For years, our team spent our days in a cluttered, cramped office space in New York. It was the heart of our operations and what kept us on track, or so we thought.
We were hunting for a larger space to accommodate a growing team when the pandemic hit and everyone scattered to their home offices. We expected a slowdown. But there wasn’t. In fact, we got more done.
Why? Because with the distance, we had to be more focused on communication and coordination. Those are things we took for granted when we had a central office. We assumed that everyone was working in the same direction because we were in the same place.
When we were working from home, however, we had to be more deliberate. We had more pointed conversations about what we were each doing and what the priorities were. Sure, we missed out on some of the casual conversations, but we got better at talking about the important things.
In fact, it worked out so well that we gave up the hunt. We moved our headquarters to Miami and let team members live where they want. Along the way, we learned some important things about communication that others might find helpful.
Let’s start with what doesn’t work. Not thinking about it. That’s what we did when we started working from home. We didn’t have a plan, and we didn’t have a setup. People called when they needed something, sometimes. That’s when things fall through the cracks
Of course, the other extreme isn’t good either. Spending all your time on the phone or sending endless update emails is as bad as sitting through endless meetings. It’s not productive.
It helped that our business is built on staying in touch with people from a distance. Even though we had a central office for the team, we remained committed to ongoing and frequent contact with clients around the world.
What made the difference for us as a team was figuring out the best tools to use and how. For instance, a lot of teams like video conferencing. We’re not big on it for the day-to-day, but we use it for team-building events. We even had a holiday party that included people from coast to coast.
Email is essential for us, but it’s not preferred for quick communications. Things can get lost in the mix too easily. We prefer Skype for a lot of things, like bouncing off ideas. You know how you get a flash of brilliance, and you want to share it. When you’re in an office, you just lean over and talk to the person sitting next to you. Skype is good for that kind of spontaneous brainstorming. It’s good for sharing photos and article links too.
Email is best for the really important things and longer communication. We use it for follow-ups to meetings and for passing along information you need to have on hand and easily reference. Email inboxes can get overloaded, but setting up folders helps.
Phone calls are generally reserved for longer meetings and things that are urgent or too complicated for text. Sometimes, you just need a quick answer and it would take longer to type than dial the phone. Two things I’ve learned though: when you’re the caller, ask if the other person is in the middle of something so you know if you should keep it short; and if you’re getting the call, let the person know if you’re pressed for time.
That brings up another point. It is super critical when you’re not working in the same place to be open about what’s going on. That’s important even when you work together, but you are more likely to pick up on problems when you see someone every day. It’s not always easy. You have to trust that the people you’re working with can handle tough conversations. That means as a manager, you need to set the tone and make sure your team knows it’s okay to bring up issues.
There’s also a tendency when your team is dispersed for people to problem solve on their own. Independence is good and you want people to feel empowered but you don’t want to lose the benefits of having a team to rely on either. We solved this by having a mix of regular and spontaneous contacts.
Regular, planned meetings are essential. Being spontaneous is great, but having something on the calendar helps keep everyone on the same page. Some teams do this daily, some once a week. We have a standing meeting at a set time with the leadership team but keep it short. It’s on the calendar automatically so it actually happens. We also schedule longer meetings as needed.
How do you know if what you’re doing works? Communicate. Check in with your team. Ask them how things are going. Do they hear from managers enough? Are managers getting enough info from their team? Do team members have enough contact with each other?
I thought we did pretty well when we had that central office, but things are even better now. I know it’s not just a set-and-forget kind of thing though. We’ll keep talking and tweaking.