Communication is one of the most common challenges faced by teams that are new to remote work. Team members who were used to walking over to a colleague's desk for clarification find themselves lost in a sea of crisscrossed emails, chat messages, project boards, documents, and more. But the truth is that remote work doesn't cause business communication issues as much as it highlights them. In a new and unfamiliar home office setting, the everyday struggle of searching for a coworker's project contributions in a thread of emails (or was it in a chat message?) becomes intensified enough to threaten a breakdown of workflows.
Remote work didn't break your communication
Most of the teams that struggle with remote work communication find that they lack the proper systems, processes, or culture to clearly document their collaborations. Often, they use disparate systems across departments or groups of employees. Having leaned on informal in-person methods of communication, they rarely have formal policies regarding how and when they document projects, updates, plans, conversations, and meetings.
Seize the opportunity to fix what's broken
While it's unlikely that remote work is the cause of your business's fragmented communication, it can help you identify how to fix it. As a leader, you can help provide structure for your team that enables them to collaborate more seamlessly. In the process, you'll likely fix something that was broken all along, allowing you to leapfrog ahead of prior productivity levels.
Create a single primary hub for communications
To reunify your remote work communication, start by establishing a primary system for project management and collaboration. While it may not be possible for all of your communications to live within a single system, centralizing the majority of work-related conversations will help ensure that nothing important gets lost in the shuffle.
My team uses a tool called Podio that combines project management and chat, allowing us to record conversations within unified records. This also provides us with a detailed history of each project, making it easy to evaluate annual campaigns or onboard new team members.
Tasks are outlined in the same system and visible to anyone with access to the particular project. This means that the next steps are clear and the responsible parties are held accountable.
Put processes in place to streamline collaboration
Once you've determined which system will be your point of truth, put processes in place to ensure that all other forms of remote communication point back to your main hub. For instance, my team uses Box to house documents, images, and other media. However, we make sure that all employees understand that items in Box should be linked to the corresponding project, report, or task in Podio. Likewise, when video conferences or calls take place, it's our policy to input notes on action items and next steps as soon as possible.
When updates are made, relevant team members are tagged and notified. This ensures that everyone involved stays in the know and can chime in when needed.
In some cases, you may need to discourage alternative methods of communication. For example, our team stays away from email for internal communication. Instead, we opt to hold discussions in our project management system to avoid confusion.
Encourage a culture of openness
When team members are accustomed to speaking directly with the individuals or groups with whom they feel comfortable, they may feel hesitant to document their ideas in a more public project management system. While processes can help ensure that employees do what is required, leaders should work to create a culture that values and rewards honesty, creativity, and uniqueness. Once your team is comfortable with the new system, they can play an active role in maintaining cohesive remote work communication.