Working with remote teams: My Tips

Feb. 4, 2020

I’ve been working with remote teams for years. It didn’t always work well; sometimes the reason was the content I sent, but most of the time it was the content I did not send, the missed opportunities. The tool never mattered.

Now I want to share what I’ve learned from my past mistakes. Whether you work from home, or work from an office and have colleagues working in other time zones, I hope you’ll find these tips helpful — they’ve been for me.

Overcommunicate!

Let your team know what you’re doing. Share findings, feelings, and ideas. When in doubt, post your thoughts. This will help your teammates know what you’re up to at any time, and help them form a mental image of yourself, which is essential for building productive relationships at work.

Don’t be shy, nor too silent: when you are silent, it’s as if you didn’t exist (or at least that’s my feeling). Don’t mistake silence for politeness — not when you are working with teammates several thousand miles away. I believe that there’s no such thing as too much communication — there’s only bad filters.

Embrace emojis (and a bit of GIFs) 🤗

Emotions are a big part of communication at work. Leave them out and you may come across as an overly dry colleague. Professional? Yes. Engaged? Possibly. Someone you care about and that you’d fight back-to-back with against zombies? Hmm. Then again, that’s my impression.

Use emojis, but don’t abuse them; mirror what would happen in a physical environment — be yourself, digitally. The same applies to animated GIFs — provided that the people in the rooms get the reference. Be especially mindful of cultural differences, and, above all, be respectful.

Roger that, a lot

If a remote coworker shares an update, asks for your feedback, or simply shares an idea, let them know that you know. Acknowledging by 👍, +1, or “Roger that” costs nothing and helps remote teammates know that you are aware and may eventually do something about it.

The risk of not giving receipts is raising ambiguity and anxiety — much like it happens with the dreaded WhatsApp double-check: has Joseph read my message? Can I move forward with the code review? May I hit the Publish button? Nobody will know without a ROGER.

Be responsive (in the same time zone)

In a distributed workplace, few things can be more frustrating than not getting a timely answer from a teammate. You are working together every day on projects, tasks, and problems of all kind: why wouldn’t you get back as quickly as possible? If you were in the same office, they’d go to your desk!

If a teammate sends you a request, acknowledge or answer as soon as you can pause your current task without breaking the flow. You don’t have to reply at light speed to everybody: be responsive — not explosive. Responsiveness signals that you are dependable.

Use chat statuses, and use them properly

The second most frustrating thing of communications at work is people not reacting while their status is green or “Available”. Messaging apps address that by going “Away” after some time, but that doesn’t solve the underlying issue: some people even reply while being “Away”.

Use the statuses in your application — either default or custom — to signal whether you are available or not. Almost every app has a “Do not disturb” setting you can turn on to let teammates know that you can’t reply. (Remember to tell them before you flee to the focus bunker.)

Avoid risky assumptions

This is critical. We are very good at imagining things and estimating outcomes using very little data. We also happen to suck at that when the subject is people’s emotions and reactions. Inferring that someone is pissed at us because they doesn’t reply to our messages is a fine example.

Resist the urge of coming up with conclusions when you lack data. As a rule of thumb, you should never be impulsive when communicating with remote coworkers. If something doesn’t seem right, switch to a different communication channel, or wait.

📱Call when there’s ambiguity

Despite how comfortable Slack or emails may be to you, sometimes voice or video calls can be the best channel for solving communication issues. That is especially true when working with teammates who are not accustomed to the joys of real-time, online communication.

Fire up a video or audio call when you reach a communication dead end. Better yet, schedule regular face-to-face catch-ups: they’ll help your brain sync what your colleagues write with the words they say. The same holds true for emojis and facial expressions.

Be a nice (remote) fellow

It’s easy to shoot ballistic missiles when you’re continents away. Don’t. Be as polite as you’d be in a physical working environment: say “Hello”, “Goodbye”, and “Have a great day”. If it’s Monday, ask how was the weekend. Wish people luck. Joke if you feel like it.

Show that you care, and show your authentic self — again, people won’t be able to see it otherwise.

⚠️ Cautionary note: this may still not work

Actual pats on shoulders are still important. Also, hanging at the water cooler. It’s hard to replicate all those interactions that enrich office life. Ultimately, the way you interact with remote colleagues also depends on the company culture, and on the local culture. What I’ve written here are tips that suit my personality and location, but your mileage may vary quite a bit.

As usual, take this post as any piece of advice given on the Internet: with a healthy pinch of salt.