Sue Weekes asks how managers can improve communication in teams where members work remotely

It is sometimes said that distance, like absence, makes the heart grow fonder. According to research from the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM), it can also make remote management easier. Its report, Going Remote: Building better dispersed teams, found that team members working across greater distances are more likely to appreciate the benefits of working in remote teams while those geographically closer are more likely to highlight the potential problems it can bring. “Overall, where remote working seems to work best is where it’s never been any different and where the geographical distance makes meetings an impossibility,” says ILM head of research Kate Cooper, who believes this is largely because people have to work harder at making it work: “Not just the technology but the etiquette, protocol and trust-building that binds them together.”

Successful remote management does require time, effort and patience and the research found that one of the biggest challenges for managers and team members is ensuring consistency of practice and communication (88%). As well as the survey, the findings are based on more than 40 in-depth interviews with those working in dispersed teams. The same number (88%) also cited the potential for misunderstanding instructions and directions as a major challenge.

Firm but flexible management?

Ensuring consistency of practice and communication though can be inherently tricky. If managers are too rigid and set in their ways, they risk micro-managing their teams which can be as damaging. “Insisting things are done in a standardised way can imply a lack of trust,” says Cooper.

Once solution is to create a framework and structure across the dispersed team which allows for practical, cultural, lingual and mindset differences and at the heart of this is a clear communication strategy. Chris Smith, managing director of Bath Consultancy Group, a division of performance improvement organisation GP Strategies, points out that this shouldn’t just focus on communication with the manager but between the team and their stakeholders, inside and outside the business. “Holding people to account for the way they have connected and achieved outcomes and/or addressed issues between themselves rather than going via the manager or copying them in for them to intervene,” he says. “Just as much as in the office, managers need to let people address things for themselves and hold people accountable for this rather than always smoothing or connecting.”

Keep the communication coming

Smith adds that a communication strategy is not just for formal meetings and managers need to facilitate “a continual flow” of communication: “A leadership or project team is a team not just when together but for all the time they are jointly committed to achieving something,” he says. Moreover, the team members need a say in how the team and manager will communicate. “Managers impose their own assumptions and arrange things that suit them without giving the team a role in deciding on communication protocols,” he continues. “This is not necessarily about a democratic choice; it is about a consensus around meeting different needs in the team, having given people a chance to air their perspective and needs.”

Clearly, technology has a huge part to play in effective communication and, as a starting point, managers should agree what communication channels should be used for what and why. “Agree formats and standards and clarify deadlines and response times,” says Jonathan Lord, lecturer in human resource management and employment law at Salford Business School, who advises looking at a mix of technologies so different kinds of communication are possible across the team. “Establish systems so that all team members are able to chat both formally and informally. Use software such as the well-known conference call packages but also chat room facilities and project management software. Set up collaboration tools and systems, ensuring all team members are able to operate them. Use screen sharing tools so that specific points can be demonstrated when highlighting certain pieces of work and use document sharing software so that work can updated or documented in real time.”

It is important to set ground rules for using particular channels and avoid over- or misuse of them by yourself or the team. The ILM research found that more than four-fifths (83 per cent) of respondents cited email overload as a challenge to remote working and one interviewee found unnecessary emails to be a major time-stealer, taking up 40 minutes at the start of every day.

Technology is vital to great team comms

It sounds obvious to say that managers must actively ensure the technology works but if team members are excluded because of technology failure, practical issues can turn into a personal grievance. Jean Vanhoegaerden, a member of the faculty of Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, who works with clients on cross-cultural teams, has seen the frustration felt when internet protocols in certain countries impede communication. He adds though that the biggest failure by managers is not communicating with people at the same frequency. “It’s easier for managers to communicate with people who are literally sitting close to them and naturally communicate with them more, or if they’re in the time zone, or if they meet from time to time,” he says. “So a big challenge for managers is to spread the communication equally between different geographies.”

Managers who are new to remote management should request training both in digital media and management practices. Communicating effectively with dispersed teams is a skill that can be honed. Managers also need to make an assessment of their own communication strengths and weaknesses. “Consider how you best get your message across,” says Cooper. “Do you write great emails or give better presentations? Share how you prefer to communicate when you introduce yourself to team members.”

Tips for ensuring consistency in communication and practice

  • Put in place a communication strategy to encourage team members to be accountable for their actions
  • Involve team members in designing the communication strategy; find out what works for them
  • Use a mix of communication tools but avoid misuse and overuse of them. Set ground rules for usage.
  • Assess what communication style and medium works best for you remotely
  • Review your communication processes and channels and ask the team what works well for them and what doesn’t