My first few weeks as a remote worker were a revelation.
Suddenly, there was no rush-hour commute, and no trudging through the snow to the train before sunrise. I could spend extra time over the holidays with my parents in Texas and work from the couch, instead of rushing back to New York to report back to an office. I could take an acting gig out of town and work from the road, without having to quit the other job I’d worked so hard to get.
Some of those revelations, however, were a little disorienting. I had become used to working in crowded offices; now, I was alone. I was tackling big projects with people halfway across the country. I couldn’t slide my rolling chair over for a quick question or explanation. I had to figure out a new way of communicating with the other folks on my team.
By observing the example set by the many teams I worked with, I learned what habits create effective and easeful team communication. I also learned how freelancers, independent contractors, and remote workers can meet their team leaders halfway as proactive communicators.
Use the Right Tools
In so many cases, a distributed team’s productivity is only as good as the tools it uses. Ask yourself: What do you need your communication tool to do? Should it support project management? What kind of social interactions does it support (synchronous chat, voice, screensharing, etc.)?
At Don’t Panic, Sococo is our communication tool of choice. Sococo serves a social function and provides a digital space for meetings and discussion—two crucial functions for an entirely distributed team like ours.
Then, once you have the right tool, make sure your team knows how to use it! If you run a team of freelancers, welcoming new members onto your communication platform should be an essential part of the onboarding process. Teach them any unique tool etiquette, and give them a gentle nudge if you see them using a feature incorrectly. (One bit of etiquette for our virtual office is “knocking” before entering someone’s “room”—something you would do naturally in a real-life office, but might not think to do in a virtual one!)
Address Issues With Tool Buy-In
I’ve had the good fortune of working with some pretty incredible teams. But even the best teams had their outliers—those prickly personalities that always seem to be at the center of a conflict or a workflow bottleneck. In every instance, there was a communication issue. Too often, that issue was a team member’s refusal to adopt a communication tool.
If a team member has been slow to adopt your particular tool, address the issue directly. Reiterate the tool’s importance to team workflow. Clarify which team members rely on that communication to complete their work.
Then, leave room for them to express concerns. If your team is made up of freelancers, your communication tool is almost certainly not the only one they’re juggling. (At one point this year, I was running seven different communication/project management tools at the same time. That’s not uncommon for contractors like me!) Expecting a freelance team member to “hang out” all day in Slack or HipChat may be unrealistic. If your tool has a lackluster app or mobile functionality, an always-on-the-go freelancer may not appear as present as other team members working from their desktops.
If your team member expresses these kinds of concerns, set clearer expectations. If “in-office” time is important, establish a time of day or span of hours for the team member to be online and available. If quick responses are a priority, consider routing urgent messages to email or text.
There is no shortage of writing on running better meetings. Nor is there any shortage of meeting strategies and hacks—the 10-person rule, the two-minute silence, the stand-up meeting, the timed meeting, the upside-down meeting, etc. (I made that last one up.)
While I don’t have a clever new hack to add to the list, I do have a few habits I practice to be a good meeting attendee while freelancing with a team.
I do my part to keep the meeting efficient. I come with an agenda. I restate what actions I’ll take once the meeting’s over. I proactively offer help on projects that might need it, rather than always waiting to be assigned tasks. I make sure my presence is needed, rather than requested out of courtesy—I avoid opting-in to meetings out of politeness or a desire to appear hard-working.
I practice good remote etiquette. If video is involved, I dress appropriately (as if I were inviting my team members into my living room for a visit). I make sure my video frame is clear of anything distracting or unprofessional (no piles of clothes or blindingly bright lamps). And, since I live in New York City, I noise-manage my workspace as much as possible, muting my microphone when sirens go past or the neighbor’s baby has a meltdown.
Bridge That Psychological Gap
Your team might start out as an anonymous collection of Gmail avatars, but don’t let them stay that way. Nothing breeds digital friction like forgetting the person behind the profile pic.
Create a digital space for sharing fun things and personal updates. That space could be a Slack channel or an email thread. At Don’t Panic, that space is our private Facebook group, where we upload selfies and “rockstar moments” from the past week every Friday.
Another way to close psychological distance is seeing each other’s faces and hearing each other’s voices. This could be digital, via a Google Hangout or Skype session, or non-digital, if team members ever find themselves in the same city. Don’t Panic does this whenever possible. This Halloween, we piled into a group video chat to show off our costumes, our pets, and our kiddos. Our New York contingent has the joy of regular face-time, seeing shows together and meeting up for brunches and co-working afternoons.
With the great power of freelance work comes the great responsibility of effective communication. I hope you have the incredible luck I did: to learn these lessons alongside a warm, welcoming, top-notch team.