This post is part of the series “Communication,” a weeklong effort co-hosted by SmartBrief’s SmartBlog on Leadership and the folks at Switch & Shift. Keep track of the series here and check out our daily e-mail newsletter, SmartBrief on Leadership. Don’t subscribe? Sign up.
Plenty of days pass when I don’t see any of the workers at my content marketing agency — not my office manager, who lives just a few miles away from me in Baton Rouge, La.; not my creative director, who lives out in Phoenix; and definitely not the constantly moving Air Force wife who runs our marketing strategy.
And this hasn’t hurt our business growth a bit.
I built my firm from the ground up to function as a fully decentralized business. Even now that we have a physical office in a startup incubator on the campus of Louisiana State University, we’re maintaining that model. That decision has made us hurricane-proof, and it’s helped us attract and retain amazing people — no matter where they live — and effectively serve a rapidly growing international client base.
At the same time, learning to communicate effectively across state lines and time zones takes a different skill set from when you’re all sharing an office. If you’re looking to develop this skill set, take a few of my favorite tips for communicating effectively with remote teams.
Not everyone is well suited to working on a remote team. I’ve been managing remote teams for most of my career, and I’ve definitely noticed a few common traits among those who are happiest and most productive in this arrangement.
Look for people who are highly self-motivated, assertive at communicating their needs and comfortable figuring things out on their own. While strong introverts often find the prospect of working at home appealing, they also tend to struggle the most with feeling isolated and disconnected from the rest of the team. As the leader, you’re going to have to be prepared to give them more communication, not less.
Handle onboarding methodically
At many businesses, onboarding is a haphazard affair. A new worker shows up. Someone shows them how their e-mail works. If they have questions, they can tap a colleague on the shoulder. Decentralized teams don’t have the option to be so informal. Onboarding has to be a project with its own tangible to-dos. In our case, we use Basecamp to create templates for different positions. Nothing can be left to chance.
Embrace the cloud
All the systems we use to communicate are cloud-based. Google apps runs our e-mail and document management, Salesforce tracks our deals, Basecamp manages our projects and Freshbooks has us covered on accounting. If we can get online, we can work. (This was a priority for me, living on the Gulf Coast — when hurricanes loom, all I have to do is grab my laptop and head inland.) It also means information is freely available on demand to anyone who needs it.
Don’t favor the “home team”
If some people are physically close to you while others are remote, it can be all too easy to slip into giving those folks priority access to information everyone needs. But if you do that too often, you run the risk of damaging your overall team’s cohesiveness. Practice discipline with it comes to how you share information. You don’t want gossip to be the primary way your offsite people learn what’s going on.
Know when to pick up the phone — or get on Skype
IM and e-mail are great for quick discussions and sharing basic information, but they are lousy for resolving conflict. For those situations, it’s better to at least hear the other person’s voice, if not see their face. Consider scheduling a Google Hangout or Skype video chat.
Book intense bouts of face time
Just because everyone primarily works remotely doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make the effort to get together and enjoy each other’s company regularly. At Rep Cap, we get our fix via joint client visits, attending conferences together and twice-a-year strategy retreats in interesting places. This is far cheaper than maintaining centralized office space, and we’re always happy to see each other. It also makes it easier to work together when we go back to our respective home offices and hometown coffee shops.
Mary Ellen Slayter is managing director of Reputation Capital Media Services. Before creating her own content marketing firm, she served as director of content development and a senior general business and finance editor at SmartBrief, a leading publisher of e-mail newsletters. There, she led the editorial development of the SmartBlogs network, including SmartBlog on Leadership and SmartBlog on Social Media. Before joining SmartBrief, she spent 8 years at The Washington Post, where she authored the Career Track column and worked as an editor in the business news department. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.