Remote Collaboration: Methods for Effective Virtual Communication

remote collaboration

While some employers take steps back and sacrifice their popular telework policies in the name of remote collaboration, Virtual Vocations looks ahead to remote collaboration methods and solutions that allow both the business and the distributed team to thrive. 

One cursory look at telecommuting business news and the assumption is telework policies are detrimental to companies. In 2013, Yahoo made waves by ending their telecommuting practice, and over the next three years other big-name employers followed suit by drastically reducing or altogether eliminating their work-at-home arrangements for employees and independent contractors.

The Remote Collaboration Blame Game

In addition to viewing telecommuting as a disposable perk, companies like Yahoo, Best Buy, Aetna, Honeywell International, and Hewlett-Packard have something else in common: they all claim the need for improved remote collaboration as justification for eliminating or scaling back their telework policies, implying that the only way for businesses to maximize their reach and productivity is for their staff to work on-site.

“We do not plan to end telework at Aetna, but more opportunities to work together in person can help make a difference by providing an environment for innovative thinking and sharing of ideas among teams,” stated Aetna spokesperson Matthew Clyburn in response to Aetna’s telecommuting policy shift.

Honeywell expressed nearly identical sentiments via fall 2016 letters to their more than 120,000 employees, according to the StarTribune. Honeywell CEO David M. Cote’s decision to restrict telework to no more than a handful pre-approved days per year based on the circumstances of individual employees was attributed to the desire “…to encourage the high level of collaboration…” Honeywell needs to outperform industry competitors.

Related: View Custom Profiles of Telecommute-Friendly Employers

Moving Against the Current

Telecommuting is an easy scapegoat for poor company collaboration, but correlation does not always equal causation. While a slump in company collaboration and/or business performance may become evident to an employer once more employees begin working remotely, this doesn’t mean telecommuting is the cause of the company ill for which it is receiving blame.

Take for example the relationship between ice cream and homicide (Yes, you read that correctly.) As ice cream sales rise so does the murder rate, but to blame homicides on ice cream would be ridiculous.

Other factors must be taken into account, as they also should when correlating poor company collaboration and instances of telecommuting. A downturn in collaboration could be the result of unclear or informal communication policies or slowing company morale; it also could be a symptom of broader operational issues.

While the motivation for employers to eliminate or reduce their telework policies is speculative, one thing is not up for debate: telecommuting is in higher demand than ever—data doesn’t lie.

Nearly four million professionals in the United States work from home at least 50% of the time. What’s more, among non-self employed U.S. workers, telecommuting increased by 103% from 2005 to 2015, according to GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com.

Virtual Vocations confirmed the high demand for U.S. remote work opportunities in our most recent telecommuter survey issued during October 2016. The voluntary National Work & Family Month survey completed by more than 1,000 registered Virtual Vocations members currently working in or in search of a telecommute job revealed that 82.8% of professionals would accept lower wages in exchange for the opportunity to work from home at least some of the time.

remote collaboration

Methods for Effective Virtual Communication

Rather than altering their telecommuting policies to require employees to work on-site at their nearest company headquarters location or move to keep their jobs, employers should rethink their remote collaboration approach to not only fulfill business performance objectives, but also meet the needs of their employees, who are more likely to enjoy greater levels of productivity and quality of life as remote workers.

Related: Telecommuter’s Tell All Survey Results

Consider these strategies for improved remote collaboration among a geographically dispersed workforce:

1. Set Universal Expectations

Every level of a virtual company’s hierarchy should set clear objectives and policies about remote collaboration. The prioritization of fluid, transparent communication channels should be felt throughout the fabric of the organization and function as an unmistakable pillar of the company’s culture.

2. Remain Accessible

Collaborative accessibility is more easily achieved by on-site workers because they can physically witness that their colleagues and supervisors are present to answer questions as they arise, but this doesn’t indicate remote workers are at a collaborative disadvantage—they simply have to put forth additional, albeit minute, effort make their presence known.

Small steps like checking in with your remote team once a day via email or text, or setting your instant messaging status to “Available,” rather than remaining “Invisible,” during work hours are enough to reinforce that you are accessible to your co-workers and prepared to contribute to projects in real-time.

3. Be Transparent

If you ever question whether or not you have provided enough details in a department or project update, lean to the side of over-communication with your remote team members and supervisors. Instead of waiting for your co-workers or managers to address questions about assignments that have been delegated to you, be proactive and connect those dots ahead of time.

Virtual supervisors should be just as proactive in their communication styles. Your team members shouldn’t have to wonder about updates to company policy, performance objectives, role changes, department metrics (where appropriate), or the status of invoicing, payments, and tax paperwork.

4. Make Timely Responses

A delayed response to remote correspondence brings with it a whole new set of questions and potential consequences in comparison to an ignored email from a colleague working one cubicle away.

When messages go unanswered by telecommuters, virtual team members and supervisors could experience significant project delays or be left to imagine whether or not you have altogether abandoned the project or been sucked into the recesses of the Darknet.

If responding to a particular email or providing an assignment update will require a significant amount of your time—time which isn’t immediately available—send along a quick, yet professional, message letting your remote team know that you have received their correspondence and are working to formulate a response, which you will issue at a later time.

5. Include a Message with File Attachments

Aside from being courteous, including a message with file attachments sent to your telecommuting co-workers and supervisors will make it easier for them to search their digital archives and retrieve the files at a later date, especially if the file names don’t necessarily indicate the nature of the content or data.

6. Give Emails Structure

Formulate emails in a purposeful manner that includes elements like the following:

  • Professional greeting and closing
  • Fluff-free statement of the main point(s)
  • Bulleted or numbered lists for presenting multiple points of note, supporting facts, or data across a number of categories
  • Call to action, which can include elements like questions, requests, instructions, and information about follow-up correspondence
7. Check Your Emotions 

When collaborating remotely, telecommuters should refrain from allowing their emotions to steer the tone of their messages or rework messages they have received. Always write and read from a level-headed place, and never hit “Send” when you feel out of control.

Remember, no matter how skilled you are at remote collaboration, some nuances of interpersonal communication become muddled when corresponding primarily through text. From behind a keyboard it’s all too easy to apply our own frustrations to the words of our colleagues or unleash personal hurts into the professional realm. Sometimes it may be easier to dissect intricate project details or resolve a sensitive matter over the phone or via video chat.

remote collaboration

Remote Collaboration at Virtual Vocations

Part of Virtual Vocations’ success in operating the Web’s largest and most comprehensive telecommute-only jobs database is that our staff is uniquely positioned to understand the needs of telecommute job seekers, because we’ve all been there. As a 100% remote company, all of Virtual Vocations’ team members have experienced the ebbs and flows of searching for virtual employment at all stages of professional experience and within a diverse range of industries.

However, the first-level experience that enables the Virtual Vocations team to provide the best telecommute job search experience to our registered members creates equally unique challenges for managing Virtual Vocations’ geographically dispersed team, working remotely from Utah, Japan, and dozens of locations in between.

In order to formulate a remote collaboration strategy to mitigate these challenges and create a thriving virtual communication model, Shannon Cyr, Virtual Vocations’ Database Operations Manager, embarked on a mission to meet the company’s remote collaboration needs without compromising Virtual Vocations’ commitment to providing a wholly telecommute work environment for its employees and independent contractors.

The interview transcript below highlights Shannon’s process for evaluating Virtual Vocations’ remote collaboration deficiencies, as well as her informed decision to rely on Slack—a cloud-based, real-time digital messaging, archiving, and search platform—as the Virtual Vocations team’s remote collaboration solution.

Prior to registering for Slack, how did the Virtual Vocations team collaborate?

Like many remote companies, we used a mix of email, Google sheets, Google chat and telephone calls.

What was your motivation for pursing a new avenue of remote collaboration?

In response to a steady increase in telecommute job postings during 2016, our team grew by more than 50% in the second quarter, highlighting three organizational problems: 1.) limited cross-department communication; 2.) antiquated knowledge sharing techniques; 3.) a lack of inclusivity.

Our work groups are formed by job function. And while communication within each area is fluid, cross-company communication needed improvement. Our teams are highly effective, but as a company we were fragmented.

When our team was small, we could get away with having one or two people responsible for disseminating information across the board, but as our team grew, the need for open and transparent communication became imperative.

As a 100% virtual company, we’re faced with the additional challenge of not having face-to-face conversations with each other. When people work in the same physical office it’s easier to read nonverbal cues to establish greater understanding, and have spontaneous conversations that promote better collaboration.

Our growth spurt also highlighted our need for a searchable knowledge base so new hires could access shared information critical to our business processes and procedures.

And finally, despite all the benefits of working remotely, it can be very isolating. Remote staffers miss out on office banter and building working friendships. We wanted to find a way to facilitate casual conversations to help make the distance between us dissolve.

Did you explore any other remote collaboration platforms and, if so, why did you ultimately choose Slack?

We tried Asana a few years back but our team never warmed up to it. They didn’t like the UI, the learning curve was too steep, and the tool didn’t have all of the functionality we required to be effective.

What are the various functions of Slack that help support Virtual Vocations’ communication strategy?

Slack lets us efficiently communicate in real-time and quickly loop in other staff as needed. People are no longer accidently dropped off, or wondering why they were added to, email threads and there’s no worry about leaving out important details. Slack’s chat history makes it easy to get people up to speed in record time.

The ability to create channels focused on specific topics, with all information contained in one searchable place, makes it easier to reach actionable solutions. Channels have also erased the need for status updates. Since all prior channel conversation can be viewed by managers, our staff can stay in the flow and focus on what’s important: getting fresh jobs leads to our subscribers.

In what ways has Slack improved Virtual Vocations’ remote collaboration?

Slack’s search feature turns everything from department guidelines to casual chats into a single, company-wide archive.

Being able to centrally store conversation threads that we can comment and collaborate on has increased our overall productivity, improved staff knowledge, enhanced cooperation, and helped foster a more inclusive work environment.

It can also be difficult for virtual team members to see how their work impacts the company as a whole. Slack makes it possible for our staff to see how their contributions fit into the big picture.

One of the things I like most about Slack is seeing our team interact with each other. Before Slack, I was one of the few people who knew all of our dynamic team members. Since a majority of our communication was through email, it didn’t allow for much team-building. But now that we have Slack, our team can interact with each other across departments. Conversations are faster, simultaneous and more relaxed. I’ve learned so much more about our team in the past six months using Slack than I have over the past six years through email.

What are your favorite Slack features?

The search feature. Unlike email, you can actually find what you’re looking for in Slack. I love that I can search across all channels and private messages with just a fragment of a conversation. When engaged in multiple conversations across several teams, this is the ultimate time (and sanity) saver.

Emojis. They’re great for adding in a little personality and humor to the conversation.

Starring messages and files. The days of sticky notes and flagged emails are happily now a distant memory. Starring items for future action helps me juggle multiple tasks and somehow keep all balls in the air.

Have you experienced, or are you currently experiencing, any gaps in remote collaboration that you would ideally like to see filled?

Not at this time, which is welcome news!

Do you believe that remote collaboration platforms, like Slack, foster increased instances of telecommuting?

Absolutely. One of the greatest fears many companies have with offering remote work is lack of control, especially if the organization is new to a telecommuting work arrangement. Any organization considering a telecommuting work environment that looks into Slack will have many of those fears erased.

Practice Effective Virtual Communication in a New Telecommute Job

Unlike other job aggregation services, Virtual Vocations publishes hundreds of new job vacancies every day, ensuring that each job posting will allow you to work from home a minimum of 20% of the time. It’s our mission to ensure that Virtual Vocations members receive fast access to the latest virtual job listings online. We even provide Virtual Vocations members with customizable email alert options, which provides members with instant access to the newest available telecommute jobs curated based on their job preferences.

In addition to complete access to our Telecommute Jobs Database, Virtual Vocations subscribers receive a variety of exclusive telecommute job resources designed to give job seekers the best opportunity at success in their telecommute job searches. Here’s a sampling of some of the exclusive telecommute job resources we offer:

  • Telecommuting Handbook and Interview guide downloads
  • A Telecommute Toolkit featuring e-courses like Create a Winning Telecommute Resume and Telecommute Job Searching for Mid-Level and Professional Job Seekers
  • Action plans and downloadable resume templates
  • Access to Industry Guides to help you navigate your search for a telecommute job in popular categories like Education and Nursing
  • The Telecommute Companies Database filled with thousands of profiles of telecommute-friendly employers known for hiring qualified professionals to work remotely
  • A team of experienced customer service professionals ready to answer your questions about utilizing Virtual Vocations during your telecommute job search via phone at 1-800-379-5092, email at customerservice@virtualvocations.com, and Live Chat Support on our Homepage

Do you have your own advice on fostering effective remote collaboration? Share your experiences and tips when you connect with Virtual Vocations on Facebook and Twitter. We’d love to hear from you! 

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About Kimberly Back 769 Articles
Kimberly Back is the Content Division Manager at Virtual Vocations. Prior to beginning work with Virtual Vocations in 2012, Kimberly was a subscriber and advocate of Virtual Vocations' services. She has exclusively worked from home since 2009.