The second chapter of our Remote Team Guide will explain how you can build trust in your team with the right communication tools and strategies. In particular, it will cover:
- A few key values to understand about communication
- Important remote tools for communication
- How to communicate over text
- How to communicate over video
- How to communicate across the whole company
Building trust in a physical environment is very different from building trust in a remote one.
Before You Do Anything, Do This
You have to communicate and behave very differently with remote developers than with an office-based team. You'll need to reset your expectations and start thinking like a remote worker. In particular, commit to these rules:
Trust people. The most important rule. It's the only way you'll ever have a functioning remote team. Remote work is going to feel like you've lost a lot of control. You can't walk by someone's desk, can't mingle at the water cooler, can't go out for lunch together, and you might not even work with them at the same time.
Communicating properly will ease some of the trust issues you'll initially feel with your remote workers, but you still have to start with trust first.
Respect people. You'll likely be working with people from all over the world, from different cultures, beliefs, and backgrounds. Be respectful in your communication and keep in mind everyone's thoughts before posting heavily political commentary in the #random Slack channel.
Value people's flexibility. No one ever joined a remote company so they could attend 3 AM meetings every week. Remote work offers flexibility, so respect that. Use this chapter to understand how.
Don't drive yourself crazy. You'll have more text-based communication than you've ever had in your life. Meetings with 10+ people will take place via chat. Don't take every word seriously or harshly. People aren't flaming with rage, but might be miscommunicating their tone. Respond respectfully.
Don't assume all text has a negative tone. Don't freak out when someone goes AFK. They're not trying to trick you; they probably just went to the bathroom. Don't create illusions of people's negativity, lack of work, or schemes against you until you have proper evidence.
Remote tools are meant to amplify your productivity, but should never replace solid, detailed communication.
Remote Tools For Communication
Companies can go fully remote because of the technology that exists for it. These are the essentials to get your remote team up and running:
Slack is amazing software perfect for remote teams. It's your new office. Slack allows you to create communication channels for individual teams and projects, as well as interest-based channels about things like travel, cooking, gaming, etc.
Don't waste your time with Slack competitors. Slack has the most third-party application support, a massive app store, and the best UI and design.
Google has everything you need and will make your life much easier at the price of $5/user/month. Emails, calendars, spreadsheets, documents, presentations, and more are available to you from whichever device, collaboratively.
Very few remote teams rely on Microsoft to work together, so there's no need for you to do so either. Switch to Google. In particular, we want to emphasize Google Drive and Google Forms.
Google Drive, because you'll be sharing lots of files with one another. You'll need the online equivalent to your internal company drives. GDrive offers the best bang for your buck and will nicely store everything within your existing G Suite environment.
Nothing comes close to GDrive when it comes to services and the storage they offer, and their price beats all competitors too.
Google Forms, too, is great. Surveys are an incredibly important, but often overlooked tool for communicating with your team. Feedback is so important in a remote team, because you don't see people's faces on a daily basis. You don't always know how they're feeling.
Google Forms lets you create a feedback survey to send out to everyone, for free. Use this if you want to keep your remote team engaged and happy.
Zoom or Google Hangouts
For video meetings, consider Zoom or Google Hangouts. Both are free, although Zoom has some restrictions (a time limit on meetings) for its free option.
Hangouts is known to suck your battery dry and dropping calls, but it's still one of the better free options available. It also nicely integrates with your Google Calendar.
Zoom can host hundreds of people in a single conference, the quality is better, and it crashes less often. If you have some budget, it's worth investing in Zoom to give you big, consistently qualitative meetings.
If you already have a go-to project management tool that you like, stick with it. If you don't have one, we recommend Trello. It's lightweight, easy to use, and a great tool to keep everyone on the same page.
You can use Trello to share blog post ideas (and their statuses), share links to include in your newsletters, do quick-and-dirty bug tracking, share company goals, etc.
Newsletters are a great way to engage your team on a monthly basis and keep them connected to the roadmap and vision of your company.
Mailchimp is one of the best solutions for newsletters. It's affordable and helps you create attractive newsletters while managing your email list.
It also comes with plenty of automation tools, allowing you to send out a string of emails. This is particularly helpful when onboarding someone. Send them a string of emails of the course of their first few weeks.
Zapier is the ultimate robot for keeping your team informed about, well, anything. If there's no official Slack integration for something that you need (e.g. new leads coming in) then Zapier can create it for you.
Just pick a trigger and a destination and it'll send the information however you'd like it to be delivered to whomever you'd like it to go. It can even help post to your social media channels.
Slack has a wide range of bots that can help your team communicate even better. Here are a few that we recommend.
- Howdy. With people in 10+ different time zones, it can take a while to collect simple info about all of them. Howdy will collect that information for you and tell you when it's done.
- Donut. This bot connects teammates randomly in a private chat, so they can meet and talk with new people every week. An awesome way to get to know your colleagues better.
- Giphy. When installed, simply type "/giphy" + [phrase] to get a few GIFs you can shuffle through and send to your chat. A must-have for any team that wants friendly communication (more on this further down this chapter).
- Geekbot. A Slackbot that runs asynchronous daily standup meetings, sprint retrospectives, collects surveys, shares responses, and posts updates to your slack channels at a time and pace that suits your needs, eliminating timezone obstacles. Great for Agile teams.
Journaling is the ultimate solution to help teams build trust, collaborate more, and share their daily progress.
On a remote team, if you're doing it right, you're communicating at least 90% via text. While this might scare many people coming from an office environment, it's actually a huge advantage.
Why? Because you're documenting everything. You're communicating over text instead of voice, which makes information:
- Accessible. Access info wherever you are, whenever you want, without having to ask people about it.
- Searchable. Never lose information and easily find it when you need to reference it.
- Centralized. Text is a single source of truth to follow, instead of having to depend on what Bill said in the hallway a week ago.
- Reusable. Information that's written down is easier to convert into internal documentation. This is vital, because you cannot scale teams without good onboarding docs.
If you read anything in this chapter, please make sure it's this. Journaling is what changed X-Team and many other companies for the better.
Journaling in Slack is an amazing way to build trust. It gives your colleagues a window into your mind and what you're working on. It's the ultimate solution for others to trust you, collaborate more frequently, deliver feedback, and share their daily progress.
It's so important we gave the topic its own dedicated blog post: Why It's Important to Keep a Slack Journal.
But the main idea is that you create a channel called
[your-name]-journal and invite your team into it. It's where you post updates about what you're working on, ideas you're thinking about, and anything you want feedback on.
It's like a blog, with a few differences:
- It's aimed at a small audience.
- Ideal journal entries are short and raw.
- Updated more frequently than a blog. At least once a day.
- Hello World. Great as the first post for your journal. Post something about yourself, your time zone, your work environment, favorite places to work from, etc.
- Progress. Can sometimes be as little as
spent all day getting my environment set up. It keeps your colleagues in the loop.
- Today I learned. One thing you learned while working on a project. Can be very specific or very broad. Make it a code snippet or screenshot if you need to. Don't worry about other people thinking you're dumb. They either don't know or they'll help.
- Reflection. Describe something you've observed after a day of programming. Write reflections on your own code too. Add more context so everyone (including you!) can understand better.
- Request for feedback. @ people in your journal to ask for their valuable feedback. Or don't @, but just pose a question and wait until the right person replies.
Dealing With Time Zones
Teams sometimes avoid working remotely because they can't work together at the same time. This should never be an issue if you're communicating properly via text.
When it comes to time zones, you need to be proactive. For example, when you're blocked on a task because someone is asleep, don't wait for them to wake up. Instead, find other tasks you can work on until they're online. If there are no other tasks, work on new ideas.
So if you need a sysadmin to deploy something for testing before you can continue, don’t spend four hours doing nothing (and charging your team for it). Grab other tasks, work on documentation, work on performance improvements, increase testing coverage, etc.
Additionally, when sharing tasks with someone else on a project in a different time zone, plan out all the tasks at the start of the week, so you can create a 24/7 work cycle instead of a constant disconnect cycle.
Finally, always share your progress at the end of the day. Also, include important notes that the next person coming online needs to know about to be fully productive. Give your team a full picture of what's happening before they jump into their own work.
Every day, developers take some time out to report on their progress from yesterday and what they'll work on today. These daily standups still matter in a remote team, particularly if you don't adopt the journaling technique described above.
A tool like Geekbot helps automate these daily updates, but you want to make sure that you're getting informative, qualitative, and consistent updates from your developers. This blog post goes into more detail about this.
Emojis & GIFs
When so much of your communication is text, it's incredibly important to make that text expressive and emotional. It helps to keep people on the same page (no pun intended).
With emojis, live by this rule: use them a lot.
Five years ago, this might have been a sin. Today, it's a necessity. Never send a message to someone without an emoji if there's even the slightest chance it could be misinterpreted.
This being said, make sure you use the right emojis. 😀😆😋👍 are all clear emojis. 😉😐🙄🤔🤨 are unclear, vague emojis that don't serve much of a purpose and can be misinterpreted.
Additionally, GIFs can really spice up text communication with some lighthearted humor. There's no better way to lighten up a conversation than by pulling out a GIF.
Custom GIFs are best. We love Giphy and RightGif, but nothing beats creating your own GIFs to build camaraderie and engagement. Easily make your own GIFs with the help of your webcam and sites like andtheniwaslike.
For more ideas on creating GIFs within your team, check out this blog post.
Finally, make sure you always acknowledge what the other person is saying. When you speak to someone face to face, they act non-verbally to communicate that they're listening.
You can do the same via text by repeating back what someone said to you. Example:
- Alice: Hi Bob, when you deploy the latest version you'll need to migrate the database.
- Bob: Got it, thanks. I'll migrate the db immediately after the deploy has completed.
This technique of 'repeating back' also enriches communication by exposing gaps. Notice how when Bob repeated back his understanding of Alice's request, he used the words 'immediately after'? This might prompt Alice to give a little more detail to her instruction, like:
- Alice: Thanks! But remember, you can't do it immediately after because you'll need some time for everything to sync after the deploy. Usually takes about 10 minutes, so check that it's completed first and then go ahead with the migration.
Use video as a last resort for communicating remotely
Video should be used as the last resort for collaborating with your team or as a way to build camaraderie and better relationships.
When people are stuck in an office for the same eight hours a day, it's much easier to gather them in a conference room to hash out a problem.
When your team is remote, gathering everyone is not only a scheduling nightmare, but it goes against one of the biggest reasons why they work remotely: flexibility.
We wrote a separate blog post about this: Our Experience With Meetings as a Fully Distributed Company. Meetings have their purpose, but you need them less than you think.
Essential for keeping your teams motivated and taking every day seriously.
Remote teams are incredibly productive because of how much work they can get done with a few focused hours. This being said, it's easy to forget about the bigger picture; the broader reason why you're working so hard day in, day out.
That's why company-wide communication is vital. As a bare minimum, you should be doing the following:
Monthly Progress Updates
Ideally, this is a company-wide channel that showcases the progress that each team in making. Utilize every medium of communication you can:
- A single Slack post with a paragraph of text from each team (don't forget about those emojis & GIFs).
- A recorded video that can either be a presentation recapping progress or an all-out entertaining video recap. If a presentation, share the slides separately and allow people to comment.
Semi-Annual Town Halls
In addition to these monthly progress updates, host a semi-annual town hall to share progress in a more fun way. Make it a forum for your team members to discuss and ask questions about the company's progress.
At our town halls, we first stream an entertaining custom-made video and then host a Zoom chat that can support anyone, where people ask questions and comment on the current progress and future plans.
When making a big announcement, make sure that it's posted in several places and not just one. At a minimum, post here:
- Slack. Convert your #general channel into a channel where only admins can post. Rename it to something like #announcements. Make this the default channel for all Slack members and post all important announcements there.
- Reactions. Encourage people to add reactions to these important posts. For some tactical advice on this, check out this blog post.
- Email. While remote teams check Slack more often, email is still an important channel. Those who read emails are more likely to spend some careful time reading their content.
- Town halls. As said above, a great way to repeat the important announcements you've made over the last few months.
- Other places. Consider every communication tool you use and ask yourself whether it's a high-traffic channel for your team members and whether you can insert announcements into it. If you can, do so!
When a new employee joins a team in an office-based company, you get a tour around the building and meet a lot of new faces. It’s an exciting experience, and it’s one you can recreate with remote teams as well.
Aside from the obvious way of introducing new employees to your main channel (“@here: Everyone welcome @joe to the marketing team!”), you should also have a separate, dedicated channel for diving deeper into introductions of each new team members.
We created a channel called #learn-about-xteamers dedicated to sharing short stories and interviews that spotlight new team members.
You'd be surprised at what you end up learning from new teammates, as well as the conversations that spark off from this content. It's often better than the office tour with the same, repetitive small talk.
Conferences are another great bonding and collaboration opportunity, as well as a way to help inspire and upgrade the skills of your developers.
A meetup for each of your teams (or all of them together) is incredibly essential at least once per year to help build camaraderie, motivation and to help inspire new ideas that may never happen if you stay remote all year.
Aside from bonding activities, the best way to maximize the investment of a remote team retreat is to ensure you get at least five days of solid work in, focused entirely on retrospecting the past year and planning the year(s) ahead.
Don’t use that time for solving challenges that can be solved via Google Docs and Slack — maximize this time for bigger, longer-term challenges that require true human collaboration.
While a remote team retreat can be costly, you have to consider your savings because you're a remote company. $20,000 is a minimal expense when compared to a 10-person office in the Bay Area.
Alternatively, you can make this team retreat special: We created the X-Outpost, a roaming hacker house that changes cities throughout the world each month. It’s an open space for our developers to go visit where they can live, work, and explore together.
It creates incredible bonds, inspires the people on your team, helps them collaborate on projects, and always results in new ideas being generated. This is the most casual of the in-person options, but the looser structure brings out different kinds of collaboration that you don’t get at conferences or retreats.
There's one final thing we want to say about communication: celebrate the wins. Actively make an effort to celebrate every little win. It's simple to do and will undoubtedly lead to stronger bonds, higher morale, a more supportive environment, and a sense of unity for your remote team.
There are an endless numbers of ways you can celebrate wins. You can do so manually or through a bot integration with any service you’re using (if you can’t find one, try using Zapier!). Here are a few wins you should definitely celebrate:
- New clients
- Projects finished and deadlines met
- Goals achieved, from finishing a course to your IPO
- Interesting personal achievements (gave birth, triathlon finished, 1-year nomad trip finished, spoke at conference, etc.)
Celebrate the wins, no matter how big or small. They're not noise. The more of them you have, the more you’ll create a positive, supportive, and motivated remote team environment.
That was chapter two of our Remote Team Guide. Here's what we'll discuss next:
Or, if you want to revisit Chapter One, go here: