Communication for Remote Workers

5 minutes, 6 links


Updated March 23, 2023

You’re reading an excerpt of The Holloway Guide to Remote Work, a book by Katie Wilde, Juan Pablo Buriticá, and over 50 other contributors. It is the most comprehensive resource on building, managing, and adapting to working with distributed teams. Purchase the book to support the author and the ad-free Holloway reading experience. You get instant digital access, 800 links and references, a library of tools for remote-friendly work, commentary and future updates, and a high-quality PDF download.

A lack of communication and daily, in-person interactions can create strong feelings of isolation, and poor communication can also lead to confusion and frustration around who is doing what within your team. Communication also can be a serious nuisance: constant interruptions from Slack or email threads that go nowhere but won’t die can make it hard to get and stay focused. We cover this topic in detail for teams in Working Together When Apart, so here we focus largely on the individual perspective of remote employees and how they can be proactive, effective communicators.

Communicating Intentionally and Appropriately

I find that the single most important element of successful remote work has nothing to do with how you are organized, how competent you are, or how much you work, but how good you are in building and maintaining relationships and consequently building trust with the people you work with.Stephan Dohrn, remote working expert and coach*

Remote workers (and their in-office colleagues, if applicable) are responsible for filling in potential communication gaps that asynchronous, written conversation can leave. This can apply to both practical information (how urgent something is) and more subtle, emotional tone and content. The key is to be clear and intentional when communicating with anyone remotely. A few tactics for this include:

  • Understanding individual preferences. How do your fellow team members like to communicate? Do they prefer writing, or would they rather find a way to chat over video or the phone? Are they structured people who appreciate a table with all the important information, or do they thrive in a chat application without any structure? You can’t be a great team member unless you know how everybody prefers to connect and find common ground.

  • It’s critical to make sure your team knows the answers to these questions about you, as well. This includes figuring out what the best communication style is for you.

  • Effective teams document this information in individual team agreements.

  • Using explicit communication. Share and document your thinking, clearly and early in the process. It’s easy to want to “tap someone on the shoulder” in Slack, but if you’re not explicit about what you’re writing about, and how important it is, the other person is left wondering or uncertain, and may fill in the gaps in ways that lead to misunderstanding or confusion. Explicit communication is the difference between a message that says, “Do you have a minute?” and “[Non-urgent] Hey! Would love your feedback on my client proposal. Can you take 5 min before Tuesday evening if possible and review it? Thanks!”*

Making Time for Chit Chat

One of the most effective tools in combating isolation,* that also can help your productivity* is to build non-work related communication into your workday and take time for chatting and sharing with colleagues. Remote employees don’t tend to get noticed until they reach out, so you’ll likely need to take the initiative and make these connections.

Many companies have casual chat channels in Slack or similar tools. It’s also important to allocate some time in any meetings you have for personal, fun banter and not just get down to the agenda immediately. These are the kinds of moments that happen naturally in an office setting; remote employees usually need to factor these in consciously to make sure they happen. This is doubly important to understand if you’re managing remote people.

story “At Holloway, we have an #office channel where everyone says hello in the morning and gives people a sense of what their day looks like. It might just be emoji about the weather, or a detail about some non-work related thing they’re also doing that day. We also have a #random channel where posting pretty much anything is fair game (within reason, of course), and that is usually an excellent distraction when you need a break from deep work.” —Courtney Nash, Director of Editorial, Holloway

Outside of work, you can use offline resources, like finding local Meetup groups, taking classes, and keeping an eye out for events in your city. The time you save by not commuting could give you a little extra space for that important social interaction.

Further Reading on Communication for Remote Workers

Deep Focus

Maintaining a strong sense of focus is central to deep, knowledge-based tasks. Working from home can invite many distractions, especially if you don’t have clear delineation around your workspace, routine, and when you’re available to friends, roommates, or family.

Fadeke Adegbuyi of Doist created a fantastic summary of Cal Newport’s Deep Work, which we can’t recommend more enthusiastically for remote workers. If there’s one takeaway from her guide to deep work, it would be to schedule your day methodically. Without the structure of an office, your own schedule (which should be reflected in your calendar!) is what makes or breaks your ability to get deep, focused work done.

Other key aspects for deep work are maintaining self-discipline and having strong boundaries. As a remote worker you will be more successful at supporting deep focus if you:

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