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5 Steps Distributed Teams Should Take to Improve Internal Communications

by: John Coburn
5 Steps Distributed Teams Should Take to Improve Internal Communications

Thanks to the internet and advanced technology, your company’s hiring pool is no longer limited to your city or state — it’s global. More and more companies are taking advantage of hiring talent distributed across the world, and with it, employees are reaping the benefits of a flexible schedule, better work-life balance, and much shorter commutes. 

On the surface, having a distributed team might sound perfect, but it’s not without challenges. Building a culture of accountability with a globally distributed team can be difficult, and a lack of accountability from individual employees can have a negative domino effect that adversely impacts your entire company. 

The foundation of a successful and accountable distributed team stems from proper internal communication. Naturally, that communication begins with leadership holding themselves accountable and trickling that down to employees on how to do the same. 

Here are five steps you can take to improve the internal communication of your distributed team:

1. Hire Slow and Smart

The best way to increase accountability is by having it interwoven with culture from the start. Hiring the right people from the beginning makes instilling accountability that much easier. 

As you grow, think about whether the person you’re interviewing will not only do the job, but also whether or not they’ll fit in with your company’s culture. Ask them questions about working remote and communicating effectively such as:

  • Do you thrive working in teams or alone?
  • How do you prioritize tasks?
  • How do you use different communication tools in different situations? For example, when do you use email vs instant messaging? Phone calls vs video conference calls?
  • Do you consider yourself a self-starter?
  • Are you at all worried about working remotely?

To take the vetting process up a level, try doing cross-interviews with other leaders or even other members of your team. Let them ask questions and get a feel for the candidate’s personality, work preferences, and communication skills. Consider having the prospect shadow someone for an hour or even pay them to work on a small project for a weekend to see how they do. Focus less on their initial output and more on whether they’re asking the right questions and how well they’re communicating with your team.

Look for signs of admitting mistakes and shortcomings, while also proactively working to overcome said obstacles. No employee will have a perfect track record. What matters more is that they take ownership and proactively look for solutions to problems they encounter or create. 

Keep in mind, people will naturally change from their interview to how they work day-to-day. But taking a little more time to examine each candidate properly can set the tone for a more productive and communicative distributed team.

2. Set Clear Expectations from the Start

set-expectation-for-your-remote-team

Accountability is essential to the success of a company — on the micro and macro level. It’s vital you share the company’s grand vision with each and every remote employee, so they know what the company’s working toward. It’s equally important that you set clear expectations for the day-to-day tasks and jobs they’ll be doing.

Author of the book, Leadership is an Art, Max Depree wrote that, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” In other words, accountability is not about you; it’s about the results. It’s about your commitment to achieving said results, since others are counting on you.

Don’t wait until a mistake happens and waste energy finding who’s to blame. Instead, set out to create clearer expectations and standards from the start. Only through clarity will your employees find the pathway to consistent results. 

Clarity as an attribute isn’t always in abundant supply in distributed teams, which is why leaders should ensure each employee has a direct “line of sight” to the greater goals of the organization and their day-to-day responsibilities. It’s worth noting that not all employees will freely speak up (especially in meetings) when you ask if there are any questions or if something is making sense. 

3. Carve Out Time for One-On-Ones

Company and team meetings definitely have an important place in the company’s operation, but making time to assess the needs of individuals is just as necessary. One-on-one time with your employees or leaders is imperative to keeping everyone on the same page and improving internal communication.

Think of these meetings as your opportunity to ask questions and offer direct coaching or mentoring. It’s also their time to ask questions, clarify project details, get feedback, and vent about frustrating aspects of the job. Ideally, you’d make time for some individual “face time” via video conference weekly. Monthly and quarterly work as well for more veteran employees or more independent organizations, but building rapport and coaching comes more easily when you sync up on a regular basis. 

Make it a point to take notes during or after each one-on-one so you can follow up in your next meeting about pertinent details. When former president Bill Clinton was running for office in his early twenties, he would keep a notecard on every person he met to record vital stats and interesting topics of discussion. He was motivated to make a genuine connection with as many people as he could and used the notecards often when following up to build an even closer connection. You can easily do the same on a smaller scale with your distributed team.  

4. Instill a Sense of Responsibility and Ownership

personal-responsibility-is-key

Accountability is often done to you, whereas responsibility is done by you. Responsibility is a voluntary action, and you can take as much of it as you desire. Creating a culture of accountability is an excellent goal for any organization and especially for distributed teams. As your company grows and evolves, it’s also worth pursuing a culture of responsibility; one where people take ownership over their corner of the world.

Ownership and personal responsibility in the workplace are critical because — when wielded appropriately — they’ll bring your team to treat the business, the project, and the money invested as if it were their own. They’ll make decisions more responsibly and thoughtfully. They’ll be more driven, motivated, and creative, and they won’t settle for mediocrity. They’ll shoot for the stars, and they’ll do so as efficiently and effectively as possible. 

People take ownership when they believe taking action isn’t someone else’s responsibility. Taking ownership tells others that they can trust you to do the right thing. It doesn’t mean you own the project alone, but rather, that you own the quality and timeliness of the outcome you’re seeking. It means you’ll do whatever it takes to deliver quality work, collaboratively, within budget, and on time. 

It also means that, if you fall short, you’ll be forthcoming about it. 

Communicating failure is just as important as announcing your wins. Accountability can make people feel the need to hide their failure or do the bare minimum to get by. Ownership and personal responsibility drive people to over-communicate what’s going right and what’s going wrong with the project so that they can get the help that’s needed to make it successful. 

5. Deploy the Right Stack of Tools

No matter what their intentions may be, distributed teams can’t be successful without the means to communicate effectively. Thankfully, the world we live in is chock full of amazing tools that allow us to message each other instantly, share documents in real-time, share our computer screens across the world, and video conference to simulate a face-to-face meeting.

There’s no excuse for not providing the necessary communication tools for your team. The tricky part, however, lies in finding the right tools. The right tools are the best at what they do. They’re simple to use and easy to learn. They’re frequently updated and scale with you as you grow your business.

Once you’ve made your selection, the most important factor in deploying the right stack of tools is getting your distributed teams to actually use them. Change is rarely easy, and onboarding a new software is no different. Going back to point four above, you can give your team a sense of ownership by bringing them into the decision-making process. 

Push them to help you do the research and test different kinds of software. That way, when you make your decision, they’ll feel equally as excited and responsible to use it as you do.

What You Can Do Now

  • Instill a sense of ownership by getting your team involved behind the scenes. Bring them into closing calls or client meetings. Give them visibility into the annual budget if you feel comfortable. Find ways to get their feedback and opinions and actually use some of them to better the organization.
  • Schedule one-on-one meetings with your team (if you aren’t using them already) and let them set the agenda for the discussion. Come curious, and take detailed notes you can follow up with later. 
  • Reflect on the quality of your internal content and look for ways to give your team more clarity. Create checklists, templates, and guides for repeatable tasks so that they make fewer mistakes.

Audit your communication tools’ effectiveness and find ways to streamline communication to a smaller stack of tools. Consider a robust solution like Taskworld that includes team messaging, file sharing, and collaborative project management spaces.

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