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Remote Team Management: How to Combat Communication Challenges

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By Preethi Jathanna

Senior Writer for HR and Remote Work

Remote team management: How to combat communication challenges

Remote work is the new normal and is here to stay. This is probably the most heard adage ever since the governments have mandated lockdown all across the globe. And so far, with no soul-crushing commutes, better work-life balance, and more accountability, remote work has been working in our favors. But can we all agree to the fact that it is not all rainbows and unicorns? Communication challenges within remote team management are one of those issues that can disrupt the distributed set-up and its functions.

 

This read illustrates the communication challenges and their potential solutions to run a remote team smoothly and navigate the projects through success. Before we get onto the challenges, let us first understand why is communication so important in remote teams. 

 

1. Why is Communication Important in Remote Teams?

From a performance management standpoint, authentic communication between managers and their employees is imperative to enhance productivity, boost morale, and improve employee engagement. When members are not working in co-located spaces, communication is the only means to stay connected and keep the work culture alive. Besides, a manager would not know what the employees are up to there is no clear communication. At the same time, employees will suffer from a lack of clarity about their goals and targets if not conveyed with transparency. Communication, therefore, is the critical key to keep the team connected and make remote work seamless.

However, as we already know, remote communication is not always easy. One might face these potential communication challenges within remote team management:

2. Communication Challenges: Remote Team Management

2.1. Misjudged Availability

Misjudged-Availability

What is the challenge?

When you are working from home, one dons multiple hats at the same time. For one, you are an employee, and for two, you are a parent or a spouse trying to balance your family time and work time. So maybe when you think your teammate is available to brainstorm on a project’s task or to collaborate, it cannot be the case.

It can be the other way round too, maybe you are stuck with a household chore when your manager or teammate wants to discuss a particular project with you. These misjudged availabilities create confusion and can restrict your work’s progress.

The concern is, how to get this right?

How to tackle the challenge?

To avoid ambiguity and chaos, the first thing team members can do is set their availability hours straight. Once your team members know your availability, they would only schedule a call around those hours given they have a bandwidth too. In short, everyone has to clarify their availability well in advance, so meeting hours can be juggled around and adjusted accordingly.

Another way to combat this is by updating your status on your collaborative tools. Nowadays, collaborative tools like Fleep provide you with a feature to update your presence on your profile. When one knows you aren’t present to take a call, they won't waste time dialling up. Moreover, certain tools also update your ‘last seen’ which makes it easy for others to judge your availability.

2.2. Timezone Meetings

What is the challenge?

Now that remote work has given the liberty to employers to hire across borders, it brings its own set of remote work challenges. Even though it's great to foster a diverse work culture, build hybrid teams, and onboard the best talent from across the globe, it’s extremely difficult to manage meetings adjusting to every time zone. These decentralized organizational structures can create major communication gaps if not catered to.

Talking from personal experience, half of my team was dispersed across borders. We didn’t know how to get everyone on call at the same time. Different time zones created silos in communication and we saw delays in deadlines, and ultimately a fall in team productivity. However, with time, we were able to fight this as well.

What did we do to combat this?

How to tackle the challenge?

The first thing you can do to get your team on the same page is to set some guidelines. Of course, I do not mean that you should infringe on the benefits of work flexibility. However, some discipline has to be harnessed to achieve productivity and long-term targets. Thus, even when your employees are in different time zones, you will know what their standard working hours are and you will meet that middle ground where you can collaborate without any hurdles.

The second thing I did was set working hours in a way where we had enough overlapping periods to avoid collaboration delays and always feel like a team. This took some time, but we came around and it worked wonders for us.

2.3. Technical Glitches

Technical-Glitches

What is the challenge?

Nothing is more frustrating than abrupt internet outages, especially during ongoing meetings. The problem can be a bad internet connection, lack of reliability of video conferencing tools or even issues of power outages. (this mostly happens in developing countries).

These technical glitches cause annoyance and disturbances that are uncalled for. An employee can miss out on critical pieces of information or his/her productivity goes down due to a poor network.

The solution is simple,

How to tackle the challenge?

One simple solution is to make a wise decision with the bandwidth and network you select for your wi-fi connection. Of course, it does not mean that it completely eliminates the chances of network disruptions; but it definitely minimizes them. Second is to keep a back-up ready. If your connection goes out, you can have a mobile hot-spot or a network plan that allows tethering. This will save you from missing out on essential details and keep the communication seamless.

In addition, before you decide on a collaborating software or video conferencing software, you should take a free trial to see if it has some bugs that can cause technical hiccups and slow down the collaboration. It will keep you from selecting the wrong tool for the team and smoothen the collaboration or communication.

2.4. Communication Redundancy

What is the challenge?

How often does it happen that our words are misinterpreted by our colleagues due to lack of communication, cultural barriers or technological hurdles? I think most of us have faced it after we started working remotely. Learning English and mastering the language can play a pivotal role in corporate communication. In-person communication changes the way our message is conveyed. It has more clarity and we are present to explain our side of the story in case of any misunderstanding.

However, the same is not the case when you are working remotely. What you say asynchronously can be misunderstood synchronously leading to an endless loop of Chinese whispers. This can create communication gaps and sometimes even lead to team conflicts. It is, therefore, imperative to create communication redundancy to bridge the communication gap and avoid discrepancies.

How to tackle the challenge?

First things first, make a habit of documenting agendas before you begin a meeting. When you know the purpose and the important details, you automatically eliminate the chances of miscommunication. Besides, it also ensures none of the critical points is missed or overlooked.

Next best thing to do is use multiple channels of communication when you're communicating asynchronously. For instance, there is an important piece of information that needs your colleague’s attention. So instead of just dropping in a message, you can also call him/her according to their availability to convey the message with utmost clarity. After all, seamless and uninterrupted communication is the bread and butter for remote working employees.

2.5. Employee Monitoring and Surveillance

Employee-Monitoring-and-Surveillance

What is the challenge?

Teleworking gives accountability and responsibility to every employee. When you are not being supervised by your manager at all times like in co-located offices, it definitely holds you accountable for your project tasks. However, this process can lead to lowered productivity and missed deadlines if regular check-ins with managers are missing.

Moreover, if you do not have a designated tool to track an employee’s attendance and logged hours, performance management can suffer and compromise work accountability. Not just that, if managers cannot monitor their employees, they will not know their strengths and weaknesses, which will not give you a chance to conduct the right training sessions for the right employee. However, this can be a slippery slope and needs to be tread carefully based on your company culture. Excessive surveillance can often demotivate your staff and create feelings of contempt from your team.

So, how do we ensure regular employee monitoring and surveillance?

How to tackle the challenge?

With an abundance of advanced tools at our disposal, managers should equip the right resource management tool to monitor their employees’ performance and progress. A right tool will help you schedule the right resources to the right job and will also let you track the time spent on each task. Examples of such tools are Saviom, Mindful, and Weekdone, where Saviom has an easy drag and drop features for effortless scheduling, and, Mindful and Weekdone are performance tracking apps that help the managers track the remote team’s progress and goal completion keeping everyone on the same page.

Regular or weekly check-ins are a must when managers need to keep a tab on employees’ performance, address their concerns, and keep a track of the project's progress. Thus, managers should conduct one on ones with their employees to keep and address their concerns. More importantly, they should convey their expectations with clarity to ensure employees’ goals align with the firm’s vision and motive. These practices will tackle the challenge of a lack of surveillance and monitoring.

2.6. Feelings of Alienation

What is the challenge?

Employee engagement and team-building are an integral part of work culture. It’s easy to maintain your workplace culture in co-located offices. However, the real communication challenge is to sustain this culture in a virtual office set-up. If there are silos in communication, employees often feel disengaged and alienated from the team. These feelings of alienation are a major setback for the team and can be a major cause of declined performance and productivity.

Furthermore, when communication is compromised, remote workers miss out on important details as they are not kept in the loop. It can also lead to trust issues amongst team members and the overall project’s success suffers. It happened with our team when we had just begun working remotely. Often, during one on ones, employees complained of feeling disconnected from the team. It became a serious concern when I see the work rate getting hampered.

Here are some tips to foster team engagement,

How to tackle the communication challenge?

The most important thing to keep the team connected and keep the work culture alive is to imitate your office perks virtually. For instance, we organized a team lunch every month to a place of our choice. To imitate this, we started organizing a virtual team lunch. This gave us a breather from the never-ending deadlines and also gave us a chance to know each other better.

Similarly, you can have virtual team games from time to time, weekly huddles to add some fun to the mundane routines, and conduct similar water cooler meetings to keep the engagement alive. Tools like Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, and so on can help you stay connected. In addition to these, you can also share a joke at the end of the day on your collaboration platform to end the day on a happy note. All these practices help a great deal to keep the team together in a distributed set-up.

These remote work communication challenges can put your teamwork in jeopardy if not taken care of. Managers, however, suffer the most as they are the sole point of contact during tough times. Employees look upon their managers to complete the work and keep the team intact. One hitch and the employees easily lose trust in their leaders.

Here is an excerpt on how leadership suffers in a virtual team,

3. Challenges to Leadership in Remote Teams

Managing virtual teams puts leaders in the testing zone and all their management skills are under scrutiny. Yes, remote work offers a myriad of benefits to employers and employees both. But it’s not so rosy to implement.

Challenges-to-Leadership-in-Remote-Teams

To quote Julie Wilson, the founder of the Institute for Future Learning and instructor at Harvard University, "Managing a virtual team requires managers to double down on the fundamentals of good management, including establishing clear goals, running great meetings, communicating clearly, and leveraging team members' individual and collective strengths.”

During this curse of establishing an effective remote team, these are the challenges to leadership in virtual teams:

3.1. Poor Communication

We have already discussed the remote work communication challenges in great detail here. The onus lies on the leaders to establish seamless communication across the teams irrespective of the constraints that come around.

3.2. Access to Expertise

Employees often need expert advice on highly-specialized projects. It’s a leader's job to ensure employees have access to the subject matter experts to complete the job at hand with utmost precision and on time.

3.3. Technical Management

Technology is the oxygen of a remote team. To ensure there are no disruptions while conducting meetings, employers need to equip the right tool and also provide an uninterrupted high-quality data connection to their workforce.

3.4 Planning overhead

Virtual team set-up brings about multiple changes including costs to the company. It’s an employers job to plan the overhead accordingly and develop a fair system. If a company had commute allowances, they might have to change it for data pack allowances and so on.

3.5. Lack of Training

Training plays a vital role in re-skilling and upskilling the workforce to perform highly specialized tasks and grow professionally. While it's easy to conduct training sessions in traditional office spaces, employers are responsible to organize effective training programs online based on their employees’ competencies.

3.6. Cultural Differences

Promoting inclusivity and respecting cultural differences is critical for employers. After all, a diverse and inclusive work culture sets standards for business. However, only when a manager knows to respect the difference even when working remotely makes a huge difference.

3.7. Team Morale

As already spoken about feeling alienated, employers have to up their game and ensure that all of their team members feel motivated to contribute their bit to the firm and keep the work going. Obviously, it’s easier said than done.

3.8. Fostering Mutual Trust

Building trust is the most important ingredient of a successful remote team. Employers need to acknowledge the thin line between management and micromanagement. Only when they trust their employees to do their jobs, can the employees return the favor and take responsibility for their tasks. Fostering this culture of trust is critical and challenging at the same time.

One can only tackle these challenges with a structured process, set guidelines, and balancing discipline and flexibility. Leaders can emerge as an example for their employees or lose their trust completely while managing virtual teams. That’s why we say, the onus is on leaders.

4. Best Practices for Managing Remote Teams

4.1. Review and Finalize the Scope

Going over the project scope should be a group exercise. Always involve your team so that they know what is expected of them and everyone they’ll be working with. The scope should list out the resources, budget, equipment, manpower, risks, issues, timelines and dependencies. This helps the team provide feedback and perspectives which can define the scope better and limit it to what can be achieved within the deadlines specified.

4.2. Communicate Expectations to Teams

Convey project expectations to teams before the project kicks off. Consult and encourage them to clarify any uncertainties in work-related meetings. This is a time saver because everyone starts with a clear picture of what needs doing and the sequence of activities and interdependencies.

4.3. Plan Out Releases

Managing remote engineering teams comes down to your ability to plan and phase out releases. If you follow an agile method, such as Scrum or Lean development, you can create time-boxed sprints to contain the project. Create a priority log for each sprint and revisit it before moving on to the next iteration. This helps you correct issues or make requested alterations where required. Planned releases help remote engineers stay on track without having to repeatedly go back and forth on issues.

4.4. Leave Margins for Issue Escalation and Resolution

As a remote manager, you’ll always get requests for approvals, or a consult for decisions. In addition to this, leave a time margin for resolving issues. Your team will want to inform you of issues as well as what they plan to do about it. Communication goes both ways, and it’s on the remote team manager to be as responsive as they expect their team to be.

4.5. Categorize Meetings by Time and Relevance

Every meeting you schedule should have an agenda that you share with teams beforehand. The agenda lets you get straight to the point. Meetings should take into consideration the member’s timezone so that you are not scheduling calls beyond their work-hours.

5. Tips To Nurture the Remote Work Culture

A strong remote work culture keeps remote engineers connected and engaged. It supports, trusts and appreciates workers and enables them to do what they love, and love what they’re doing. Five actionable tips that you can try out are

5.1. Keep Team Routines Alive

You can recreate office routines with a modern twist. For example, in a daily stand up that would last for 15 minutes, take a minute to announce accomplishments. Verbally praise the performers behind it, and conclude the call on a high note.

5.2. Create Non-work Channels

Schedule coworker coffee runs and virtual hangouts. You can encourage employees to form groups based on personal interests and broadcast it to the channel so that members can request to join in on such channels. This is the space workers can visit for breaks, or to talk about something non-work related which will help them recharge.

5.3. Participate in Team-building Activities

Team-building activities help remote engineering teams bond. It helps people know who their coworkers are outside of work. Such activities can even settle conflicts by supporting workers to collaborate rather than compete against each other. It focuses on involvement and lets workers enjoy building relationships at work

5.4. Leverage Time Management Techniques

Anyone managing remote engineering teams would benefit from mastering time management. Time management techniques free you up to focus on what really matters. It helps you start and end work on time, while making the most of the work hours.

You can use the Pomodoro technique to fit work during your window of productivity, and take timed breaks so that you don’t lose steam while working. You can also make use of Kanban boards to track work done, in-progress or yet to be taken up. Such methods help you avoid having to work overtime on a regular basis.

5.5. Optimize Work Schedules

Optimize the work schedule such that work assignments are doable with the resources provided, and within the time frame specified. Take into account the project hours and effort hours available. The schedule should factor in priorities that utilize key skills, and leave out busywork and shallow work that cause people to work on it distractedly.

6. The Round Up

Gartner’s survey reveals that 82% of Company Leaders Plan to Allow Employees to Work Remotely Some of the Time. As rewarding as this sounds, the challenges to establishing an effective virtual team and seamless communication will persist. Leaders must stay aware of the communication challenges of remote team management and follow the best practices of virtual communication to tackle them.

This detailed post entails the potential communication challenges remote team management a leader might face and their solutions to combat them. It will help you stay future-ready to deal with the distributed team or remote workforce. What has been your experience so far with remote team management?

7. FAQs

7.1. Why is remote team management important?

Remote team management is important in workplace as it helps improve work productivity and ensures a streamlined workflow. Employees can work during their most productive times, eventually leading to better output.

7.2. What is the advantage of remote team?

There are several advantages of remote teams such as - improved flexibility, better work-life balance, increased productivity, and reduced overhead cost for the company. 

 
 

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