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effective team communication when remote

In the blink of an eye, our work environment dramatically shifted at Detroit Labs. With the early news of COVID-19 making its way to Michigan in March, our leadership team made a quick call to shut down our physical office in downtown Detroit and requested that everyone work from home. While we’ve always had the ability to work remotely at Labs, most people choose to work from the office most of the time. Why? We truly like being around each other. We like to interact with one another, eat lunch with one another, and go to happy hour together. It’s both strange and wonderful. We’re like family, a huge family where people actually get along. 

While some things have changed vastly over the past few weeks, some things have remained the same. 

  • Our responsibility to work together productively hasn’t changed. We still rely on each other to contribute to the work and to get the work done. 
  • Our commitment to our clients and partners remains the same (if not greater), as they are at the center of everything we do. 
  • The autonomy of project teams hasn’t changed, as each team member has the ability to make decisions and help move things forward. 
  • Our ability to be agile is paramount; our clients’ needs and goals are rapidly shifting in this new landscape, and we’re able to shift along with them.

In many ways, moving everyone to be full-time remote has made things easier for our teams. Detroit Labs is built to be successful in this new working environment without much change. In fact, what we’re seeing is that when we’re all forced to work remotely, we’re all on the same playing field. When we hold meetings together now, we can hear each other more clearly, as we don’t have challenging room acoustics to contend with. Issues with conference room availability are inconsequential, allowing us to meet whenever we need to without logistical coordination or issues. I’m on a team with 20+ people, so that latter part has been a dream for me. 

This all boils down to one thing: working remotely has placed a heavier emphasis on the importance of effective team communication. Communication simply has to be effective, clear, and concise, now more than ever. 

Here are a few approaches that have helped our project teams be more effective in their communication with one another: 

Cameras on 

Whether it’s team meetings, meetings with our clients, or during 1:1 conversations, the small action of turning on our cameras provides clarity in our team communication. This provides us with a way to pick up on all the nonverbal cues lacking from Slack messages and emails. We can see each other nodding along in agreement and it’s easier to know when someone wants to chime in or needs clarification. An added benefit is that a cameras-on approach increases feelings of connection and togetherness, something we truly need more of right now. I’ve seen huge benefits over the past two weeks on our team and during 1:1 meetings. On my team, we’re committing to having our cameras on, even though it might feel weird at first. 

Switch from written to verbal when needed

Our reliance on Slack as our primary communication method has increased substantially over the past two weeks, and honestly it’s been really hard to stay on top of all of the conversations and threads. In many cases for project teams, there really is no substitute for a verbal conversation. 

When a Slack thread has gone on for more than 5 minutes (several people are typing 😜) or when a verbal conversation would be quicker than typing back and forth, opt for a call instead. 

Likewise, the minute you start to see signs in Slack or email that a written message is being misinterpreted, jump on a call. Ask the individual or the team if they are available to get on a call at an explicit time, then send out an invite or share the Zoom or Google Meet link.

If not all team members are able to meet, be sure to post the results/action items/key decisions from that conversation in Slack or email so that everyone has visibility into the outcome. 

Bonus points for turning on your cameras as mentioned above for optimal person-to-person connection. 

Set explicit expectations

Given the current circumstances, there needs to be a more deliberate approach to providing clarity around our schedules and what we’re doing. Many team members now have to balance taking care of young children along with work responsibilities, while others are looking after other loved ones and pets. Using Slack statuses to reflect what you’re doing is a start, but being clear about when you need to step away and when you’ll be back is even more helpful to the team. We all need to err on the side of over communication right now. This means specifically stating things such as: I need to step away for 10 minutes. Then be sure to announce when you’re back. On my team, we’re also communicating when we’re starting the work day and when we’re offline for the day, so that we’re super transparent about when people can expect to receive a response. 

One thing that’s clear from these past few weeks is that remote working is helping our team members build better relationships with one another. It’s helping to establish better habits around communication and allowing us to see the value of a “cameras turned on” approach to virtual meetings. As a result, when we’re finally back to working normally, we’ll hopefully be more inclined to continue to carry these good habits with us. 

Where is your team struggling with working remote? What tactics around effective team communication have you implemented? We’d love to know about what’s working and not working for your teams!