If there's one thing high-performing teams are built on, it's effective communication. It doesn't matter how disruptive your technology is or how grand a vision you hold, if your team doesn't communicate well you're going to be fighting an uphill battle to get any traction.
Poor communication wastes time, breeds mistrust, and causes a ton of unnecessary stress -- all for a very often mediocre result.
When you have the systems, tools, and strategies in place to foster effective communication, you make collaboration easy, get everybody on the same page, and help reduce the risk of your team burning out.
In this article, we share 14 practical tips to help you do that, whether your team is remote, onsite, or a mix of the two.
14 Helpful Tips for Improving Team Communication
Communication Tips for Remote Teams
Remote teams, by their very nature, have little or no in-person communication between team members and when you combine that with a team often spread across many different time zones, you have an environment that makes effective communication a challenge.
To fix this, remove teams need to be exceedingly careful with how they communicate and how they foster relationships within their teammates.
1. Build the right toolkit.
With all of the communication and collaboration tools out there today, it's not a surprise many remote employees bounce around between a dozen different tools throughout the day. There is value in having truly specialized tools for every task, but when you have to search 5 different places to find a conversation, the appeal quickly wears off.
All teams should pick the fewest number of tools that can still get the job done, but for remote teams this is paramount.
To figure out what tools you need, start by thinking about the two forms of communication: synchronous (i.e. real-time) and asynchronous (i.e. on a non-concurrent schedule).
If you're reading this blog, then chances are good that you're probably already using Slack. If you aren't, then I strongly recommend it as it makes synchronous collaboration a breeze.
As a remote team, you also need to think about audio and video conferencing tools as well. While Slack's capabilities in this area are improving, I'd recommend using Zoom or some other dedicated platform for these communications as they are simply more stable.
Next, you need a project management tool that can act as a central hub to keep everything together. Nothing kills productivity faster than getting stuck in Google Docs (or Word or Excel) hell where there are three different files for every project and nobody knows which is the most up to date or even where they're stored.
To round out your collection of tools, I'd highly recommend using a scheduler, like HubSpot's free meetings tool, to cut back on unnecessary back-and-forth when scheduling a meeting. I'd also suggest using screen capture software, like Soapbox or Loom, to help give context to your asynchronous conversations.
For all of these tools, don't obsess over your decision. Do your own research, ask for recommendations, then play around with a few and see what works for you.
2. Update team documentation consistently.
Despite what the startup world may want you to believe, software doesn't exist for its own sake. The goal of all of these tools is to make effective communication easy, but as most remote workers can attest, that isn't often the result.
In order to reach that goal, you need to be clear about when and how you're going to use those tools, and then you need to actually follow those guidelines.
When should you contact somebody over Slack as opposed to email? What should be handled with a screencast instead of a Zoom call?
The specifics will depend on what your team does and how they prefer to work, but the general idea is to default to asynchronous options unless you have a strong reason not to.
When it comes to project management, the main principle is simple: Keep all projects up to date with the next action, who is responsible for it, and when it needs to be finished.
This isn't anything groundbreaking, but in practice, very few teams actually follow through with this day-to-day.
If you and a co-worker have a casual conversation where a decision was made on your project, it may seem like it's not necessary to take any other actions. You both know what needs to be done, right?
While you may know what to do, the rest of your team will have no idea what's going on.
Your project management system needs to serve as a central repository of what is happening with every project. Beyond keeping the rest of the team in the loop, being consistent with these updates makes your life easier as well.
How often are you working on a single project at a time? Pretty much never, right?
By keeping this updated, it's easy for you to quickly get back up to speed when you've been jumping between a few different things.
No more digging through old email chains and Slack conversations trying to figure out what exactly you were thinking before.
3. Establish time zone etiquette.
When you have a team spread across multiple time zones, you need to put more thought into when to communicate.
If you're using Slack, then you should encourage your team to set up "Do Not Disturb" hours so they don't get alerts at all hours of the day. If you aren't using Slack, stay away from anything that will send your teammate an alert unless it is an actual emergency that cannot wait.
4. Consider how the medium and tone of your words will be interpreted.
Virtual communication is, for the most part, written which means it lacks things we take for granted when talking to someone in person—facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, etc.
As we're all aware, thoughts can come across much differently in text, and even on calls, than they would in real life.
Make it a practice to pause before sending your messages and reread it for tone.
On the other side of it, encourage your team and your coworkers to speak up when they feel like somebody is coming across the wrong way. These small things make a real difference when you don't have a face to put to the words.
5. Get the team together on a regular basis.
One of the most impactful things a remote team can do is plan time for everybody to get together in person. We've personally experienced this at Groove, and other remote companies (like Close and Buffer) agree.
Being able to spend time with each other in the same physical space:
- Brings team members closer together
- Lets out true personalities, because nobody's 100% the same person in real life as they are behind a computer screen
- Helps them find common interests they would usually not discover (through casual, in-person conversations)
- Helps people get to know each other and learn how to communicate based on their individual personalities
While there are many benefits to getting a virtual team together IRL, when it comes to communication the biggest benefit is the deeper bonds you develop with your teammates. Not everybody is going to become BFFs (and that's ok), but by spending an extended period of time with teammates, they'll better understand what makes them tick which makes future communication so. much. easier.
Many remote teams organize retreats once a year -- ideally, it would be more often, but flying in your entire team gets expensive so the frequency depends on the stage your business is in.
It isn't all or nothing, though.
If you have employees all over the world and some of them live fairly close to each other, encourage "mini-retreats" where that group rents an Airbnb and gets together for a few days each quarter.
If none of these options are feasible for you, that's ok. But at least make sure to get the team together virtually on a regular basis. And don't make it all about work!
At Groove, we have a daily video call that is part-work, part-social. Tuesday through Thursday, the call is a short 10-minute check-in to see how people are doing. While on Mondays and Fridays, it's a bit longer so we can talk about our weekends, what we've been up to, and just catch up.
This doesn't completely replace in-person communication, but it's an easy way to build deeper connections with the rest of the team.
Communication Tips for Mixed Teams
Mixed teams, or teams with remote and non-remote employees, face two unique challenges due to their structure:
- First, they need to do everything they can to avoid divides forming between the two groups of employees.
- Second, they have to make sure both teams stay in-sync.
6. Include everybody in information loops.
Just as remote teams need to track conversations that result in a decision or action, no matter how small, mixed teams do as well. This is so important for mixed teams because it can be easy to forget the other team exists and fall victim to the, "But everybody was there" trap that stops people from updating their projects.
7. Avoid one-off solutions to recurring challenges.
With time zone etiquette, you know not to ping somebody when it's 11:00 pm in their part of the world, but what do you do when you truly need to talk to somebody when it isn't convenient?
For these situations, some compromises need to be made. Ideally, there is some overlap in working hours, but if not, try to find a time that isn't too inconvenient to either of you.
If you constantly suggest times that don't respect the other person's schedule, you're just asking to be left out of the loop.
8. Encourage honesty and transparency.
One of the primary benefits of effective communication is that it helps identify problems early so that they can be fixed with minimal disruption. This only happens if employees feel like they can truly share their feedback. Otherwise, the problems are simply going to fester.
With mixed teams, there are so many ways for communication to fail and the costs of that happening are so high, that it is crucial your team lets you know when there is a problem.
If you're working remotely and simply cannot get a hold of somebody in the office using all of the right channels, then you need to be able to speak up so your team can figure out what's going on and fix it.
The same goes for being in the office and trying to get a hold of a remote employee. While not everybody is a digital nomad working from the beach, sometimes it can seem like it when it takes days to get a response.
When there are problems, the team needs to speak up and the manager needs to listen.
9. Organize in-person meetings even more frequently.
In a mixed team, the in-office team members have daily opportunities to get to know each other, whereas the remote team members don't. Even if you do everything you can to make the remote team feel included, it will never be the same as the people who work in the same office with each other every day.
While many mixed teams regularly have remote employees visit the office, it's rare that all of the remote employees are there at the same time. Make it a priority to have regular retreats, even if that just means getting everybody to the office.
On top of that, make a conscious effort to help remote coworkers feel included by virtually including them in as many in-person activities as you can.
Take your laptop with you and have a Skype call with them when the rest of you are heading out for lunch together, call them up when you're having a post-work beer, and so on. It may feel a bit awkward (and be a bit awkward) but they'll appreciate the effort.
Communication Tips for Onsite Teams
When you're in the same building as the rest of your team, effective communication and collaboration simply become easier.
That being said, the fact that it is so easy brings its own set of challenges on two different ends of the spectrum:
- On one end, it's easy to act as though you are a remote team by only using tools like Slack and email to communicate.
- On the other, it's also easy to overdo things and rely too much on in-person communication.
The way to fix this is to encourage in-person communication when it's the right tool and the right time.
10. Make sure to step away from the computer.
When you're working onsite, you have access to one tool that remote and mixed teams don't have; getting up and walking over to somebody to talk with them.
Don't handicap yourself by exclusively chatting with Slack when you're sitting a few doors down from somebody. You can use these digital tools to plan for in-person chats or to ask a quick question, but don't have all your chats in them.
Sit down with your co-workers instead of emailing back and forth, make coffee together, go grab the meeting room for a quick chat, and so on.
You have the privilege of being in the same space as your team members, so take advantage of that.
12. Use technology to work more efficiently.
While some people find themselves reverting to virtual conversations over those in-person, other people go too far in the other direction. Just because you can get up and ask your coworker a question, doesn't mean you should.
Just as with remote teams, it's crucial to distinguish between what needs to happen synchronously and what can happen asynchronously.
If you're working remotely, you can close Slack if you need a break, but it's much harder to stop Bob from the accounting team from bugging you with the latest news about Survivor when he is two cubicles down.
If you do think a conversation needs to happen in person, before interrupting somebody, look for signs that they don't want to be disturbed -- headphones on, heads down, clear focus. If it absolutely must be talked about now, then that's okay, but most conversations can wait. Send them a message on Slack and ask when is a good time to chat.
If you've worked in an office though, you know that still won't stop some people. To help team members escape when they need it, have a few designated "focus" areas around the office -- little rooms with a single desk, smaller meeting rooms, etc.
If someone feels like they need to get away from the crowd, that's their option and it needs to be clear to the rest of the team to respect that.
13. Ensure documentation is still easily accessible.
Keeping project statuses up to date and accessible is just as important for in-office teams as it is for the others. It's also something that is easy to push aside.
Even as a fully onsite team, you need to sure that any important information is easily findable and accurate. While you can get up and ask somebody else what's going on with a project or where to find the latest dashboards and reports, you shouldn't have to.
Having to constantly search for what you need and interrupting half of the office in the process is a massive productivity killer. Don't get lazy with project management just because you're all in the same place.
14. Build a positive work environment.
Nobody wants to work in an office filled with zombies that seem to have no interests outside of work. Not only does that bring morale down, but it's also bad for productivity. When people feel like they're just grinding it out, day after day, they simply aren't going to be as effective as they could be if they were fully engaged. Give their minds a break by letting them know it's okay to talk about things other than work while they're in the office.
Now, this doesn't mean you need to go full Silicon Valley and fill the office with bean bags and free beer. Nor does it mean people don't need to get their stuff done, but let your team take advantage of lunches and coffee breaks and the water cooler to connect.
Effective Team Communication Leads to Happier, More Productive Employees
Different teams have different communication challenges and they have different ways to do that, but there are a few simple principles that apply across the board:
- Pick your tools wisely.
- Be clear about when and how each tool should be used.
- Use those tools correctly and consistently.
- Be aware of how your words (written or spoken) could be interpreted.
- Be respectful of other people's time.
When you have the right foundation in place and a culture that promotes transparency and honesty, you're on your way to effective communication.
The principles are straightforward and based on common sense, but getting them to work takes real commitment from the entire team, top-to-bottom. I think we can all agree though that the effort is worth it.
To learn more, read about quick team-building activities to try next.
Originally published Oct 17, 2018 8:00:00 AM, updated October 16 2019