Think of communication as the oxygen of a remote team. Like a good relationship, it takes work to communicate well, and there are ups and downs. As Carol Dweck from Stanford University, shares in her book Mindset:

"It takes work to communicate accurately. It takes work to expose and resolve conflicting hopes and beliefs. It doesn't mean there is no 'they live happily ever after' but it's more like 'they worked happily ever after.'"

There’s no discussion over the fact that being able to communicate is a requirement in any successful team. Therefore, if you want your remote team to thrive, establishing good communication is a cornerstone. In this article, we’ll discuss how to combine asynchronous and synchronous collaboration to build and maintain better relationships on our distributed teams.

Understand the basics of asynchronous vs. synchronous communication

Asynchronous communication is the idea of sending a message without the expectation of getting an immediate response. Let’s say that you are leading a new initiative at work.

You’ve kickstarted the project with careful planning. Now you would like a fresh set of eyes to anticipate potential problems with your game plan. You immediately think of one of your colleagues who has excellent attention to detail. You open up your email client, compose an email, and send it to a team member.

You’ve just communicated asynchronously. Your team member can respond to your email at their own pace to get you the feedback that you need.

If you exchange a couple more emails and your team member suggests jumping on a quick video call, you shift to synchronous communication. When you and your colleague get on a video chat, you are collaborating in real-time. To expand on this further, here is how communication tools could be organized:

  • Asynchronous: email, productivity tracker tools
  • Synchronous: phone call, face-to-face, different messengers
 

Depending on the situation, some tools may fall into both categories: Rocket.Chat is an example of such an universal tool. Asynchronous communication is preferred because it allows people to communicate when they are at their best.

Imagine you lead a remote team that spans across multiple countries and timezones. On Mondays, you have an accountability check-in where you have this prompt in your messaging tool:

What are your three priorities for this week?

Team members can chime in to share their priorities as they begin their day on Monday. Plus, it is an opportunity to offer encouragement to fellow workers. Allowing team members to respond at the right time is a virtuous cycle and is another example of asynchronous communication. You are sharing freedom through the gift of autonomy, which can help employees feel empowered through a sense of control.

Malcolm Gladwell, an author and public speaker highlights autonomy as one of the factors in meaningful work.

"Those three things -- autonomy, complexity, and connection between effort and reward -- are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying," he wrote in his eye-opening book Outliers. "It is not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five. It's whether our work fulfils us."

Understanding the difference between what is important and urgent is essential to balancing how you communicate. At first glance, when a problem appears, it can seem critical. However, that can shift your focus off what is important. You’ve experienced this if you felt like you were putting out fires all day rather than working on meaningful work.

Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, former U.S. Navy SEAL officers, argue that focusing leads to success. Willink and Babin comment on fellow officers and multitasking: “…with so much going on in the chaos and mayhem, they would try to take on too many tasks at once. It never worked,” they said. “I taught them to Prioritize and Execute. Prioritize your problems and take care of them one at a time, the highest priority first. Don’t try to do everything at once or you won’t be successful.”

Think of collaboration as a skill. And like other skills, you can get better as you practice over time. As proof of this, think back to your childhood when you got your first bicycle.

Do you remember any of these during that first week?

  • The color of your bicycle
  • Helmet, elbow pads, knee pads
  • Training wheels
  • Falling more times than you can count

 

Do you also remember your parents encouraging you to keep trying?

Over time, you got better and better because you practiced. I imagine you could jump on a bicycle and still remember how to ride it even if it has been many years since you’ve been on one. Sure, you might be a bit wobbly if it has been a long time, but the path to getting going is the same — hop on the seat, push off with a foot, pedal, and steer where you want to go! You can also fast track your skills in another way.

Adopt best practices for collaborating by learning from other remote organizations

Would you like to leapfrog your way to developing communication processes for your remote team? Look at what others that are more experienced are already doing.

Specifically, you can explore what other remote-first organizations that you admire are doing to communicate. Then adopt the relevant parts of their processes and systems for your organization to make them your own.

How remote organizations handle communications?

Would you like to leapfrog your way to developing communication processes for your remote team? Look at what others that are more experienced are already doing.

Specifically, you can explore what other remote-first organizations that you admire are doing to communicate. Then adopt the relevant parts of their processes and systems for your organization to make them your own.

Rocket.Chat

As a remote-first platform with 55% of its employees working around the world, Rocket.Chat believes in reducing the number of communication tools and organize your conversations to improve your business productivity and reaction time. One of the secrets to achieve that? 

The right balance between asynchronous communication (any type of communication that doesn’t happen in real-time) with synchronous communication. 
  
Rocket.Chat’s team use their own platform daily to ensure this balance, the reason being when you are chatting with someone, the person will be notified about your message, and you don’t need to interrupt someone to communicate an idea. And people can mention if they are busy/out of the office in their own profiles:
 
WWR dayiinthelifeof rocketchat chat

To find out more about how Rocket.Chat’s best practices on remote work, check this page out.

Automattic

Automattic runs WordPress.com and has over one thousand team members spread out across the world. They share that one of the expectations is to stay on top of your notifications. They mention that there are multiple communication tools, and “there’s no need to reply immediately” or “this doesn’t mean to be reactive to everything, not everything can (or should) be done instantly.”

This is an illustrative example of knowing what is urgent versus what is important. As author Steven Pressfield writes in his book, War of Art, “…the Principle of Priority, which states (a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (b) you must do what’s important first. What’s important is the work. That’s the game I have to suit up for. That’s the field on which I have to leave everything I’ve got.” Yes, you’ll get notifications from different sources — be timely with handling them on your terms.

Zapier

Zapier makes it easy for you to connect different web apps, automate your work, and save lots of time. The company has almost 300 team members across the world. They value asking good questions. 

They share an experience where you ask a team member a question, and some time passes, you get feedback, and ask more follow up questions. It’s sort of a journey to find an answer to your question. Here is some good advice to minimize these situations: “when asking a question, don’t assume the person knows what you’re talking about: provide them with some clarifying context. Re-read your question, trying to identify the places that you make assumptions, and preempt any questions that someone might have.”

Asking good questions is something that you can improve upon over time. If you are ever in doubt, pause, and think back to something that you recently learned to do. And if you are still stuck, then think back to your childhood where you learned how to ride a bicycle. Next, we’ll talk about a simple way to continue improving your team’s communications workflows.

Ask "What's working for our remote team's communication?" and do more of it

Former Navy SEAL commander, Mark Divine, discusses standardizing routine tasks in his book Unbeatable Mind. Divine says, “Great teams strive to standardize routine tasks…so that time is not wasted reinventing the push up every time someone new comes on the team. New ideas and improvements to SOPs are encouraged, but not on the fly. The post-training debrief is the place to discuss changes, which can be implemented in future training.”

What Divine is suggesting, in other words, is that you can get your team on the same page with systems and processes; then make improvements later on. In this way, your team has expectations for how to communicate, yet you are still open to improving as a team through changes in the future. This is how you grow together as a team. You can make sure this happens by asking this question at strategic times:

What’s working for our remote team’s communication?

An ideal time is during high points or positive peaks in your team’s interactions. For instance, during a monthly team meeting or even after a product or feature launch. If you can make a reflection and review part of your team’s process, then you’ll uncover more growth opportunities for your organization. Do this regularly, and it becomes a habit that will benefit your team in the long run.

The author and expert on learning Josh Waitzkin highlights the power of stepping away and coming back refreshed in his book The Art of Learning:

"If you are interested in really improving as a performer, I would suggest incorporating the rhythm of stress and recovery into all aspects of your life. Truth be told, this is what my entire approach to learning is based on -- breaking down the artificial barriers between our diverse life experiences so all moments become enriched by a sense of interconnectedness. If you are at work and find yourself running out of mental stamina, take a break, wash your face, and come back renewed."

This can carry over into your personal life and be rewarding, which can lift your happiness. And according to the happiness researcher Gretchen Rubin, “Contemporary research shows that happy people are more altruistic, more productive, more helpful, more likeable, more creative, more resilient, more interested in others, friendlier and healthier. Happy people make better friends, colleagues, and citizens.”

Remember that asynchronous communication helps employees to collaborate when they are at their best. You can look to remote organizations that you admire to discover processes for your own team. Then you can keep moving forward by getting your team operating on the same page. Three keys to marry asynchronous & synchronous collaboration workflows when setting up a remote team are:

1. Understand the basics of asynchronous vs. synchronous communication
2. Adopt best practices for collaborating by learning from other remote organizations
3. Ask “what’s working for our remote team’s communication?” and do more of it

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