How to Communicate Well as a Remote Manager

Communication is the linchpin of any team.

But you can only imagine how much more true this is for remote teams. After all, “how people communicate with each other on the team,” the biggest difference between managing remotely versus in-person, according to our survey (30% of remote managers said this).

As a result, figuring out how to communicate well as a remote manager is essential.

However, it’s not entirely intuitive.

Should you use Slack all the time? How quickly should you respond to messages? How do you communicate something less concrete, like values and vision? And what about when you have to deliver a tough message or hard news?

Based on our survey with 297 people about remote work, insights from The Watercooler online leadership community, and the research we’ve done across dozens and dozens of remote companies, here are some key best practices to consider when communicating as a leader in a remote team:

Write, write, write.

As a remote CEO, I spend 90% of my day writing. Sure, I’m writing blog posts, notes to prospects and customers, etc… But I write a lot to our team. I’ll write up our strategy around marketing, how we’re doing financially, or a new experiment we should try with our customer onboarding process. I’ll riff on a new product concept or critique a customer service approach with a co-worker — all in writing. If we were a co-located company, most of this stuff would happen in the form of meetings or chatting someone up by their desk. Or maybe I’d pick up the phone if the person was on a different floor. But in a remote company? You write it out.

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the co-founders of Basecamp, espouse this in their best-selling book, Remote, noting: “Being a good writer is an essential part of being a good remote worker.” But being a good writer is not just an essential part of being a good remote worker — it’s required for being a good remote leader as well.

I’ve observed this firsthand in the way that Jason and David both lead Basecamp as a company. I’m looped into their all-company Basecamp HQ Project, and I remember being floored when I first saw how Jason wrote up a new idea he was introducing. His written message was crystal clear, well-thought-out, and succinct. In other companies, I imagine the same message might get communicated at an in-person meeting — more off-the-cuff, haphazardly, a little all over the place. Here, I saw the power of clear writing as a means to get everyone on the same page, articulate a complex thought, and not waste a bunch of people’s time. Great remote leaders understand this and utilize their writing as a tool.

This isn’t just true for me, nor for Basecamp. “Writing synchronously” was most frequently reported as the primary mode of communication for remote managers (45%) in our survey. In particular, Slack was seen as the “one tool that our team couldn’t live without as a remote team” (34% of remote managers said this).

Prioritize a process.

The deluge of communication in a remote team – especially written – may feel like a firehouse. You have an infinite number of Slack messages. Your email inbox seems to ping with “New unread message” every minute. How do you possibly sift through it all?

The answer lies in process. You have to find a structure, a system, for how all communications are handled. Or else, it will be indeed too much.

For Zapier, a remote company with 200+ people, they emphasize how they separate internal communications from external communications. Here’s what they wrote specifically in their guide to remote work:

“Company and department updates, project specs, design mock-ups, and individual “Friday Update” reports moved from email to our private internal blog, and the aggravating “Reply All” emails that accompanied them became easy-to-read threaded comments. Team and department feedback, along with questions and discussions, moved to team collaboration and chat app Slack, which replaced one-on-one email threads with its private messaging feature, too. And Slack even became the place we find out about new public and private blog posts with a Zapier integration.”

For GitLab, a remote company with 700+ people, they’re deliberate about communicating asynchronously. Attention is finite, and in a remote team, it’s easy to have your attention pulled in too many directions with people pinging you and asking requests of you all the time. In their remote manifesto, GitLab shares this kind reminder: “Can it wait a few minutes, a few hours, even a few days? Don’t take someone from their work if you don’t have to.”

For us here at Know Your Team, as a remote company, we’re quite intentional about our communication processes. We have a company-wide doc called “How We Work” which outlines what to do if something is urgent, how quickly to expect that someone will get back to you, how to share what you’re working on etc. For instance, we use Basecamp for all of our entire team-wide communications, and specifically delineate how “we try to reserve Pings for things that need someone’s attention right away. Typically, we expect someone to reply to a ping within a few hours” and how “we often put non-urgent things in Campfire, that people can check periodically. If you want someone to respond to something within 24 hours, best to write it as a message and not post it in Campfire.”

You can read more about exact processes and tools of running a remote team in Chapter 3.

Default to over-communication.

Communicating as a remote CEO isn’t just about writing or a process — it’s also about the quality and frequency of your communication. While communication is critical for managers who have co-located teams, the importance of communicating well is amplified in a remote team. As Jeff Robbins, founder of Lullabot (another fantastic Know Your Team customer), has said:

“If you don’t communicate well at a distributed company, you don’t exist.”

In other words, if you don’t say or explicitly communicate something as a remote manager, your team has absolutely no idea what you’re thinking. Unlike co-located managers who might rely on small talk or one-off conversations to gauge the pulse of an employee or relay an idea to, remote managers must be much more intentional about communicating.

This couldn’t be more true than for communicating your company’s values in a remote team. As a remote leader, you can’t rely on your body language, tone of voice, or physical office relics to communicate values. You have to explicitly state them over, and over, and over. Wade Foster, CEO of Zapier has highlighted this, saying: “You really need to set the values of what your company is going to look like. The high-level things that you care about.” A perfect example of this is, Automattic, a remote company with 1,000+ employees globally. They’re known for having a well-developed Company Creed that is shared publicly on their website.

This sometimes means over-communicating. In her research, Mandy Brown, co-founder and CEO of Editorially and an editor of STET, found that, “Perhaps the most persistent bit of advice I gathered — and in some ways the most counterintuitive — is the need for remote teams to over-communicate.”

As a remote CEO, I definitely default to over-communication. If I’m unsure of something, I ask questions about it. If I’m wondering if a team member understands what I mean, I share greater detail and context. This isn’t to belabor the point or to create extra work for myself or others. Rather, communication is the oil of the machine in a remote company. Without it, things simply won’t run.

Emphasize empathy, in the absence of in-person cues.

From our survey, remote managers said that the second hardest thing for remote managers was “communicating without in-person cues” (15% of remote managers said this). A request can seem insensitive if you don’t hear what the person’s tone of voice was when they asked it. A question can seem invasive if you’re not able to see the person’s facial expression while they ask it.

One way to overcome this challenge is to create as many opportunities for you as a remote manager to get those in-person cues. Video calls and meetings are ideal for this, as they give you the closest fidelity to in-person. So instead of picking up the phone or writing a long email to a colleague, ask if they can hop on a quick video chat. In fact, in The Watercooler, our online community of leaders in Know Your Team, one manager remarked how they always turn their camera on for video calls – be it one-on-one meetings, team meetings, discussions, or brainstorm sessions. In our survey, remote managers and employees said that they used video to hold meetings and conversations either several times a week (32%) or every single day (22%).

The other means of compensating for the lack of nuanced expression that can happen in communication in a remote team is to afford your team a bit more grace, when receiving communications. If someone’s message comes across as short to you, assume positive intent when they wrote it. Perhaps they were quickly switching between emails. Perhaps they meant to add an “!” at the end and forgot.

When I interviewed Wade Foster, CEO of Zapier, on our podcast, The Heartbeat, he echoed this, talking about how it’s hard to “read” people in a remote company – and very easy to make assumptions about how someone is feeling. So instead, what Wade does vigorously is try to clear the air. If he sends a Slack message and wonders if he came across too strongly, he’ll ask, “Bah did I overstep there?” In other words, he’s never afraid to clarify, seek understanding, and try to make sure the other person is on the same page as him.

In all cases, be it using video more often or assuming greater positive intent in communications, looking to establish more empathy in the absence of in-person cues is enormously helpful.

Communication in a remote team doesn’t have to be as overwhelming or all-consuming as it might originally need to be. As a manager, focus on your writing, your process, the frequency and quality of your communication, and the empathy that comes with it, and you’ll have a solid foundation to operate on.

Takeaways:

  • Great remote leaders understand and utilize writing as a tool.
  • Find a structure, a system, for how all communications are handled – or else, it will be indeed too much.
  • Default to over-communication: If you don’t say or explicitly communicate something as a remote manager, your team has absolutely no idea what you’re thinking.
  • Create as many opportunities for you as a remote manager to get in-person cues from your team.

Put this into practice with Know Your Team:

  • Over-communicate what’s going on in the team with the Heartbeats feature, which keeps everyone in the loop on what they’re working on.
  • Invest in building rapport and trust in your team with our Social Questions feature, which asks fun, non-work-related questions to everyone periodically.