Getting communication right when working remotely

Oct 16, 2016

Getting communication right can be a challenge when working remotely. Remote working provides an opportunity for more focussed, uninterrupted time than a position or day in an office. This is great for getting tasks and deliverables completed. But you still need communication to know what you need to do, have the information you need to complete those tasks and/or to effectively manage others remotely. Its rarely all or nothing as this picture presents, but getting the level of communication right for you can often be a challenge. In this article I’ll share some of the potential challenges and some tips, from experience, that I’ve used to achieve a better balance.

Create a culture of ‘availability’

Too little communication may sound ideal. Clear uninterrupted time so that you can focus on getting a software feature or task progressed. But a problem arises when you need input or have a question on functionality. Who is the best person to ask? Then, you try to contact someone but they are away from their desk. It creates time delays for you and your choice now is to either continue at risk or park this feature and delay its completion.

Within collocated agile teams, each person is available all the time for ad hoc questions, demonstrations and discussions. So, working remotely the same mentality needs to be preserved. Remote doesn’t mean cut off from the team. Use a messaging application that shows the presence of others you need to communicate with and have an agreed strategy that everyone follows. For example a text message for a quick question to ask for a resource, or a phone call or video chat and screen share for anything longer or more urgent. Try to emulate how things would work if you were sat together in a team and make yourselves available for communication.

Maintain periods of focus

Working remotely and using instant messaging applications for a lot of the communication means that there is the temptation to check the application as and when a new message notification pops up. Studies in psychology and neuro science have found that not only is there a time cost of this switching of focus (because it takes you time after the distraction to get back into your thoughts on what you were doing before), but it also trains you into a habit to want to check it again in a short space of time. Called the ‘phantom text’ message effect, this constant looking for messages or checking messages provides a real loss of time and focus – defeating one of the values of working remotely in the first place.

Instead, agree with the team what important and urgent messages represent and what channel each should be sent through, for example a direct person to person message or phone call for something urgent, an email for something not urgent but important. Other instant messages and emails can then be left unchecked for periods of time, for example 15 to 30 mins so that you can maintain your focus on what you need to concentrate on. Alternatively, or in combination, agree periods of time throughout the day in which staff will be more responsive and others where there is an expectation that little or no response will be received from a message, unless its delivered by the agreed urgent channel.

Limit the overall amount of communication

While inclusivity is great for information sharing and to avoid feeling cut off from the rest of the team, too much communication related information can also pose a problem. Suppose you use a messaging application that has different topics or channels, maybe geared around application features, and each person on the team has visibility of all of the channels. Its great for visibility of what’s happening in the wider team, but each person is able to see new message notifications for a lot of communication that isn’t relevant to what they are working on right now. This means they are spending more time checking and potentially more often than they need to.

Going back to the analogy of a collocated team, while communication from other staff may be audible, its mostly background noise unless its important or urgent. The really important communication is within the team that you are a part of and for the features being worked on. Change your digital communication strategy to reflect the audibility that would exist in the physical workplace. Focus your communication on what’s relevant to each team (or few people if this is large), rather than features or topics, and have the ability for limited wider, less occasional, communication as well to limit the amount of other team chatter than individuals have visibility of.

In summary, try to structure the digital communication within your team to reflect what would be happening if they were sat together as a team in a single physical space, in a larger organisation. By modelling what would happen for that team and reflecting that in how you communicate with remote staff, you will be able to make changes for a better communication and focus balance for everyone.

In fact, because communication is so key to productivity when remote working, it features significantly within the course I’ve created: Successful Remote Working Skills and practices (, or Open Learning)

If you would like to learn more on my experience of communication strategies when working remotely, please Contact me and tell me a little bit about your greatest communication challenges. I’d be happy to offer some suggestions.


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