How to Avoid Communication Issues Within a Remote Team
There is no getting around it, your remote team has to be excellent at written communication.
The majority of communication with your remote team — regardless of how many video chat meetings and meetups you have — will be typed out. Without body language and tonal cues, it is very easy for a remote team member to misconstrue a light-hearted message as rude or condescending.
Take Responsibility for the Language
I am a big believer that the original creator of a message has to own how the receiver interprets the message. if a remote team member finds a message to be rude or overtly negative, the onus is on you to figure out why they saw it that way.
You should own the language of your message for two reasons.
- Accountability. if your remote team is productive, they are messaging regularly. By taking ownership of your own message, you draw lines in the sand. You are clearly saying, “I am responsible for what I say and how I say it.” This unblurs a lot of lines in communication.
Conflict Resolution. You should expect, as a remote team leader, that there will be a conflict in communication that will require your intervention to solve. By clearly laying out that the creator of a message is responsible for how the message is perceived, you have given yourself a pre-made foundation from which you can resolve the problem. (That’s not to say that the original creator of the message is at fault. That is up to you to use your good judgement to resolve.)
To solve communication issues, ask the receiver of your message to outline the elements of your message they took issue with. Make sure that person includes specific words and phrases from your message. Take this feedback seriously. Tell the receiver of your message how you will address those concerns in future messages. If needed, write a note about their preferences.
Recognize Your Audience
Your remote team will come from different parts of the country and world. Hopefully, that is one of the many reasons you decided to make your company fully remote. That said, you cannot rely on local communication norms to ensure that what you’re communicating is not being construed negatively.
Research your team members and where they are from. As part of the onboarding process, ask the person you are hiring if there are language norms that should be avoided (this also requires you to be aware of the cultural diversity your remote team).
In short: get to know your people.
Avoid Sarcasm at All Costs
Even when you are meeting with someone face-to-face, sarcasm is a horrible road to go down. For sarcasm to work, you are assuming the person talking to you knows a lot about you and how you think already. Unless that person you’re talking to is a best friend or significant other, chances are they don’t know you well enough to discern between sarcasm and being a jerk.
According to Penelope Trunk, a serial entrepreneur, sarcasm “reveals insecurity and cynicism… is always negative in meaning, and the tone is always disparaging.”
This is truer when your primary method of communication is non-verbal. There are no non-verbal cues that will help assuage the insecurity and cynicism that sarcasm puts on full display.
Additionally, sarcasm begets more sarcasm. Nip it in the bud by simply not allowing it and leading by example.
Flout Grammar Rules When Appropriate
You have to know the rules to break them.
All remote team members should have an excellent grasp of grammar conventions of your official company language. While the default should be to use correct grammar, you can also learn a lot when people choose to break grammar conventions.
For instance, when I am communicating with a remote team casually (like when we are talking about the weather), I am far less concerned about appropriate comma placement. But if I am giving critical feedback, I will make sure that my commas are exactly where they should be.
Ban Words Such as “Obviously”
In face-to-face communications, words such as obviously, clearly, undoubtedly, and of course can be easily looked over. But when you are writing a message to a remote team member, they stick out like a sore thumb.
What is obvious or clear to you may very well not be to the person you’re talking with. And why should it be? They may not have access to the same information as you (especially true if you’re a remote team leader). Even if it is obvious (like the sky is blue), then you’re just being condescending with your language.
Avoid Excessive Caps and Exclamation Marks
When most of your communication is non-verbal, typical cues such as caps, exclamation marks, and formatting take center stage.
Use each of these marks with their explicit purpose. A good rule of thumb is to use caps, exclamation marks, and formatting options conservatively rather than liberally. This ensures that each punctuation mark will serve its purpose and pack the appropriate amount of punch. Don’t dilute a punctuation mark by using it in every message.
Be Aware of Rank
As a leader of a remote team, your choice of words carries weight. And unlike verbal communication in a typical office setting, written communication styles can be read over and over again. It’s also safe to assume that, as a remote team leader, you will be doing the majority of public-facing communication.
If you regularly swear, expect that the rest of your team will also be comfortable with doing so (aside from your team members who may be uncomfortable with such language). If you are consistently using negative language to describe difficult situations, expect that to spread not only in public channels, but in back channels of your chosen communication app as well.
As the leader, your language style informs others how to communicate with each other.
Consider adopting these tips in an accessible form (such as Google document) for your remote team to regularly refer to.