Remote Communication Deep Dive: Cultivating a Successful Distributed Workforce

Written by Abby Nieten on January 29, 2019

Posted in Human Resources

What do modern-day distributed teams have in common with prehistoric hunter-gatherers?

Apparently, the work-from-home life.

While remote work is not nearly as recent as you might think, it has seen tremendous growth over the last 10–15 years. A 2017 report by FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics found that telecommuting half-time or more increased by 115% from 2005 to 2015.

But how do companies with remote workers avoid disconnect and maintain a cohesive culture?

A recent article from The Wall Street Journal suggests that the most successful companies of the present and future are those that give employees a sense of belonging. The author states, “Amid growing divisiveness and stridency in public life, a sense of belonging at the office will be increasingly prized by employees, and a crucial condition for fostering innovation.”

Does this mean trouble for companies with a virtual team? Maybe. Is it possible to create a sense of belonging among employees who are geographically dispersed? Yes.

Regardless of work environment, proactive communication is important. But for remote organizations, success is absolutely dependent on leaders being intentional about establishing a company-wide communication system.

Technological innovations simplify remote communication and give distributed teams just as much of an opportunity to be engaged and collaborative as teams who spend their days working between the same four walls. But it has to be done right, or you’ll end up with a team of isolated, unproductive, unhappy people.

Here at Formstack, nearly 70% of our workforce is 100% remote, and we’ve been honing our remote working expertise for years. To help companies that are looking to adopt a work-from-home policy or hire a virtual team from the start, we’ve gathered some resources that detail what it takes to do remote work successfully. If you’re here to absorb all the virtual team knowledge, dive in!

The Tools

Nothing is more important to remote team communication than the team’s digital toolbox. Without the ability to have organic, in-person interactions, employees can easily fall victim to “out of sight, out of mind.” Thus, it’s crucial to create a tech stack that provides multiple avenues for communication.

Some of the most popular remote work tools allow for seamless video conferencing, instant messaging, meeting scheduling, and document collaboration. Here’s our lucky seven list:

Remote Team Communication Tools

1. Zoom

Zoom is great for getting face time with your team. It’s a video conferencing tool that supports both small and large group meetings (one-time or recurring) and offers mobile accessibility. It also allows you to set up unique meeting URLs so that each meeting occurs in its own private space. Another option for video conferencing is Google Hangouts, which some remote teams rely on for smaller group meetings.

2. Slack

Slack is a chat tool that can serve as a replacement for the more casual conversations you’d have in an office setting. It allows for quick, one-on-one conversations or ongoing group discussions via specific channels. You can create any type of channel, such as one for your department, one for company-wide socializing, or one for quick company announcements. You can also add a little fun to your Slack chats with GIFs and emojis.

3. Google Calendar

Google Calendar gives distributed teams an easy way to share and view team members’ calendars for seamless meeting scheduling. If you’re trying to schedule a meeting with multiple people, you can view all their calendars at once to find an open time slot. Additionally, Google Calendar has a setting that allows users to indicate their working hours. If you try to schedule a meeting with someone outside the working hours they’ve set, you will receive an alert (which is useful when working with team members from different time zones). You can also add the Zoom Scheduler Chrome extension, which allows you to schedule Zoom meetings directly from your calendar.

4. Google Drive

Document accessibility is an important consideration for a virtual team. Using a team collaboration tool like Google Drive, you can create and store Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides—all of which can be accessed by multiple team members at once and updated in real time. You can organize Google Drive by creating folders and even shared team drives for important documents, logo images, etc. Similar tools that may be useful for remote teams include Confluence, Dropbox, and Dropbox Paper.

5. Jell

Jell is a tool that helps make tasks and goals visible. Team members can quickly submit daily or weekly standups, as well as track quarterly goals at the company, department, and individual level. Additionally, you can connect Jell with your email and Slack tools to get notifications when tasks have been completed and goals have been reached.

6. Jira

Jira is an agile project management tool that helps teams plan sprints and track project status. It has a Kanban board feature that allows project cards to be swiftly moved through a series of steps from “To Do” to “Done.” Some distributed teams also use Trello for this type of project management.

7. Formstack

I have to include Formstack on this list because it truly is a tool that can streamline communication among virtual teams. Some of the ways we use it in our remote communications are to facilitate annual reviews, measure employee engagement, and gather feedback on in-person company retreats. We also have a Q&A Formstack form that employees can use to submit anonymous questions they’d like the leadership team to answer at an upcoming company-wide meeting. Additionally, the marketing team has a weekly wins form that we use to give our coworkers shout-outs or thank yous each week.

Note: I intentionally left email off this list because that should be a given. Whether your team is geographically dispersed or working in the same office, email is a standard business communication tool.

The Tactics

Creating a successful remote communication strategy means more than implementing the right software. Once you find the right tools, you need to ensure you’re adopting practices that help remote employees feel like part of a team. Here are six tactics to consider:

1. Provide home office support.

If you want your virtual team communication to go smoothly, you need to make sure everyone has what they need to succeed remotely. Good ways to do this include providing employees with reliable hardware, IT support, and even monthly stipends to pay for high speed internet, membership at a coworking space, or other remote working expenses. If you want to take it further, consider following Stack Overflow’s example and shipping an office desk and chair to all remote employees.

2. Develop shared company values and language.

Creating a cohesive remote team starts with a set of core company values. Everyone should know, understand, and believe in these values to help the team operate as a unit. Having some company-specific terminology can also help with the cohesion. For example, at Formstack, we refer to ourselves as “Formstackers,” and we call remote employees “remoties.” We also have annual in-person meetups that we’ve dubbed “All Hands,” while our smaller department meetups are called “Small Hands.”

3. Conduct all hands meetings.

Speaking of All Hands, setting up periodic all-company meetings (virtual and in-person) is crucial to helping everyone stay on the same page. Here at Formstack, we have a monthly all-team Zoom meeting to discuss company and department updates and to address any outstanding questions. We also get together in person once a year to discuss the future of the company and strengthen team relationships.

4. Offer training and professional development opportunities.

A great way to show remote employees that you care about their growth and development at the company is to offer virtual training opportunities. There are a wealth of development courses available on sites like Udemy, or you can develop your own training courses for things like leadership development and technical skills improvement.

5. Make time for fun and celebrations.

You might think fun is hard to achieve in a virtual work environment, but it’s not true. There are so many ways to inject joy into your remote company culture. You can set up Friday socials that involve reimbursing employees for lunch and allowing them to hop on a video call to chat and eat. You can also plan holiday events, such as online Halloween trivia or a virtual Secret Santa gift exchange. Additionally, you can plan fun around company milestones, such as an anniversary. Formstack celebrated the first anniversary of our Fast Forms acquisition (also known as the first birthday of our Salesforce app) by shipping all employees a Twinkie and a candle and getting together on Zoom to partake in the sweet treat.

6. Get creative.

Consider your industry or company focus and come up with some creative ways to engage your specific employees through remote communication channels. Since Formstack is a tech company, we recently had a virtual hack day, where employees from various departments worked together on projects outside their normal work responsibilities. It was a great way to inspire innovation and let employees pitch their craziest ideas.

The Trendsetters

If you’re looking for inspiration from companies who are growing and thriving with distributed teams, you’ll find plenty. We’ve rounded up seven to get you started:

1. Formstack

Formstack started out as an Indiana-based company in 2006 but saw value in remote working a few years later. Today, we have physical offices in Indiana, Colorado, and Ontario, but the majority of employees are remote (and even those located near an office can work remotely if they choose). Learn more about remote life at Formstack.

2. Basecamp

Basecamp is headquartered in Chicago, but—like Formstack—all employees are free to live and work wherever they want. This company even wrote a book on remote working called “REMOTE: Office Not Required.”

3. Buffer

Buffer is a fully remote team. They had a physical office in the early stages of the business but eventually decided to ditch the office completely. Find out what they think are the biggest distributed team benefits.

4. InVision

InVision has been a fully remote company since its founding in 2011, and it has never established an official headquarters. Business Insider recently published an article about the competitive edge of InVision’s remote workforce.

5. Zapier

Like InVision, Zapier has had a virtual team since its launch in 2011. They love to talk about the remote life and have put together “The Ultimate Guide to Remote Work.”

6. Chargify

Chargify is another company that has always had a remote team. Consequently, they have some pretty good remote work tips to share.

7. Stack Overflow

Stack Overflow has offices in New York, London, and Munich, but its employees are geographically dispersed all over the world. Find out from them what it means to be a remote-first company.

8. Time Doctor

The Time Doctor team is fully remote, with its 80 employees working from 23 different countries. Time Doctor is also a leading time-tracking app for virtual workers, and they have a lot of expert content on managing remote teams.

If the remote work life is sounding pretty good right about now, head on over to the Formstack Careers page to check out all our open positions. We’d love for you to join our flexible team and start your own remote journey.