Building a Communication Culture (remotely)
For remote teams, building a solid culture of communication is paramount. Elena Bukhatkina leads the language development of Godel’s 1,200-and-growing team of Belarusian staff. Her Language department is responsible for not only teaching Godel employees the English language itself but also aligning Belarusian and British team members, by educating the partnered teams on the others’ cultural differences, especially within the context of communication.
What are the main communication challenges that remote teams face?
The most common issue is simply a lack of communication overall. For a team used to working at a desk together, casually chatting and able to hop in a meeting room together whenever they need to, working remotely presents a blocker on collaboration that can be difficult to overcome. For software teams it’s easy to become occupied primarily with code and avoid or discontinue communicating with the team beyond what is necessary – but this is kryptonite for agile working!
It’s also not uncommon for misunderstandings to take place in remote teams. Video calls and instant messaging conversations can stop and start when too many people overlap one another. This tends to make people averse to repeating themselves or asking clarifying questions – rather, the preference is to assume things are understood.
The worst results of poor communication in remote teams are twofold; the impacts on both work output and team strength are both debilitating. A simple misunderstanding can easily snowball especially when issues in communication continue beyond the initial error. From a team perspective, breakdowns in conversation are the road to a teamwide sense of detachment and ultimately curve back to work error.
What are the most important aspects of communication for remote teams to prioritise?
Face-to-face time: body language can be overlooked, but for many conversations, it is a vital component in effective communication. Facial expressions and gestures can completely change how a point is conveyed, and sometimes this is the difference between clarity and misunderstanding. It’s also important for people to see each other – a social aspect of a day in the office which is easily taken for granted. Showing off your pet on camera or sharing a cup of tea together is more socially enjoyable than messages alone.
Small talk: the cup of tea and chat before diving into a video meeting is, I think, as important as the meeting itself. As I mentioned earlier, teams in offices interact all the time, a part of the day which is taken for granted. Removing this aspect can also erase an element of any successful team – comradery. Asking about the family, friends, weekend helps build trust, friendship and relaxedness amongst teams. In turn, holding these values keeps the door open for teams to communicate about issues – it’s easier to deliver bad news to or ask for something of somebody who you are comfortable with.
Clarity: it’s easy for ideas to run away from a wider team vision when working remotely. Clear and to-the-point communication of everything, from the top-level goals to the individual pieces of work, is important to maintaining a tight ship. In the realm of software development (and for other departments, too) the technology available to facilitate this – Jira, Confluence and Trello are some examples – is a fantastic help.
What are your top tips for remote teams to improve their communication?
Set up more than one communication channel. At Godel we encourage teams to use email, Skype, Slack, WhatsApp, Zoom, BlueJeans and many other tools in tandem to communicate. In this, it is important to define what each tool is for. This avoids distraction and can help build up team morale by encouraging non-work-related conversation. We have a lot of teams that have Slack channels dedicated to their pets, hobbies, and in many cases English language, where UK team members share and explain English idioms to help their Godel teammates improve their language skills.
Invite collaboration. Sometimes team members are more comfortable speaking up face-to-face than remotely. In remote collaborative meetings, be confident and clear in speaking when you’d like to, and actively mention your teammates – ask for their points of view to bring them into the conversation.
Prepare for remote meetings in advance. Before complicated remote meetings, ensure well in advance that all participants have all the materials they might need or want. This helps meetings stay on-topic and allows questions to be focused on necessary clarifications.
Ensure technology is up and running. This goes without saying, but remote working does not work without a robust technology setup. Use and share calendars, document how to use each software and always have a back-up option for when one tool doesn’t work.
Don’t just “work” remotely! Remote teams need to feel like teams, and this means some play as well as work. Celebrate successful releases and other achievements together wherever possible; at Godel we love to have remote cake and pizza parties with our clients at any opportunity. Not everything has to be a party, either – why not organise a virtual team coffee catch up on a Monday morning, or a wind-down retrospective on a Friday afternoon?