn the skill set of great communication in a distributed team. 

Why is communication so important?

Businesses rely on quick, efficient problem solving and action. Without great communication things get easily confused resulting in slower progress, repeated or poorly done work, and a drop in productivity across the whole organisation. 

With great communication you’ll notice a few changes: 

1. You get more work done, to a higher standard

When you and your team fully understand what the goals, plans and requirements are of a project you get more done, and to a higher standard. This understanding relies on developing great listening skills. 

Mastering good listening skills is the first step to being able to communicate your own thoughts and ideas effectively. By developing strong listening skills you’re able to evaluate the effectiveness of others’ communication and learn styles that you do and don’t like. 

The more you listen and absorb information, the more you understand the problems being tackled and the strategic approach of the business. This makes you a more valuable team player, especially in a remote team where you can’t rely on overhearing snippets of conversation in the office 

Remember that strong communication has two sides to it: speaking and listening

2. You progress much faster, both personally and professionally 

As a result of improved communication skills, you’ll find that your personal and professional growth is hugely accelerated. 

This deeply links to being able to do your job to a higher standard, but also occurs because your strong communication skills mean that you are able to understand complex problems above and beyond your current level or job description. 

Getting involved in conversations with more senior team members, or even the board, 

3. Your team will be more connected, engaged and creative! 

As you improve your communication skills you’ll be better at motivating, engaging and inspiring your team! We are all more inspired by a good storyteller than someone who drones on without any passion or flare. Finding your own communication style and knowing which tools to use to get your point across are key to a highly engaged, happy team. 

So, what are the best ways to communicate in a remote or distributed team?  

We’re going to share some practical tips on how and when to communicate best with your team, those you manage, and your boss! 

Take this advice to form the foundation of your communication practise but remember that a great communication style is personalised to you. 

When and what to communicate 

There’s a fine balance to be struck between over-communicating (which often leads to micromanaging) and leaving employees - especially new employees - feeling lost. 

Having said that, we know that regular and detailed communication truly underpins the successful running of a distributed team. 

Just because someone isn’t sitting at the desk next to you this doesn’t mean that you can avoid communicating with them - in fact, in distributed teams it’s more important than ever to maintain regular and clear lines of communication. 

Here are a few communication touch points we strongly recommend to keep your team communicating well:

  • 1:1 catch-ups with your manager (or those you manage) each week
  • Weekly project progressions calls
  • Team meetings on at least a fortnightly basis
  • Daily “quick check-ins” on Slack
  • Quarterly reviews (if you’re a hybrid or remote first team, we recommend doing these in person where possible!) 
  • Create Slack channels for projects but also for fun! This can be a great way for teams to build relationships which aids in easy and open communication. Everyone loves a pets channel…

Who should communicate

The responsibility of communication isn’t only on managers and leaders. It’s a skill that we’re all responsible for maintaining and improving. 

Communication needs to happen across the entire company. As distributed teams we can’t afford to work in silos and peel off into sub-groups. 

Encouraging and taking part in casual and work-related conversations is the best way to build a strong habit and to practise your skills! 

Here are a couple tips: 

  • In smaller businesses, try to make sure that employees communicate with each other (even over Slack) without the constant input of management. You need to avoid managers becoming a communication bottleneck. 
  • In larger businesses, it’s great to make introductions outside of narrow teams and ensure that virtual cross-collaboration is working effectively. Some teams run ‘random coffee’ meetings between two people who work in totally different departments. 

The best tools for remote and distributed communication

1. Meeting software

It now seems amazing that we ever lived without video calls! Talking to someone ‘face to face’ 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 software options, from free to freemium to fully paid. At Flexa, we’ve played around with probably every major video communication tool on the market. We’re particularly fond of Google Meet and Zoom. 

2. 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. It’s just part of our communication culture now. 

If you want to nail a flexible working environment, we highly recommend using an Instant Messaging tool for day-to-day communications. Ditch the emails (as much as you can).

3. Shared drives

No one likes to discover that they’re working on a redundant document or have missed a bunch of feedback and notes. The switch away from email toward 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 almost all of our work. Being able to share works in progress, collaborate in real time, and have easy access to any file or folder you need is key to good communication in distributed teams. 

4. Getting (and giving!) good feedback

You shouldn’t only communicate well once a quarter, or worse once a year, when you’re giving and receiving feedback. This needs to be a continuous process, and open lines of communication help build a culture of open feedback. 

It’s important to get to know everyone’s feedback preferences. Some people hate written feedback, some hate receiving it face to face. Encouraging everyone, and yourself, to get familiar with the way they best take in feedback will make your communication much easier, and avoid any unnecessary awkward moments.

You should have this conversation with your team when you join, and encourage them to write this down somewhere so new joiners can refer to it. 

Get out there and practice

The important word here is practice. Without testing out new styles of communication you’ll never know what feels right for you, or what works for your team. 

You’ve got to practise communicating and listening to get better at them, so make your team aware that you are open to feedback on your communication style and how you communicate in a distributed team - and review and implement that feedback when it comes!