In 2003 I was serving in the Marine Corps as my team rolled across the line of departure into Iraq. We trained exceptionally hard to minimize communication failures, but we expected them to happen and trained for it. The phrase “communication kills” was often used among us during training to lay emphasis on the importance. If we failed to transmit information in a timely manner people could get hurt or killed. And despite being part of a team behind the front line responsible for keeping communication going between the front and rear, my brush with that phrase reared it’s ugly head a few weeks into our march to Baghdad.

This wasn’t when bullets were flying through the air. This was much simpler. This was a logistics communication failure preventing food and water from reaching our location until well beyond our need–forcing us to become a little creative.

Of all of my moments in the military I often reflect back to the moments where communication broke down. They tend to correlate well to the remote office and the startup lifestyle I live now. As a remote contractor everything revolves around communication. What methods do I use to reach my team? Are the right stakeholders being informed? Where are inefficiencies that make what I do difficult? When do I need to be annoying in order to motivate progress?

Over the years I’ve experienced my share of communication breakdowns that led to angry clients, failed startups, and a mountain of thoughts on how I’d do it if I was 100% in charge. I know how important it is to hit the communication mark and what happens when the team misses it in a remote environment.

Read on to learn about
  • Why transparency, leadership, and even celebrating play a critical role
  • The value of consistency by formalizing communication channels
  • How employees and leaders might suggest ways to improve the current virtual environment

I plan to share more thoughts on remote working so be sure to subscribe to my newsletter if this, startups, or mobile development interests you. Let’s dive in.

Being Present Within a Remote World

An inherent issue with a remote culture is that team members do not get authentic face time with the people they work with until the company begins to invest in bringing people together. This lack of face time makes it much harder to build meaningful relationships filled with true camaraderie–the foundation of loyalty.

Remote employees begin within an isolated circle and effort must be made, by all parties, to pull each other closer. The result from not putting effort into this creates a team that’s further disconnected from the company and vice versa-—making it much easier for either party to part ways or disconnect.

Additionally, this lack of face time puts a lot of pressure on trust. When leaders cannot see the day-to-day behavior of an employee, or the employees cannot see the actions of their leaders, the door is wide open to alienation.

I’ve worked with founders who lacked desire to work with remote contractors but they felt it necessary. This lack of desire created extreme distrust out of the gate. What worked well for the employer didn’t work well with remote employees. They found more value from face-to-face meetings than technology tools like Google Hangouts or Skype, which created unnecessary burden flying people in for meetings. They tended to rely too heavily on those meetings which were not happening that frequently.

I’ve also worked with startups who were 100% invested in the remote way but were not being operated by founders who understood the lifestyle. Companies worry about employees not fitting the remote culture. It works the other way around as well. If contacting founders, and other leaders, is a chore during an interview or trial employment be careful.

Here is how I’d advise one thinking of improving this issue:

  • Daily stand ups are a great way to get the team together, but difficult to scale as the team becomes global. Given the required coordination, gathering everyone is something that should be done sparingly, perhaps once a week (minimally). Stand ups should become focused on a team-by-team basis when the overall size gets large enough.
  • Create a channel in your chat application called #CHICO, where team members check-in / check-out during the week. The check-in consists of 1-3 items they plan to attack that day. The check-out consists of how well the day went. They are freely able to @ team members to alert them that something is blocking them. If further discussion is needed jump on Google Hangout or Skype. Alternatively, check out iDoneThis or WorkingOn.
  • Pair team members up on a weekly basis. This can be a very simple 1:1 Skype or Google Hangout where people get an opportunity to get to know someone else within the company. People are going to get stuck with the same group and this will facilitate outreach. Help spark the conversation by creating a few non-work related talking points.
  • When money is less of an issue get everybody in the same location at least once a year. I’ve seen companies to this 2x. The goal is to pull the team outside of their comfort bubble and used as a team-building opportunity. Half of the time is used for work and half is used to enjoy time together. Think Camp No Counselors. Make sure there are things that a wide range of people would like to do (from extroverts to introverts).
  • If you are operating a hybrid business (remote + on-site), I encourage giving on-site employees a day where they work from home. I’ve seen some dedicate 1 week in the year. It’ll provide perspective that could be valuable to the company at large.
  • Hire (or promote) someone to assist with culture building. While it’s true some of this will be organic, having a dedicated mind thinking about this will help facilitate communication. This person should focus on making sure the team is finding tools that work well, organizing events, interacting and answering any questions or concerns among employees.

At the end of the day employees will feel isolated from the business unless effort is put into bringing them into the fold. Transparency goes a long way to help.

Open The Curtains

Companies who open the door to the virtual office must come to understand the value of transparency. The more that’s hidden the less investment a company will get from a remote employee. Companies must create processes that facilitate opening the company up for the viewing of others and trust that they can handle such data. Aim for Buffer.com-level internal transparency, while understanding that nobody outside of the business needs to know what’s going on.

Help employees answer the questions:

Why are we here? Where is the company vision and purpose? How well is the business aligned today with the current direction? What values guide us?

Where are we going? What are we researching and building?

Who do I work with? Who are my colleagues? Where can I find an org chart that shows who is remote vs. on-site, contact and timezone information, and other relevant information?

How is the business doing? How are revenue streams looking? Where can I read about latest funding rounds?

The founders I’ve worked with who held company information as sacred were difficult to trust. You could tell they were not running a well-oiled operation and it made me and other contractors less invested with where the business was going. People left far too easily since they couldn’t see how their work impacted the business.

Enjoy The Moments

All too often teams do not stop to appreciate what was accomplished; at the company level or the employee level.

Every employee, remote or on-site, needs to feel a sense of worth. However, remote employees don’t have the luxury of hallway high-fives or a team lunch that they may receive praise from. This impacts one at a psychological level and matters more than leaders think. Think about it. If you’re never praised or rewarded for the effort it’ll be impossible to feel that you’re impacting the business or that your effort is valued. That makes it much easier to walk away from the position. Who cares about my work?

Find ways to celebrate victories of the business and those deserving team members. Here are a few ideas:

  • Highlight wins (small and large) during team meetings; call people out
  • Use a point system in Slack that let’s people share praise by @x++ or by throwing microbonuses via Bonusly
  • Encourage that those at the top of the org chart provide individualized praise
  • If your product receives physical recognition, like an Award, send a replica to every employee
  • For team members who value monetary rewards create a cash or option bonus

Celebrating or sharing praise is something I rarely see founders build into a remote environment. It’s not the easiest to cultivate, but has a serious opportunity to motivate folks to care more about the company, founders, and their team. Team members are paying attention when their leadership is or is not valuing the effort they put forward.

Standardize Communication Channels

Communication happens all over the place with a remote team. For mismanaged teams this can become a massive headache.

The one place communication should be discouraged is e-mail. While some members need to use e-mail to communicate with external vendors, it has no place for 99% of the team. The information transmitted between team members have enormous value to the entire team. Companies feel that impact the most when a critical team member leaves and nobody has record of how they do anything. The newcomer shoved in the position is left with a mess of a situation to untangle.

Discussing code-related bugs should happen on a ticket inside of a source control product like JIRA or Github.

Virtual meetings should have someone dedicated to recording notes for everyone to review (including those who couldn’t make the meeting).

Design should stay within a prototyping tool like InVision, Sketch, Photoshop — with those files available via Dropbox or OneDrive.

Road-mapping should happen in a project management tool like Asana, Basecamp, or JIRA.

Casual discussion should stay within a communication platform like Slack or Fleep.

I’ve worked with founders who made it very difficult to standardize things like this. If you’re a founder don’t push back on the thought of bringing structure into the fold otherwise everyone is going to suffer on the communication end. Things will become so disorganized that you’ll waste effort on needless catch up. Keeping content organized will benefit the entire team long after it’s written. If there is no structure you can bet team members will follow suit, do whatever they please, and focus on the wrong communication channels that create headaches later (email, text message, phone conversations).

I’ve worked with founders who only used text messages. Let me tell you… actually, I’m not–that was a nightmare.

It Starts At The Top

Have you noticed a theme yet? I put a lot of pressure on the leadership team in this article. Great communication is guided from the top and carried from there. What leaders care or don’t care about trickles down to every member around them. The identity of a business is largely formed around the identity of the founding team. This is exactly why we create a set of values which guide how we operate. Leadership cannot expect every employee to buy into the mission like they do, thus structure is required (how flat organizations ever gained traction is beyond me).

A great remote working environment starts with leaders who have experience with the remote lifestyle. If the current team does not have direct experience they should be curious enough to learn in order to emphasize and adjust strategy. These people will set the example and push where necessary in order to keep things on track.

Leaders who fails to communicate regularly will make it tough on the team to do so effectively, which is a big problem when remote employees don’t have a large net of people to speak to. The behavior of employees directly reflect the leadership team around them, which will help or hurt the entire team. We can’t expect an individual to carry the load by themselves. I’ve tried multiple times and it never works.

Finally, the leadership team must be willing to accept when someone does not work within the expected communication framework. Move on. An employee could be in the top 1% in skill set, but lack the mindset that works well within a virtual office. This should strike the same vein hire slow, fire fast. If you hire someone and they are difficult to reach then you should immediately feel that it’s not the right fit. I’ve seen founders “suck it up” and deal with remote employees who pulled their chain; I’m moving… I’ve got code coming… I’ve hit a snag and can’t push the code to Github… I’ve… You should never be chasing employees or buying into excuses as to why they didn’t deliver what they said they would–move on! Period. I understand having heart and empathy, but good remote employees understand the value of being on time, delivering results, and showing you very real reasons why they couldn’t do what they said they would–that’s why we’re still remote!

Strive for Strong Communication

We’re nothing without effective communication. Startups die, ideas fade, relationships sour, and progress comes to a halt without it. Thankfully nobody will die, but companies who do fail to build a remote team almost always reflect back on things that could have been solved with better communication.

Remote working takes serious effort on all sides, which is why we need to hire people suitable for the job. Remote workers need experience juggling various communication streams. Leaders need to understand the lifestyle. Minimize and standardize the process to reduce this burden to maximize the value the remote worker can emit.

Distance is not the problem. A lack of communication is.

If you got any value from this post I need your help. Here’s a handy pre-populated Tweet to help you share it via Twitter. Share it with colleagues or even your community on Reddit.