Communication and collaboration best practices for hybrid or "remote-ish" teams
Illustration by Margarida Mouta
Most companies are not fully remote and have no intention to be. In reality, most companies embracing remote work through work-from-home policies have dedicated headquarters in cities like San Francisco and people working from home across multiple cities, countries, and continents.
Most remote teams have both headquarters and home offices
They’re not remote, they’re remote-ish.
Unfortunately, remote-ish teams confront even more communication and collaboration challenges than fully remote ones. In these hybrid teams, information gets siloed in offices while remote employees are left in the dark. The result is an unintended hierarchy where office workers are naturally heard, recognized, and promoted –– while remote workers are left out.
Unintended hierarchies form when remote work is not intentional
The solution? Remote-ish teams need to adopt remote-first policies that put everyone on equal footing.
An even playing field is established when remote work is intentional
This article will provide guidance for adopting remote-first principles and policies that put everyone on the same playing field.
This is an excerpt from our Twist Remote Work Guide Remote-ish: The Remote-First Solution for Hybrid Companies. Read the full-guide to learn optimal ways for remote-ish teams to communicate and operate as a team, so everyone does their best work. You’ll walk away with advice for structuring a distributed team, implementing remote-first policies, communicating across country lines, and working together regardless of location.
Remote-Friendly vs Remote-First
As companies recognize the benefits of being a remote-ish team and begin introducing remote hiring and remote work policies, the single biggest mistake they can make is opting to be remote-friendly instead of remote-first.
In this section, we outline the difference between the two modes of operating.
Remote-friendly vs remote-first companies
Though remote-friendly companies allow remote work, they don’t optimize for it. Instead office employees and remote employees are not properly integrated and exist on two different, often unequal, tiers.
- Team meetings exclusively occur in a co-located time zone
- Water cooler chat is a space for key decisions
- Presence is correlated with meaningful work
- Communication is synchronous-first
- Managers must work in the office
When these are the defaults, remote team members get left behind while their office counterparts have their presence rewarded with resources for key projects, promotions, and recognition.
Remote-first companies intentionally optimize for remote work.
- Real-time meetings are kept to a minimum and recorded for all
- Decisions are made online, not at happy hours
- Performance is measured by output rather than hours worked
- Communication is asynchronous-first
- Managers are encouraged to work from home
Everyone has an equal voice and promotions can be awarded more fairly on the basis of the strength of one’s ideas, contributions, and output.
Remote-first is the gold standard for how remote-ish companies should operate. Without this operational framework, distributed companies simply have offices with isolated and distanced employees working invisibly from home. Not a good way to retain top remote talent.
A remote-first mentality extends to how a company operates, communicates, hires, and promotes, creating an environment that puts everyone on equal footing.
Connecting your Remote-ish Team
Remote-ish teams function best when the entire company optimizes for remote work. When remote team members are an afterthought, hearing about lunch-time decisions days later, it’s hard to achieve a cohesive distributed organization. Successful hybrid teams are inclusive of their remote workers and set up processes to help them thrive alongside their office teammates.
First, leadership must acknowledge the different challenges remote workers face and meet those challenges with solutions. Sometimes this means overcompensating and leaning towards policies that specifically elevate remote team members.
When companies become remote-first, they naturally become people-first. When flexibility and consideration is given to remote workers it’s afforded to all.
This section will lend advice on making remote-ish work function well for everyone –– whether they’re in the office 9-5 or working on the other side of the world.
Keep remote workers connected with HQ
Even though remote workers might be hundreds or even thousands of miles away from headquarters, it should feel like they’re fully connected and not missing a thing. Remote-ish teams should enable remote-office connections that build rapport and enable effective collaboration and camaraderie across locations.
Here are a few different ways that remote-ish teams can build bonds:
- Mentorship weeks and in-person onboarding. Extend new remote team members the opportunity to meet their office peers by flying them out to headquarters for onboarding. At Doist, we have a mentorship week where new hires are flown out to work alongside their mentors. These practices build personal relationships early on that ease collaboration when people go back to working remotely.
- Get office colleagues to work from home. HubSpot has work from home weeks where their Boston-based team members spend the week working from home. These weeks build empathy and understanding for the pain points of remote work.
- Offer company conference perks. Give remote team members and office teammates the chance to meet and build relationships through conference and professional development opportunities. These opportunities provide shared learning experiences and build common knowledge.
- Host company-wide retreats. Whenever possible, bring the entire team –– both remote and office team members –– together for a few days for a retreat or off-site. Retreats are an accelerated bonding experience for remote and remote-ish teams alike.
While these opportunities are costly and require a lot of coordination, they pay ongoing dividends by helping remote-ish teams function as a unified unit moving towards the same collective goals.
Ensure HQ workers have flexibility too
On a remote-ish team, it’s easy to see team members as “office employees” and “remote employees”. Admittedly, this is the dichotomy we’ve described throughout this guide. However, it’s important to allow flexibility for office team members too.
Create an explicit work-from-home policy for office employees that extends the benefits of remote work beyond remote employees. Clearly outline expectations of people working from home in documentation or a company handbook. Ensure your guidelines answer these questions:
- Can office employees work from home any day of the week?
- How many days in a row can office employees work from home?
- What is the maximum number of days an office employee can work from home?
- Do office employees working from home need to maintain certain working hours?
- Can office employees work remotely while travelling?
- Do office employees need to ask for permission to work from home?
- Do office employees need to communicate that they’ll be working from home?
A flexible policy for office employees helps retain office team members and reduces any friction between remote teammates and their work-from-home colleagues.
Create differentiated policies
While treating both remote and office-bound colleagues fairly should be a priority, that doesn’t necessarily mean they should be treated the same. Depending on your remote setup, some team members may be full-time employees while others might be contractors. This often creates a legal need to differentiate how teammates receive salaries and benefits.
Legal reasons aside, there are also practical considerations for different policies for the two classes of workers. One is providing relevant and helpful perks. While paid team lunches can create bonds in an office setting, this perk isn’t particularly pertinent for at-home employees. Instead, an internet allowance for remote team members is a great perk to create a high-productivity remote work environment at home. Instead of crafting your perks and policies with exact equivalencies in mind, consider the unique needs of each group and create policies and perks that address them. The chart below shares ideas of perks that could be extended differently to each group:
Differentiated perks for office employees vs remote employees
Continuously evolve your company’s understanding of remote work challenges and work to actively address them in meaningful ways. Consider annual engagement surveys that ask meaningful questions about your remote-ish setup so you can refine it with new or revised policies that seek to address both remote and office team members separately and together.
Communicating Across Countries
On a remote-ish team, a 1:00 PM board room meeting at headquarters in New York City is a 7:00 PM conference call for a remote team member in Madrid. While a meeting for both is possible, it certainly isn’t ideal. While one group gets back energized from lunch, the other is working late into the evening with their personal time disrupted. On the other hand, missing the meeting might mean exclusion from key decisions and a greater sense of isolation from the wider team. For team members in Taipei or Singapore, there’s no real choice to be made; it’s 1:00 AM and they’re fast asleep.
If you hire globally, time zones are the single biggest issue to overcome when it comes to operating as a remote-ish team. However, there’s a simple strategy that eliminates this hurdle and keeps team members collaborating effectively while they’re distributed across the world: asynchronous communication.
This section will discuss why asynchronous communication, a culture of documentation, and strategic synchronous communication can help remote-ish teams stay in sync.
Synchronous communication, conversations where a quick-back-and-forth is possible and participants are present at the same time, falls short for remote-ish teams for the reasons illustrated in the hypothetical example above. Working synchronously across different time zones favors the critical mass in the office. It puts remote team members at a disadvantage, scrambling to make early morning and late evening calls or missing out on them entirely.
It also negates one of the biggest benefits of working remotely in the first place: a flexible work schedule.
Alternatively, asynchronous communication, where participants communicate as they’re available and discussion is punctuated by intermittent gaps, serves remote-ish teams well. Team members don’t need to be online at the same time or in the same physical location to respond to emails, create conversation threads, or collaborate in cloud-based software apps like Google Docs. Instead, they can choose their own productive working hours, default to deep work, and answer messages when they’re open to being interrupted.
Remote-ish teams should adopt asynchronous communication as the primary source of correspondence to put all team members on equal footing. This means being asynchronous-first. The following table outlines some of the differences between an asynchronous-first culture and a synchronous-first culture:
Synchronous-first vs asynchronous-first companies
To move your team toward async, start culling synchronous communication like recurring meetings and re-imagine each of your gatherings from first principles:
- What do we miss when we eliminate face-to-face conversation? Can this be replicated asynchronously?
- Could a written status update replace a daily or weekly stand-up?
- How could brainstorming/feedback/problem-solving/decision-making move from Zoom to a written thread?
Asynchronous-first teams don’t only benefit remote team members. For office-bound team members who are on vacation, take sick days, or simply miss a meeting, there’s a trove of written communication on asynchronous teams that anyone can refer back to. Asynchronous communication also benefits future employees who can examine a company’s communication archives and get up to speed on all things work and culture.
Product Tip: In Twist, conversations are searchable, forever. Use the search function and query keywords to find threads dating back days or years. Alternatively, navigate to find what you need by looking through channels where conversations are easily organized and scannable.
Build a culture of documentation
When individuals and teams are striving for an important goal, it’s crucial they’re all heading in the same direction. On a remote-ish team, where close collaborators may be spread across countries, shoulder taps and quick check-ins aren’t feasible. Instead, it’s important to build a culture of documentation where everything is written down to help our future selves.
Clear and concise documentation allows remote individuals to work more independently without having to wait on an answer from their manager on how to do something. On team projects, documentation can serve as both a source of truth and a living document that’s improved upon by a group.
Here are a few important areas where centralized and accessible documentation should exist:
- Company policies, core values, and operating principles
- Project management system guidelines
- Critical service outage instructions
- Technical implementation resources
- Product and project roadmaps
- Career development paths
Aside from official documentation, that’s often stored in a precise location for reference, it’s important to also document decisions and next steps in writing. Sometimes in-person chats and quick Zoom calls are unavoidable. In these cases, it’s crucial to maintain an asynchronous-first mindset and document decisions clearly and concisely afterward, particularly if they were made offline.
Product Tip: In Twist, use close threads to highlight a conclusion or document a resolution with the “Closed Threads” feature. This creates transparency and lets everyone know when and how a decision was made.
Become a company where most questions can be answered by linking to an online thread and unknown answers are found and documented straight away. Build a culture based on writing, where concise remote writing and strong communication are highly valued.
Make synchronous communication accessible
While we recommend asynchronous-first communication, video calls and other forms of synchronous communication have their place. In these cases, make synchronous communication available asynchronously to help remote-ish teams function their best.
- Be mindful of time zones. For occasional synchronous meetings, use meeting time zone tools like timeanddate.com to find a time that’s reasonable for everyone. Naturally, with enough countries represented, the meeting time will be less convenient from some. In the interest of fairness, make sure ideal time slots are rotated between team members so it’s not always the same people making compromises.
- Call in to meetings individually. When there are company-wide calls, office team members often gather in a conference room and remote team members call in from home. Instead, try having everyone call in from their respective desks and computers. This eliminates side conversations and office banter that can often be hard for remote team members to follow and contribute to.
- Record video calls. Unfortunately, sometimes a meeting simply can’t be attended. Default to record all video conversations and make them available for viewing later in a central place for all team members. For instance, the team at GitLab has a YouTube channel, GitLab Unfiltered, where they centralize many of the company’s recorded video calls.
By adopting remote-first practices, like asynchronous-first communication and building a writing culture, remote teams can sidestep the challenges that come with time zones and find ways to collaborate effectively across continents on work that matters.