This is a guest post for the MELD Coworking blog written by Sarah Dixon.
Communication is vital for distributed teams. It’s easy for everyone to stay ‘in the loop’ when you share office space, but putting miles, or even oceans between your people makes it a little more difficult. There’s no shortage of communication tools to use to stay in touch, but knowing which will work for your team can be a bit of a process of trial and error.
There are two different kinds of communication that can happen remotely synchronous and asynchronous. Both those words are a lot of syllables to describe something relatively simple.
Synchronous Communication: Two or more people are both online at the same time, exchanging messages as they are sent. Examples of this are voice and video calls, instant messenger, or chat apps like Slack.
Asynchronous Communication: One person sends the message, the other person/people read it when it’s convenient and responds then. Examples of this are email, SMS messages, comments on task management software like Basecamp or Trello.
Of course it’s not as simple as that (what is?) Many of the tools can be used in both ways. You could ping pong emails back and forth while you’re both online and we all know that person that takes their sweet time to reply to IMs. But, for many remote teams, Asynchronous communication is a powerful tool. Here are some of the pros and cons of this method.
If your remote team is on different continents, then you’ve probably come across the headache that is scheduling meetings around time zone differences. If your digital nomads don’t keep the same office hours as you, then arranging time to catch up person to person can become a chore; that’s where asynchronous comes into its own, letting you leave messages for your remote team member which they can reply to when they get back to their desk.
One of the lessons that remote can teach their site-sharing colleagues is that using asynchronous communication is a lot less distracting. You don’t need to go over to someone else’s desk and interrupt them to ask a question. You can just leave them a message that they can get back to, when they’re not in the middle of something.
Of course, not responding to notification bells and whistles takes self-discipline. Recent research by RescueTime reveals that most workers can’t go more than six minutes without checking their chat channels or IMs.
The downside is that it’s easier for remote staff to feel isolated or even lonely. While periods of focus are great, it’s important to balance that with some coworking time via video conference or a #jokes slack channel to get everyone together. Alternatively, remote team members can make use of a coworking space to get their social interactions.
Provides a Record
Generally speaking, there’s no permanent record of the process that led to a decision being made when you have a conversation, even over the phone. But there is if that ‘conversation’ happened in the comments of a task on your chosen management app, or in a chat program like Slack. It can be really helpful to go back over things and refresh your memory,
Of course, technology is catching up. Tools like Zoom allow voice and video calls to be recorded for posterity, but until there’s a simple way to search them, then asynchronous text-based communications will still have the edge.
Asynchronous communication is more inclusive for a number of reasons. Think of your hearing impaired colleagues, using transcription software in meetings for example. It becomes much easier for them to read and take part in the conversation at the same time as everyone else. The same is true for people who speak your company’s home tongue as a second language. It’s easier for them to be able to read and make sense of things in their own time; the same is also true of people with dyslexia, dyspraxia, or just those people who like to give a considered response.
Perhaps the only downside to asynchronous communication is that it can lack the creative spark and spontaneity of getting people together at the same time. There’s definitely something to be said about getting people online at the same time for certain meetings, collaborations, launches etc. to ensure that everyone gets the emotional impact of the event as well as the facts.
Finding Middle Ground
Probably the best remote communication policy is to have a balance of methods, using both synchronous and asynchronous to their best effect. Brainstorm with your team to find out which methods are most effective for particular jobs, formalize it in a communication policy, and you should soon be finding your way to communication paradise.
About the Author
Sarah Dixon is an award-winning author, prolific writer of short stories and is studying for an MA inCreative Writing. She’s also writing for DistantJob, a remote recruitment agency based in Montreal, about remote culture, managing remote workers, success stories.