How to Overcome Poor Communication in a Distributed Team?

May 12, 2020 15 Min Read

How many times have you sent an email that caused a stir in your distributed team? Maybe you used the wrong emoji, misspelled a word or didn’t articulate your thoughts correctly. 🤷🏻‍♂️

These minor hiccups are some of the reasons people misunderstand each other in written communication. Find your email particularly hilarious? Crafted a witty chat comeback? Think twice before hitting “send” because your co-workers may have a different idea of fun.

A lack of consistent communication etiquette can quickly decrease the quality of (remote) office interactions. 

Poor communication can damage work relationships, decrease productivity and lead to workplace conflict. And that’s something we all should avoid, especially in the climate of social distancing and work from home (WFH).

5 Culprits of Poor Communication 👾

Even the most synchronized co-located teams can run into communication problems once in a while. But what about distributed teams? What types of problems do they face? What are some of the obstacles that can impede remote comms?

1. Lack of Visual and Auditory Cues 🙌🏻

The words we use are only part of the story. When communicating via email or chat, you may “sound” totally different than when you’re saying it out loud. In other words, your language online lacks some of the cues you normally send during face-to-face conversations.

For example, someone may perceive your overenthusiastic email as a sign of apprehension or worry when you’re convinced it radiates joy and optimism. Without visual or auditory cues, the intended message can easily become distorted when it reaches the addressee.

Sometimes, all it takes is one person who decides to turn off their camera.

Surprisingly, the same can happen during video conferences. All it takes is one person who decides to turn off their camera and rely on voice comms alone.

And even when you *can* see everyone’s faces during a meeting, it’s much more difficult to perceive whether they feel frustrated, sad, overwhelmed or enthusiastic.

2. Asynchronous Interactions in a Distributed Team 👨🏻‍💻 ⚡️ 🛌

The biggest challenge of managing a distributed team is to synchronize communication across space and time. When you’re all in an office together, you can easily drop by your co-worker’s desk, have a casual conversation and solve complex problems in a blink.

But when your co-workers move into a different city or country, the same garden-variety interactions shift out of sync. All of a sudden, simple problems that you could normally handle in a few minutes escalate and start to occupy a sizable chunk of your team’s time.

3. Delayed Feedback

Let’s say a new sales proposal comes in and you need everyone’s preliminary feedback, pronto. With a co-located team, you would gather the gang in a meeting room, present the new deck and collect intel.

Now, what would happen if you sent the presentation via email and asked for feedback?

For the most part, you’d have to wait, and wait, and wait… only to get overwhelmed with multiple email threads (the “reply” button is not the be trifled with), odd bits of comments and plenty of assorted ideas that’d have nothing to do with the deck itself. 🤯

Not very productive, huh?

4. Building Communication Silos 🏗

We live in a hyperconnected world. And yet, many organizations still get internal (and external) comms awfully wrong. Instead of nurturing a culture of dialogue, we often see businesses that create communication silos around their teams, departments and branches.

For instance, without frictionless communication between your sales and marketing teams, chances are your entire sales funnel will suffer the consequences. It’s a simple dependence that keeps all kinds of organizational structures together.

While one team may have some great insights about a project or challenge your business is facing, the information can’t be used effectively without knowledge transfer across the entire organization.

In a remote setup, no knowledge transfer between distributed teams or their members equals plenty of missed opportunities. And when people can’t see and interact with each other face-to-face, communication silos pop up naturally.

5. Weak Company Culture 🔗

Last but not least, remote collaboration can only thrive in a culture of camaraderie built on communication, transparency and trust. Your employees and co-workers should feel and co-create a positive workplace atmosphere from the moment they join the company.

If the spirit of companionship is missing, distributed (and co-located) teams are less likely to engage in *meaningful* conversations.

Distributed or not, every high-performing team knows how to communicate well. You can’t expect teamwork, originality or initiative without a dialogue. People that aren’t comfortable talking to each other won’t open up about their ideas and contribute in a meaningful way.

The Risks of Poor Communication In a Distributed Team 🔇

In a 100% remote workplace, communication is the modern equivalent of Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be.” So, what happens when members of a distributed don’t know how to talk to each other?

A Toxic Work Environment

Workplace gossip isn’t pretty. Not only can it turn workplace atmosphere toxic, but it also sows a seed of suspicion that effectively stifles any attempt at dialogue. Paradoxically, it also tends to spread the quickest when things are left unsaid.

As TNW observes:

“When people do not know what is going on, rumors and gossip nearly always ensue. It is human nature to try and figure out unanswered questions, solve mysteries, and fill the blank spaces in our knowledge. Under-communication leaves a gaping hole that employees and managers alike will attempt to fill with speculation.”

And that’s something you should avoid at all costs. 

The possibility of losing talent 👋

Yes. People will leave, quickly.

If they feel that there’s no transparency or they can’t get along with other teammates, chances are they’ll search for another job opportunity.

Lack of Coordination and Low Productivity 🛶

How can you expect efficiency from your distributed team when there’s no knowledge transfer or communication between its members?

Without communication, there’s no coordination. And without coordination, it’s impossible to make people paddle in the same direction.

Poor OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) 📊

In the long run, substandard communication may lead to poor quarterly or yearly results. Although you may have clear objectives and key results per team or department, most people won’t feel obliged to care about them. 

Unhappy Customers and Vendors 😢

When your marketing team promises one thing when creating copy and content for your brand while your sales team communicates something different… Let’s just say it may leave your customers and vendors confused at best.

Inadequate or inconsistent external comms can severely impact your leads, customer and vendors. If you’re not sure what you want to deliver, how could they know what quality of service to expect?

5 Steps to Great Comms in a Distributed Team 😎

If you’re in charge of a distributed team, we have some good news. There are five simply simple steps you can take to fix your internal and external communication.

Here we go:

  • 🌍 Step 1. Align team dynamics across time zones. Figure out the overlap time when your entire team is up and primed for work. Even if it’s just a window of a few hours a day, turn those rare moments together into a time of productive, *meaningful* discussions. Make sure that your team knows how much time it takes for someone to accomplish a task and consider the lag when delegating work
  • 🧠 Step 2. Ensure consistent knowledge transfer. You need to document everything that happens in the life of your distributed team (second brain anyone?) and have an archive that is live and accessible 24/7. Full transparency and robust documentation are key part of knowledge transfer in a remote setup
  • 🗓 Step 3. Schedule weekly team meetings. Run regular meetings with your sales, engineering, marketing and customer success teams to discuss the progress of ongoing tasks, address any challenges and share the latest company news. It’s important to touch base with everyone and make sure their goals and priorities align
  • 🟢 Step 4. Make yourself available. This is a big one. Sometimes, C-suite executives like to ignore emails or messages from their employees, either out of “busyness,” or because they can. But if you want to bond with your team, put communication first. If someone wants to schedule a meeting and discuss something, *make* the time and be there for them
  • 🤝 Step 5. Promote a culture of transparency, trust, and accountability. Excellent communication starts with the company culture. Be fully transparent with your team, share the moments of success and failure with them, be open and honest in giving feedback, and above all, let your actions be the best example

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And much more…

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