And Other Rules of Engagement for Remote Teams
Thanks to COVID-19, most businesses have now been exposed to the challenges of remote work. As the founder of a company that’s been fully remote for over a decade, I have plenty of experience with those challenges. In my opinion, the problem that is most likely to make or break your company's culture is communication. Whether you like it or not, learning to effectively communicate with your co-workers and managers in a distributed environment plays a huge role in the kind of culture you develop. Your team is made up of unique, complex individuals, all of whom have different communication styles and preferences. These differences can lead to some pretty unhealthy habits if you don't equip your team with clearly defined rules of engagement.
Seriously, just because you're on Facebook 24 / 7 doesn't mean I'm going to field your questions in the Messenger app. And while it was funny the first time, please stop submitting your performance reports on TikTok, even with that kickin' beat.
When we launched Abenity.com with a fully remote team in 2006, I had no concept of the complexity each new hire would bring to our workflow and our internal communications. We had not yet discovered the value that a communication plan would bring to our fully distributed team. Truthfully, until employee 6 or 7, our anything goes approach worked perfectly well; people communicated in whatever way they most preferred, and we got by without many issues. But as our remote workforce grew, we realized our communication plan (or lack thereof) was causing problems. And all too quickly, our dream of building a remote workforce around a common mission was beginning to crumble before our eyes. So, we began to look for patterns within the scenarios that routinely disrupted our work.
It wasn't long before we identified four major causes of our communication gaps:
Our team members had different response time expectations for one other, and since it wasn't possible to visit each other at their desk for feedback, our people would routinely get frustrated when someone's availability, or lack thereof, affected their ability to move work forward.
Our team members had different communications preferences. While one person preferred a phone call, others preferred email, chat messenger, or texting.
Tasks and deadlines were consistently missed when delegated by email, text message, or chat.
Tensions between team members would routinely rise when clarifications or time-sensitive conversations took place in a text format (i.e.: email, chat, text messages) where intonation and intent is difficult to interpret.
For example... check out how the meaning of this sentence changes just by changing where you place the emphasis:
I didn't say he robbed the bank. I didn't say he robbed the bank. I didn't say he robbed the bank. I didn't say he robbed the bank.
I didn't say he robbed the bank. I didn't say he robbed the bank. I didn't say he robbed the bank. I DIDN'T SAY HE ROBBED THE BANK. P.S. Unless you're looking for a fight, all caps isn't the way to go.
Understanding these scenarios led us to develop a unified set of communication standards that we internally refer to as our Rules of Engagement. These rules have governed our daily communication rhythms for more than a decade now, and they continue to play a key role in our ability to navigate exponential growth while maintaining a healthy remote team culture.
Rules of Engagement for Remote Teams
As our team grew, we continued to analyze the way we worked together, and after many years of refining our processes, I'm excited to share the following plan, which continues to serve the needs of our fully remote team today, in spite of the physical distance between them:
#1: Email - No internal emails. This may sound crazy at first, but trust me, after a decade of collaborating internally without email, I can promise that you'll never regret the decision to stop sending internal emails. Email is not a good tool for delegating tasks, collaborating on projects, or asking clarifying questions. And, by cutting out those pesky internal emails, you'll find yourself that much closer to the elusive inbox zero.
Email is, however, an excellent tool for all types of external communications and is typically more efficient than follow-up phone calls. Email is also great for record keeping and documenting expectations.
#2: Chat - Chat is fun, fast, and functional. Essentially, chat is the office environment you used to have, but don't any more. Chat platforms, like Slack, have effectively replaced the water cooler and make it extremely easy for teams to stay connected, establish trust, share ideas, be silly, and get feedback in real-time. Chat lets you send private peer-to-peer messages (like a text message), or collaborate with multiple people at once in teams. You can also notify everyone on your team at once with an APB (all-points-bulletin). We exclusively use chat for internal follow-ups, clarifying questions, team updates, announcements, and reminders. We also use chat to celebrate our victories and debrief the occasional defeat. Chat also helps us to authentically interact and build meaningful relationships with one another. We've established a few custom channels to establish a healthy community for our team. We also equip our team with the following channels to help them establish more meaningful relationships with one another: Core Values Channel - Our team members recognize each other in this channel on a regular (almost daily) basis for living out one of our R-GIST core values. All Team Channel - We use this channel for announcements and reminders that impact everyone, like new client and new team member introductions, survey requests, etc. Today's Events - We connected this channel with Google Calendar to automatically announce birthdays, work anniversaries, out of office notifications, and observed holidays.
Sponsored Kids - At Abenity, we sponsor children in Senegal as a part of our Social Mission. Every Friday we feature one of the kids we sponsor within this channel, keeping our mission top of mind and close to heart. Random Channel - Anything goes! Terrible joke Tuesdays, prayer requests, lots of cats, hobby sharing, kid photos, you name it! Just for fun, I grabbed the latest image from our random channel... this mouse's name is Mouse. She was rescued 3 weeks ago by our V.P. of Client Sales and she's ready to return to the wild. It's important to note that chat is not a great place to request feedback (use a survey tool instead), delegate new tasks (use a project management tool), flesh out big ideas (host a video call), or accomplish anything that would be adversely affected by messages getting lost, buried, or overlooked, which is a common issue with chat. #3: Audio / Video Conferencing - Internally we use Google Meet for scheduled team huddles and collaboration that requires the input of multiple team members, deeper conversations, brainstorming, and troubleshooting. These face-to-face collaborations are enhanced by screen sharing capabilities in situations that are easier to show than tell. We like to use Zoom for external communications with clients, potential clients, and suppliers.
It's important to recognize that the overuse of video for your communications will accelerate your feelings of burnout. According to a recent BBC News article, being on a video call requires more energy than an in person chat or phone call as our brains must process the dissonance experienced by our minds being present with one another in the absence of our bodies.
#4: Phone - We don't use the phone as much as we used to, but there are times when a phone call is the most healthy option for teams. A quick phone call is still the easiest way to tackle clarifying questions that are too complicated for chat but not complicated enough to require team audio / video conferencing. Phone calls provide your body and your brain with a good opportunity to stretch, move around, and experience a change of scenery as well.
#5: Text Messaging - We don’t text each other internally unless it’s an emergency where we need the input of someone who is out of the office. And we don’t recommend texting externally with suppliers or clients since they quickly marginalize work / life balance and don’t offer a reliable paper trail.
#6: Task / Project Management - We use Asana for delegating tasks internally. This allows us to communicate priorities, cast vision, set due dates, monitor progress, and collaborate across multiple teams on a wide variety of projects. #7: Social Media - We highly encourage our team to connect with one another outside of work, but there's no place for social media as a communication tool within our daily business rhythms. And finally, don't forget the golden rule for any type of communication — always address your recipient by name, even in one-on-one communications. If you're addressing a group, then pick someone to kick things off. This simple step insures clarity and keeps things moving.
Don't forget the golden rule for any type of communication — always address your recipient by name, even in one-on-one communications.
Today, Abenity's team includes more than 30 people who are distributed across 10 states and 4 time zones. If we hadn't established these rules of engagement early on, then we wouldn't have achieved exponential growth, established a strong sense of community as a purpose-driven team, or earned the right to support the Fortune 500 companies and small businesses that we so proudly serve today.
I've created a free remote communication guide to help you quickly design your own Rules of Engagement for your remote team. This one-page template is the same format that we use at Abenity within our employee handbook and in the onboarding process.
Let’s Talk! I have two questions for you... 1) Could you function without sending internal emails? Does this idea cause any anxiety for you?
2) When it comes to team communication, what rules of engagement have you created that we could learn from? Looking for a next step? Join my community of purpose-driven leaders to get FREE resources for your team.
About the Author: Brian Roland is a social entrepreneur and Founder of Abenity, the 6x Inc. 5000 company that’s powering corporate perks for top brands like U.S. Bank and Mastercard. While Abenity provides millions of subscribers with private discounts, the company’s social mission is fighting extreme poverty with every program they deliver. Abenity recently exceeded $1 million dollars of total giving and hired a CEO to accelerate growth with their fully remote team. Brian lives in Scottsdale, Arizona with his family and enjoys roasting coffee, flying drones, and helping impact-driven entrepreneurs establish a social mission of their own.