Communicate Better with Your Remote Team

12-December-smallWe’re lucky to live in a world where working from home is easily accessible to most of us in the web industry. Even if we have never worked from home, we’ve likely worked with freelancers or full-time co-workers based in another office, country, or time zone (or all three!). We’ve held meetings with clients over Skype or Google Hangouts, used screen-sharing programs to train people, and implemented project management tools and chat programs. All of these programs ultimately help us communicate throughout our projects, both in real-time and asynchronously.

I’ve been working remotely for about a year now, and in the past I worked with several remote teams while working from an in-office position. Having been on both sides of the proverbial remote team fence, there are a few obvious, and some not-so-obvious things to keep in mind when communicating with your co-workers or contractors.

Be Available

When you work with anyone remotely, a lot of things need to be spelled out that might be obvious in an office environment. This is why I practice being clear about my availability with my teams. Things that may normally be taken for granted, but can cause communication issues on remote teams include: leaving the desk/computer for lunch, scheduling meetings across time zones, asking questions on a project, comparing code or designs with a coworker, or asking for feedback on a task.

Using a chat program with remote co-workers can help eliminate almost all of the issues with the above situations, and increases your availability. Having employees or freelancers sign on during their normal office hours will help foster communication between team members and yourself, and using a program that allows for status updates can help make it clear when someone’s available to answer a question, or has stepped away from the desk for a bit.

It’s important to make yourself available as the project manager to anyone who has questions or needs feedback on a project. This means regularly reaching out to coworkers to say “hey” and see how they’re doing. Working remotely can make it difficult for employees to ask for help, since interaction with managers or co-workers doesn’t happen as naturally as in a physical office – so don’t feel bad about striking up a conversation if you haven’t heard from someone for a day or two!

Document Everything

Document meeting notes, feedback, and expectations in emails to co-workers, your project management system, and anywhere else you share files with your team. This serves not only as a great backup when you can’t remember what was communicated, but will also be useful for remote co-workers to reference when they feel out of the loop or can’t get a hold of you.

If you’re working with new freelancers, this also serves as a great way to have on-boarding and training documents available to them at all times. It will also help prevent any miscommunications about your deadlines, expectations, and needs for a project. Should an issue come up, there will be documentation to refer to.

Be Upfront

Don’t assume anything when working remotely. Just as you need to be available for your team and document everything, you will also sometimes need to overstate your needs and expectations. Working remotely does not foster communication as naturally as being in the same physical office. That means that you, as the project manager, will need to be the person to break the ice and set the rules while working with remote employees.

When I work remotely, I’ve found it’s best to chat or email my employers to let them know what my office hours are. I send a chat to any developers or designers I’m working with that day if I’m taking time to drive out to a co working space, in case they have any questions while I’m gone. I’ll also go ahead and let co-workers know ahead of time what holidays I’ll be taking off, if they aren’t set by the company I’m contracting with. Since many freelancers or remote coworkers may be located in different time zones or even different countries (and thus celebrating different holidays than me!), it makes the most sense to be upfront about my availability to prevent any confusion should someone need to get a hold of me.

It’s also helpful to remember that just because an employee doesn’t have questions, it does not mean they don’t need to bounce ideas off of someone on a project. They may not find it easy or natural to strike up a chat in a public company chat room, or reach out to a coworker they’re not close with to ask questions. Try asking a few general questions of everyone every few days – even something as simple as “how was everyone’s weekend?” can foster a conversation that grows into closer working relationships, ultimately creating a stronger team.

Natalie-SemczukNatalie is a freelance and consulting digital project manager working with small, remote-based agencies on client-facing projects, project management practices and internal processes. Outside of work, Natalie drinks too much coffee and runs a blog called catphotosfrommymom.com.