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Communication in Virtual Teams

Apr 15 '16

communication in virtual teams

Third & Grove is a distributed company. We have (awesome) physical offices in Boston, San Francisco, and Barcelona, but over half of our team works remotely from all over the United States (10 states and growing!).

I recently discovered that when people who have never worked on a virtual team join Third & Grove, they are nervous about how hard it’s going to be to communicate with other employees, and they worry about feeling lonely. But when I conduct my one-month check-ins with new hires, they often say they are surprised at how easy communicating has been.

Below are some of the secrets to our effective remote culture.

Secret 1: If you need to talk on voice, you talk on video

One of our rules at TAG is that if you have an internal meeting, it must be on video, not just audio. We are social animals, so seeing faces on the regular really helps to breed a sense of community.

Secret 2: Make sure your real-time chat tool is fun, and keep it casual

As a small business, we have the flexibility to try out new tools and change our process pretty quickly. We don’t use a staid chat client, we use a popular, modern chat tool that breeds a culture of fun called Slack. Fun is a strategic weapon: if something’s fun, people will use it more.

Secret 3: Invite clients into your chat rooms

On several projects, our engineering teams collaborate directly (or form a single team with) the client engineering teams. Bringing the clients into a single room in Slack for collaboration further solidifies a distributed team, as the clients start to perceive of you in digital proximity.

Secret 4: Open your chat tool configuration or go home

Slack has support for custom emojis (our latest addition being the Hulk smash) and an obnoxious chat bot you can program to do, well, pretty much anything. When we type, “pug bomb,” for instance, the chat thread fills up with pug pictures. The great thing about Slack is all of this configuration is open and accessible to full team members, not just admins. It breeds creativity and culture.

Secret 5: When you are at work, you are signed into chat

One of our few “working rules” at TAG is that when you are in the office you are in our Slack (a team chat program). It is a simple and powerful rule that focuses everyone on the tool most critical to our communication.

Secret 6: Leadership must be bought-in

Prior to starting Third & Grove, I worked remote, full time, for over four years, first for a digital agency in Los Angeles while I lived in DC, and then as a freelancer serving clients all over the United States. When Tony and I started TAG, we didn’t care where people were living because he was in San Francisco, I was in Boston, and good talent is all over.

Secret 7: Trust, trust, trust

Another agency owner once said to me, “I just don’t trust people will work if they aren’t in the office.” If you don’t trust people to work without the pressure of being in an office, then you are hiring the wrong people. Period. You have to trust people to work remotely and you have to judge people on the most fun and fair thing to judge them on: work output. If those in leadership have strong domain skills, you will quickly and easily detect if a person isn’t producing.

Secret 8: Get together in person at least once a year

We are all just monkeys in shoes. It’s important to get together in person as often as you can. With a largely distributed team this might only be possible once a year, but do it. It’s a great time to work together, talk together, think about the company’s future together, and - most importantly - have fun together. Our first annual retreat last fall was an amazing experience that we will be continuing every year.

Secret 9: You won’t save money

You might think going distributed is a way to cut costs (less rent!) but the costs pretty much even out. Being distributed means you need to help folks with their home office setup and throw what is essentially a drama-free large American wedding (see Secret 8) every year. So don’t go remote to save money; go remote to make finding talent easier. If I’ve learned one thing through owning a business, it’s that easier is always better.