Today, most employees do not work in the same building at the same time each day. Thanks to a variety of tools and technology, and the strong desire for work/life balance, formal or informal distributed teams are now the norm. Congested traffic has created long commutes—even if employees don’t live far away! Technology has enabled employees the opportunity to work anytime and anyplace; yet, the importance of communication is rarely discussed.

In a 2015 HBR article How to Manage Remote Direct Reports, Rebecca Knight explains the importance of communication when managing remote employees. Knight turned to expert Keith Ferrazzi who shared that when it comes to managing remote workers, leaders must be proactive.  He further added, the key to managing relationships with remote employees is to, “set an appropriate cadence of communications.”  In How Successful Leaders Communicate with Their Teams, business consultant Larry Alton emphasizes being proactive and setting expectations, and notes that one of the most critical factors for success as a leader is how they communicate with their teams. When a team is distributed, it’s essential to plan how the team will communicate in all aspects of their work. Doing so eliminates uncertainty, ensures standardization of business processes, and promotes inclusion.

Surveys of remote workers for Flexwork Global clients consistently reveal that relationships with supervisors and established relationships with co-workers influence engagement and feeling connected to corporate culture. A 2013 report from the Institute for Public Relations, Best-in-class Practices in Employee Communication: Through the Lens of 10 Global Leaders, identified that for most employees, their supervisor remains the most trusted source of information. Good leaders of distributed teams inform staff of how they like to get work done; they set expectations, parameters, and requirements on how a team will operate. Great leaders engage and guide teams to success and do not tell them what to do. They enable employees to build strong working relationships that foster trust by encouraging the team to develop a communication plan that meets the needs of all members.

But how much communication is needed? We know with too little, remote workers feel isolated from their company and its culture. But can too much communication be just as harmful? A study conducted by Kathryn L. Fonner, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Michael E. Roloff, Ph.D., Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University discovered that over communication causes stress for remote workers. Their findings, published in Communication Monographs, run counter to many commonly held beliefs about communication with remote workers.

They found frequency of communication to remote workers didn’t increase their feelings of connection to an organization, and that remote workers experience more stress from interruptions when communication increased through email.  Increased communications correlated with negative feelings of attachment to the organization.

A strong communication plan can help leaders set expectations and successfully orchestrate a diverse group of distributed employees. It also ensures remote workers get what they need to stay connected with their team and company. For many employees, working remotely can minimize opportunities to share varied aspects of their life: family, interests, travel, pets, etc. Leaders should facilitate the discussion while employees agree on the elements. This establishes common ground while building relationships. These discussions are ideal at the onset of a team coming together; however, anytime is a good time to establish or re-visit a communication plan. It’s important for all team members to be present and participate in person, or virtually, when writing or revising a team communication plan, as a successful communication plan requires shared understanding and ownership.

Use these guidelines to help craft a successful communication plan:

Communication Goals
Team leaders should facilitate discussions regarding the purpose of a communication plan and establish 2-4 agreed upon goals, for example: guidance for use of e-mails, setting expectations, contact information and knowing team members’ preferences.

Formal and Informal Communication Methods
Team meetings, one on one leader meetings, e-mail, instant messages, and team newsletters are various forms of communications. Gaining consensus on these methods are critical for establishing expectations and building trust.

Team Directory
Information to consider: name, job title, job description, years with company, contact information, location, knowledge profile (areas of expertise), accessibility, educational and work background, projects and work related priorities, personal hobbies and areas of interests, etc.

Team Expectations
Leaders can direct conversations to include their expectations as well. The team should collaborate and agree on timeliness, deadlines, being honest, handling issues, and managing conflict.

Protocols help identify methods of communication and activities they are used for.  This establishes expectations for planning travel, availability and how to give and receive information.

Plan Evaluation
A communication plan should be reviewed annually or at any time a new member is added to the team.

photo credit: