How to Improve Communication Within a Distributed Workforce

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Hiring a distributed workforce for your business could be one of the best moves you ever make. Working remotely has a number of advantages, including boosting the productivity of everyone involved and allowing your business to hire a broader range of people. But it does come with some additional challenges.

Namely, communicating within your distributed workforce can be a challenge. If you want to see better results and keep your employees engaged, it’s important to address this potential issue proactively.

The Biggest Challenges

There are several challenges associated with managing a distributed workforce, but these are some of the biggest:

  • Scheduling and time zone issues. One of the biggest problems for teams that include people all over the country, or all over the world, is related to scheduling and time zone issues. There’s no guarantee that any two people are going to be online at the same time, resulting in meeting delays and more difficult collaboration.
  • Real-time collaboration. Real-time collaboration is also more difficult. Instead of brainstorming together with the help of a big whiteboard, getting a team together for a face-to-face meeting, you’ll have to come up with some sort of digital alternative.
  • Centralization. Today’s distributed workforces enjoy a wide variety of different communication channels, from video chats to traditional email. But this abundance of communication opportunities can also be a downside; can you remember which channel your coworker contacted you on? Are you sure you’re using the correct channel for this application?
  • Tech hiccups. Even with the best technology and reliable internet connections, things can go wrong while communicating online. Laggy videos, malfunctioning apps, and cut connections are just a few of the potential interruptions.
  • Opaque effects. Are your employees satisfied with how they’re communicating? Is it affecting the way they work? Is their morale slipping because they don’t have regular casual conversations with their coworkers? It’s extremely hard to measure these potential effects objectively.

How to Improve Communication

Fortunately, there are many strategies you can use to improve communication within your team:

  • Set proactive expectations. Do what you can to set proactive expectations with your team. Explain the most appropriate channels for communication, dictate expectations for when each employee is supposed to be online and available, and provide guidelines for concise and clear communication across the team.
  • Establish standards for each communication channel. When is email better than a video conference? When should your project management platform be used instead of an instant message app? Make sure you establish clear standards for each communication channel in your arsenal.
  • Make use of internal newsletters. How can you make sure that every employee in your organization stays up-to-date with the latest happenings in your company culture and the pursuit of your long term business goals? In a remote environment, morning team huddles are harder to execute, so consider making use of internal newsletters. Send out employee newsletters with important updates and general information at least once a week.
  • Allow time and space for informal communication. We’re all familiar with the stereotype of the water cooler conversation in a traditional office. While it’s easy to dismiss as superfluous or unnecessary, it actually serves an important purpose, giving employees a chance to bond with each other and get to know each other better. Try to allow some time and space for informal, spontaneous communication – even if you have to do it over video chat.
  • Account for technology errors. Try to plan ahead for potential communication errors. Choose the right assortment of apps and technologies to minimize the possibility of errors and be prepared to address things like laggy connections as they unfold in front of you. In some cases, this could mean making upgrades for your employees, such as equipping them with better devices or upgrading their Internet connection.
  • Coach individuals on better communication habits. Some of your employees aren’t going to communicate as well as the rest of your team. If this begins to become a problem, set aside some time for individual coaching. Even a single session can make a pronounced difference in their future communication habits.
  • Circulate employee surveys. Employee surveys are one of your best tools for understanding how your employees are dealing with your current setup and how they feel about your current communication standards. Collect responses anonymously for even more honest feedback and be prepared to act on that feedback if you want to improve.

Every team is going to have different communication strengths and weaknesses, so some of these strategies may work better for you than others – and you may have problems not outlined in this concise guide. It’s important to continue asking for employee feedback and experimenting with new potential solutions so that you can continue your upward trajectory toward better distributed communication.

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Larry is an independent business consultant specializing in tech, social media trends, business, and entrepreneurship. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.