Top ways to improve communication on your remote engineering team

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Communication is an essential part of software development because it directly affects the quality of software that an engineering team produces. It's critical for engineering leaders to foster healthy communication across their teams, especially when team members don't share the same physical location.

Remote engineering teams offer a flexible work environment for developers and access to a larger pool of engineering talent for employers. However, communication can be especially challenging when every team member is in a different physical location and time zone.

In this article, we'll unpack the factors that make communication difficult for remote teams and provide new strategies to help you foster effective communication.

Why is effective communication important?

Communication in remote engineering teams requires a greater amount of deliberate effort relative to teams that share the same physical location. There are several factors that make communication challenging for remote teams, including time zone differences, lack of physical infrastructure, increased likelihood of ambiguous communication, reduced access to team members, and increased dependence on technology. Before we dive into our solutions, here are a few common challenges that most teams face

Time zone differences

It's very likely that everyone on your remote engineering team is not in the same time zone, and there are likely to be some team members whose working hours have little to no overlap with other team members. For example, if you have team members in the United States and Australia that work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., then it's difficult to schedule meetings at a time that works for both team members.

Lack of physical infrastructure

Members of remote teams typically have varying levels of access to dedicated physical spaces and audiovisual equipment for communication. This limited availability of physical infrastructure for communication may cause your team to increase its reliance on asynchronous text-based communication tools, which may be adequate for situations where you need to send quick messages and have short conversations. However, these tools tend to be less effective for conversations about complex or sensitive topics.

Ambiguous communication

As previously stated, in remote teams, it's harder to have effective real-time face-to-face communication. Consequently, it's common for communication to be subject to multiple interpretations, especially when your team relies predominantly on text-based communication.

The reduced level of immediate feedback in remote teams makes it easy for team members to second-guess themselves and worry that their message may have been misunderstood. It's also easy to be too direct, blunt, or vague when you're not able to see a person's reaction. These considerations require your engineering teams to work harder in order to communicate clearly with one another.

Reduced access to team members

Since members of a remote team are in different physical locations, you can't spontaneously walk up to someone for a quick chat the way you could if everyone were in the same office. Furthermore, there are fewer casual interactions with members of your team because everyone is not physically around one another. This means you need to be more deliberate about when and how you communicate with team members. Reduced access to team members is particularly challenging when people need answers quickly.

Increased dependence on technology

Relative to colocated teams where people could talk to each other in person, remote engineering teams tend to rely more on technology for their communication needs. Many channels that enable developers on remote teams to communicate with one another rely heavily on high-quality internet connections and communication devices, such as computers, cell phones, microphones, and cameras. The availability, quality, and access to these necessary technologies tend to vary across geographical locations and, thus, significantly affect your team member's ability to communicate effectively.

So, what are the best ways to improve remote team communication?

As you can see, remote teams have unique communication challenges. You can manage the effects of these communication challenges by adopting appropriate tools and techniques. Following are some tools, techniques, and best practices you can implement to improve your remote team's communication:

Leverage asynchronous communication

When you're working with a remote engineering team, you need to carefully consider the trade-offs between sync and async communication. For remote teams, asynchronous communication is often better than synchronous communication because it's an intrinsically more flexible way to communicate.

Asynchronous communication gives each recipient the flexibility to prepare a response and/or respond whenever they can to a message. For example, instead of setting up a video call with everyone on the team to discuss a topic, you could send an email and a document that summarizes what needs to be discussed. This allows each person on your team to peruse the information at a time that works best for them without feeling rushed.

Asynchronous communication also gives your team an opportunity to prepare for any real-time collaboration that may be scheduled for later. You can facilitate asynchronous communication by providing internal channels where everyone on your team can join in on discussions without having to schedule a time to discuss.

Favoring async communication does not imply that real-time synchronous communication is not valuable. In fact, asynchronous and synchronous communication can be complementary if you use them carefully. Ultimately, your goal should be to help your team recognize that synchronous communication is not always necessary, desirable, or even possible.

For those instances where synchronous communication is necessary, you can encourage your team to use online platforms like Jitsi, Zoom, or Google Meet for videoconferencing. While this may not be as effective as face-to-face communication, it offers some additional visual contact that can help a team connect and communicate better.

Decide on a comprehensive list of communication tools

Beyond needing a specific platform for videoconferencing, there are also other platforms that can enhance your asynchronous work. Slack, Asana, Trello, Confluence, Jira, Basecamp, Google Docs, and Notion are some examples of communication and collaboration tools that many remote engineering teams use to enhance their productivity and communication.

Some features to consider when deciding what tools are right for you include the following:

  • Intuitive user interfaces that don't require advanced technical skills to operate.
  • Adequate handling of time zone information for features related to meeting scheduling and calendars.
  • Creation of separate channels for different teams or projects.
  • File-sharing capabilities for files, screenshots, and any binary formats that are commonly used as part of your team's work.
  • Integrations with other apps so you can post messages and share activity updates across applications.
  • Real-time collaboration capabilities that enable people to work simultaneously on the same document.
  • Software that works reliably across mobile devices and computers.

Conduct virtual team-building exercises

Virtual team-building exercises promote communication and collaboration across remote teams and give your team members a chance to get to know one another. These connections grow over time and potentially have positive downstream effects on collaboration and productivity. Team-building exercises are especially useful for remote engineering teams because they help you to bring people together even though they're not physically in the same place.

Here are some useful tips to consider for team-building exercises:

  • Choose an activity that will allow you and your team members to interact with each other in a fun and engaging way. You can use virtual games and activities, like Skribbl and GeoGuesser, if you want something simple and engaging.
  • Make sure everyone knows what the rules are for the team-building exercise and how it works so that no one feels left out or confused.
  • Ensure that the schedule for your team-building activities does not significantly interfere with team members' projects and deadlines.

Celebrate achievements

Look out for opportunities to celebrate achievements, no matter how small they may seem. It's important to celebrate both team achievements and individual achievements. Recognition helps everyone feel like they're part of something bigger than themselves, and these celebrations provide increased visibility for team members who may feel like they don't have enough awareness of what everyone else on the team is doing.

One way to celebrate individual and team contributions is to provide a team-wide or company-wide communication channel where anyone on the team can express positive sentiments about anything impressive that someone else on the team did. Or you could send out a weekly email with shout-outs celebrating the contributions of specific team members. This helps you promote a culture of recognition and appreciation across your team and helps the team feel valued.

Focus on clear, succinct communication

It's important to focus on clear communication because it helps you minimize the likelihood that people will misinterpret messages. Some things you can do to improve the clarity of communication include the following:

  • Always consider the context of the conversation and how others may interpret your message before sending it.
  • Be intentional about the words you use. For example, instead of saying, ‚ÄúDon't forget to run the tests next time,‚Äù you could instead say something like, ‚ÄúPlease remember to run the tests from now on.‚Äù The former focuses on the negative action of ‚Äúforgetting‚Äù that may make the recipient feel scolded. The latter focuses on the positive action of ‚Äúremembering‚Äù that may help to keep the recipient focused on the desired behavior.
  • Avoid idioms when communicating with non-native English speakers and people in geographical regions that are significantly different from yours. Many region-specific idioms are not well understood in some parts of the world.

Define communication norms

Establishing communication norms, especially for tone and timing, helps everyone align on acceptable communication practices within your team. For example, you could establish a guideline that encourages your team to only send emails during a specific time frame, or you could encourage team members to send out a detailed agenda via email before scheduling a meeting.

Consider documenting these norms and best practices in a place that every team member has access to.

Use visual aids with written communication

Writing is often an effective way to communicate clearly and concisely across your team. Including well-designed visual aids in written communication is an important way to enhance the clarity of your writing.

Well-designed visual aids can simplify complex concepts and information into a simple picture or diagram that everyone on your team can understand quickly and easily, regardless of where they are located. You can use visual aids as a shortcut for communicating complex information without requiring your team to read through several pages of text. For example, a carefully designed architecture diagram can communicate similar amounts of information that would otherwise require several paragraphs of text.

Plan regular check-ins

Check-ins are an effective way to keep everyone on the same page and avoid surprises when something goes wrong. They also provide an opportunity for you to share status updates and ask questions or provide feedback.

Weekly check-ins may be sufficient if your remote engineering team is small and is not spread out across multiple zones. If you have a large team and are dealing with various time zones, it may be necessary to schedule check-ins with smaller groups more frequently than once a week.

Respect team diversity

Awareness of team members' cultural backgrounds can help you more readily recognize when words or phrases may not translate well across cultures. Furthermore, not everyone on your team is going to speak the same language to the same degree of fluency.

It's also important to remember that not all team members need to communicate in the same way, with the same tools, at all times. For example, some team members may prefer email, while others may prefer video calls. Consider asking your team members what their preferred communication channels are and when they're most active throughout the day. Then you can use these unique preferences to build your meeting and check-in schedules.

Last thoughts

Continually improving communication across your remote engineering team can lead to better quality software, less rework, and better employer–employee relationships. Each team has unique needs, and it takes intentional and focused effort to identify what works best for your team.

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