In the fifth post of the series “Be an effective leader in a remote team” everything evolves around more communication.
For new readers: To get started in this series - go to the first post.
Once in a while you find an article about leadership and it warns you about the “risk in over-communicating”. While that might have been true in the past, in today’s world communication is the most important tool we have - especially in remote teams! If we wouldn’t communicate with each other, we would just be a bunch of freelancers spread across the world.
No matter the situation: whether we are at work talking to our team, or the whole company, it is always more communication that helps us solve the problem.
What is the secret behind great communication then, and how can you do this in your day to day work?
Communication is hard
We know that communication is important, that is shown also in the State Of Remote Work 2019 we did at Buffer. Communication is in the Top 3 of things we remote workers struggle with. Why is it that we do struggle with it so much?
A lot of people (myself included) often believe that we are communicating well, and that we are delivering our message in the best way possible. We do think that we are clear and direct. And that everyone will know exactly what we are talking about. They will know what actions to take and what will follow. I mean I know what I want to communicate, I know it inside and out - why shouldn’t it work? Unfortunately I have to disappoint you. Just because we know it, that doesn’t mean everyone else will hear it or understand what we mean.
One case of not working could just be that the listener may have misheard the message. Especially in today’s notification culture it becomes increasingly common that people are just “quasi-listening”: surfing on another web site, tinkering with their smart phones when they should have a laser-like focus on the person sending the message.
On top of that communication really isn’t easy. It sounds easy in theory, it is something we do day in day out. But in practice it looks slightly different. Just dissecting what is involved in just sending a normal message (written or spoken).
The most simplest form of a successful communication could be split up into four parts:
- I have to send the message clearly and with enough details.
- The person receiving my message must be actively listening, and if needed ask me any questions in case something wasn’t clearly described
- The circumstances of everyone involved have to suit the message - if either side isn’t actively in the conversation something will be lost
- The content of my message has to also resonate with the receiver, and must contain all the information they are looking for.
Phew! That is quite a lot to take in. And in our fast-paced teams, we are bound to forget something or communicate poorly. That’s where over-communication comes in. I wouldn’t call it over-communication, but you get what I mean. Communicate well, Communicate often!
Mark Horstman of manager-tools.com is sharing one of his laws for Organizational Communication - and I resonate quite a lot with it: “Say something seven times and half your folks will have heard it once.” And I think he is talking about co-located offices. I would go so far and say that in remote teams this could easily be 10-12 times of repetition.
A simple example: I was planning the Hackweek for our Engineering Team. All our engineers will spend 3 days (Mon - Wed) working on some of their own cool ideas. What that means for the rest of the company - all engineers will likely not be available for a lot of other work in those days. As I was the one organising everything - I was also the one communicating everything to the engineers and the rest of the company. Here is my plan in how I communicated:
Engineers and Engineering Managers:
- detailed information on what is happening, time, day, structure, theme and topics of the Hackweek
- regularly updating everyone weeks before that week to create excitement but to also inform everyone about the resources and documents
- trimmed the information down to only the necessary, the PM’s need to know what’s happening as their teams are working on their own for 3 days
- communicated with them after every bigger decision: When, What, How - repeated this until the Hackweek started
Rest of the Company:
- only the most basic information of What and When, it is important to keep everyone in the loop - Customer Support, Marketing and other teams
- I started to inform them early around the same time I informed the PM’s to build awareness - repeated this until the Hackweek started
As you can see, if you are an Engineers you could not have missed it, as you at least heard decisions and related communication 3 times. But it is also important to start early and inform people early enough so they can plan around it. In addition to that we also have timezones to work around. Sending your communication at different times a day can be a good practice to not exclude specific timezones and make it visible for everyone. Communicate consistently, frequently, and through multiple channels, include if possible a recorded video, writing, and more about what is about to happen.
Communication Preparation Plan
To help me in those kind of situations, I wrote down this plan in how to communicate. It is an example and can be adjusted to your needs, but it helps me in seeing what all goes into successfull communication as a leader.
The following steps should be used in all bigger communications, but of course you won’t have the time to prepare for every single one. Use this if you are about to communicate a big change or and important topic to a direct report/your team/company. Start easy and adapt as needed.
Prepare for your communication
- be clear with yourself in what you want to deliver
- have the goal in clear words in front of you
- be aware of the situation and circumstances the person, who will receive your message, is in
- know where you are going to put your message - is it just one spot or multiple?
Deliver your message
- express yourself and a clear and concise way
- be direct and repeat the necessary information (highlight them if written)
- give enough, but not too much background information
- summarise and identify all the actions that need to be taken
Listen for feedback
- give the people who receive your message time to read/hear it and space to follow up with you
- value the feedback and questions you get
- practice active listening
Evaluate and Correct
- evaluate if everyone who needed to receive the message did receive it, if you are unsure - repeat at a later time
- if you got feedback work it in and make corrections accordingly
I hope that this will be helpful and highlight that communication is the tool we have in our distributed work world. Lean into it, and don’t be anxious whether you’ve said something enough times or not. There is never an “enough” moment in remote work communication.
Are you interested in becoming a manager or leader of a distributed team, or in general about leadership in distributed companies? Please let me know what questions you have and what you find challenging. Feel free to check out this little survey I set up. I appreciate anything you can share with me 🙌