A Step-by-Step Strategy for Communicating Change Across Distributed Teams

A Step-by-Step Strategy for Communicating Change Across Distributed Teams

There is just one thing you can be sure about in your business – and that is the fact that it’s going to change. Whether you’re someone that drives change for the sake of progress or someone who tries to resist change, it’s inevitable – and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

What you can do is control how you handle change, including the way you communicate it to your team. This is even more important if you’re part of a company with distributed teams.

Delivering the right message to the right people in the right way is key to ensuring your team understands:

  • What’s happening
  • Why it’s happening
  • How it will affect them
  • What (if anything) they need to do to facilitate the change

Get this wrong, and you risk alienating employees and hindering how effectively change is implemented.

Managing this is a challenge in businesses with just one facility. When teams are distributed over multiple facilities and locations, the risks increase substantially, which is why it’s all the more important to implement and follow a strategy when communicating change.

Preparing to Communicate More Effectively for Distributed Teams

We’ll run through a step-by-step strategy for communicating change across distributed teams in just a moment, but before that, let’s go over a few things you can do (and probably should do) to prepare to communicate more effectively, in general.

Implement a company-wide communications platform

It’s vital that to communicate change – and to communicate, period – distributed teams all use the same web-based communication platform (and use it in the same way).

I use Slack, but there are countless other options if that doesn’t fit your needs or budget. Here are just a few:

Once you’ve picked a platform, you need to lay out the foundations of how you’re going to use it. This will, to an extent, evolve over time. However, it’s important that you’re all on the same page from day one.

The majority of these platforms revolve around two key features:

  • Private messaging
  • Shared message boards, groups or channels

Private messaging is just that – a private, instant messaging service between two or more users.

“Boards, groups or channels” (which are essentially all the same thing, just with different titles) are where messages you want to distribute to specific departments, teams, or the company as a whole, are shared.

This is where ensuring all users are on the same page – and by that I mean that they’re all using the tool in the same way – is so important.

Not all members of staff are going to have access to every “board,” so it’s critical you ensure the right team members have access to the right information.

For instance, you might have a board for “customer service,” another for “sales,” and another for “HR.” Chances are your sales team isn’t going to need to view the same messages as your customer service team, and vice versa. They only need access to boards that concern them and their work.

Establish “golden hours”

Time zones commonly cause problems for distributed teams. If you have teams operating in wildly different time zones, there’s a high chance there will be minimal, if any crossover, between working hours.

To counteract this, you can establish “golden hours” – a time period in which the maximim number of staff (ideally all staff, although that’s not always possible) will be at work.

Figure out when this crossover is, and ensure all key communications are made during this time.

Foster a transparent culture of continuous communication

While some announcements need to made using a specific process (like the one we’re going to go through in just a moment), there are going to be many more snippets of information that are worth sharing, but don’t call for a formal announcement.

Unfortunately, it’s easy for these sorts of things to fly under the radar and not be announced – at all.

Fostering a culture in which sharing information becomes second nature to your team is key.

For this to happen, when a staff member hears or receives new information, they should:

  • Ask themselves or find out if it’s confidential
  • If it’s not confidential, decide who else it concerns
  • Share the information via an appropriate channel – depending on who else it concerns, this is likely to be either in person, or via email or your company communications platform

A Step-By-Step Strategy for Communicating Change

Some information can be shared informally. I’m referring to things a team member or members need to know, but that do not have a substantial direct impact on them – either positive or negative.

Other information, such as significant internal changes that will impact employees’ day-to-day lives, calls for a more formal approach – like the following strategy, which is what I use to communicate change to distributed teams.

Step 1: define your message

Before you can broadcast your message, you need to define exactly what your message will be. This might sound straightforward – you just say what needs to be said, right?

Unfortunately, the effectiveness of your attempt to communicate change, especially across distributed teams, begins with what you say and how you say it. For that reason, defining exactly what you’ll say ahead of time is essential.

To do this, you need to establish:

  • What does your team actually need to know?
  • How should you word the message (in such a way that you eliminate the risk of crossed wires?)
  • What questions are employees likely to ask?

Use this information to craft a statement that divulges your message clearly and concisely. Before signing off on the message, ensure it only contains essential information, and that nothing within it is liable to be misunderstood. Consider the connotations of the words you use, too. “X is leaving the company” has very a different connotation than “X is pursuing a new opportunity” – the first one can potentially be construed in a negative light.

Step 2: decide who’s best-placed to deliver the message

This step ensures that multiple people don’t attempt to deliver the message – all potentially in slightly different ways.

One person at each of your premises should be assigned the task of delivering the message, or, if it’s to be delivered via your communication platform (more on this in step 3), handling questions and follow-ups.

Step 3: decide the best channel for delivering the message

There is no one “best” way to deliver your message – it all depends on your company culture, and the nature of the message itself.

Townhall announcements

A “town hall” announcement (i.e. a public announcement made in an open domain to as many members of staff as possible) ensures everyone hears the same message, at the same time. This greatly limits the odds of the message being misheard or wires getting crossed.

Townhall announcements are best suited to positive messages that help bring the company together. Do not use this method for delivering potentially bad news (unless you want to instantly shroud your offices in negativity).

Line managers to teams

This might also be referred to as “the cascade.” It involves messages being passed “down the ladder” from management to the level below them, and then again to the level below that.

It’s well-suited to the delivery of “bad news,” since it limits how many people will hear the message at once, and allows for (if needed) the message to be delivered in different ways, to different people. It also means concerns can be raised and addressed immediately.

Be aware, however, that this method is vulnerable to the “Chinese whisper effect.” However well you plan your message, each additional person involved in delivering it increases the odds it will be changed or diluted.

Internal communications platform

Messages delivered this way are usually presented in a written format, which eliminates any margin for error: you have total control over the wording used and you will know, without doubt, what’s been conveyed to each employee. It also makes it really easy for employees to follow up with questions, and in turn, for you to answer them.

On the downside, this method can be seen as impersonal or even cowardly – like you’re intentionally hiding behind a screen (which, perhaps, you are).

Step 4: prepare to handle follow-ups

It’s almost inevitable that when you announce change, employees are going to have questions. As part of your strategy for communicating change, you need to be prepared to answer them. Specifically, you need to formulate a process for employees who want to ask questions, raise concerns, and provide feedback.

Your internal communications platform is ideal for this.

If you used it to deliver the initial message, just let employees know that any questions or comments should be posted there. You may even want to create a specific “group” just for delivering the message and addressing follow ups. This ensures all information pertaining to the change is stored in one location.

Even if you’re delivering your message by another means, you might still want to consider using your internal communications platform for handling follow-ups.

In all cases, you need to:

  • Decide who will be responsible for answering questions
  • Ensure they know who to talk to if they don’t know the answer to a question
  • Brainstorm questions that are likely to be asked and prepare answers to them
  • Implement a system for asking questions privately, and ensure all staff members know what this is

You might also want to consider setting up follow-up meetings, or at the very least, repeating the message and encouraging staff to speak up if there’s anything they’re unsure of.

If you aren’t prepared to deal with the aftermath of your message, and you don’t provide a clear route for asking and answering questions, you risk staff trying to decipher what’s happening between themselves (or in other words, gossiping). Employees will raise and ponder questions with each other, which will inevitably lead to incorrect conclusions and more often than not, a worried and unhappy workforce.

Of course, there is no foolproof approach to communicating change – especially when it’s bad news. You can, however, control the impact of the change on staff morale by taking the time to plan how to communicate it and preparing to deal with what happens after.

Have you ever been responsible for communicating change – either to distributed teams or a single team? How did you do it and what, if anything, would you do differently next time? It’d be great to hear your thoughts if you have the time to leave a comment below.

Hung Pham is the founder of Culture Summit, a conference that brings together founders, thought leaders, and culture champions to share insights, strategies, and best practices on transforming company culture from the bottom up.

Creating Culture Across Remote Teams: 10 Tips from Pioneering Companies

Creating Culture Across Remote Teams: 10 Tips from Pioneering Companies

One of the biggest challenges facing remote teams is how to create and maintain a positive company culture. In fact, it’s hard enough keeping a whole team happy and motivated when you all share a workspace. Get a remote team of employees that have limited, if any, face-to-face contact, and this problem gets magnified a few times over.

That said, while it’s undeniably difficult to create a remote company culture and ensure distributed employees feel that they’re working towards a common goal, it’s certainly not impossible.

Here are 10 tips from pioneering companies that have bucked the trend of remote working = isolated working, to create a positive company culture across their remote teams.

1. Acceleration Partners – Invest in the right technology

It’s pretty much impossible for a remote business to operate successfully without the right technology. Legacy on-premise systems need to be replaced with cloud-based solutions that allow employees to work collaboratively and communicate with ease, regardless of where they’re located.

Acceleration Partners is a leading affiliate marketing company that boasts an impressive client list including brands like Adidas and Target.

Technology has played a key part in ensuring their remote team members feel as much a part of the culture as those who work from the office every day. Their chosen suite of tools includes:

  • Zoom – for video conferencing and other meetings.
  • Skype – to simplify real-time communications between employees in different locations.
  • Google Docs – to streamline task collaboration.
  • TINYpulse – to anonymously gauge workers’ feelings and identify any issues or concerns that may need addressing.

Read more about the steps Acceleration Partners has taken to create culture across remote teams here.

2. HelpScout – Leverage video

Help Scout’s team is spread out across the world – a setup that, as we know, can make it extremely difficult to create a positive company culture. Video is key to remedying this.

The company hosts weekly “Monday morning video parties” that are designed to “keep the team informed about new feature releases, birthdays and other company-wide news.” The meetings can be viewed live or team members in incompatible time zones can tune in later, so they don’t have to miss out.

Help Scout uses video for more than meetings, though.

I love their “Cribs” idea, in which team members were encouraged to give their colleagues insight into their life by making video tours of their homes.

They also host monthly “Troop Talks,” which they describe as “a lightly structured monthly video chat centered around a single topic.” Participation is totally optional, and staff members are notified in advance of the discussion topic, so they can decide whether or not they want to come along.

Read more about how Help Scout leverages video to create a remote culture here.

3. 15Five – Embrace transparency

Embracing transparency is something all businesses today should be trying to do. However, the additional challenge of building trusting relationships in remote teams makes transparency even more important.

15Five leverages their own tool to help foster a company culture based on “trust, accountability and transparency.” The company is always open to hearing feedback to the point that they encourage employees to give feedback on the performance of management.

Read more about how transparency is part of 15Five’s remote culture here.

4. Groove – Assess potential employees’ “fit” with a trial period

I can’t really state enough how important employees are to your company culture. Staff members who don’t share your beliefs or values and who don’t “buy into” what you’re trying to achieve will – almost certainly – have a negative impact on your culture.

To help minimize “wrong hires,” help desk software giant Groove assesses each potential employee’s “fit” with a trial period. This is designed for the benefit of both the potential staff member and Groove themselves. Not only does Groove want to ensure the potential hire will “fit” into their team, but they want the assurance that the person is going to feel happy and fulfilled in the role.

Only once the trial period is completed and it’s decided the potential hire “fits” the Groove culture, will they be taken on full time.

You can read more about how Groove hires top talent remotely here.

5. 6Q – Introduce new remote workers to the whole team

It goes without saying that when a new hire comes to work with you on-premises, you introduce them to everyone they’ll be working with and, depending on the size of the company, potentially to the whole team.

Unfortunately, this social ritual is often sidestepped when that employee works remotely. 6Q, which offers tools for collecting employee feedback, follows a process that ensures this doesn’t happen when they welcome someone new.

They send an introductory email to every member of the team that includes, alongside the new hire’s contact details, their answers to five non-work related questions.

In addition to this, they encourage the new hire to arrange one-to-one meetings with as many members of the team as they feel comfortable with.

You can read more about this, and other ways 6Q fosters a positive company culture in a remote team, here.

6. Teamwork.com – Acknowledge and reward hard-working remote workers

When you all work from the same location, it’s generally pretty easy to see how hard employees are working and pick up on their achievements. You can hear them go that extra mile for a client on the phone and you know when they’re staying late or arriving early.  This also makes it really simple to thank those staff members for the effort they’re putting in.

Things are very different on remote teams.

You need to have a great deal of trust in your staff and pay extra attention to the work completed to assess who’s slacking, and who’s going above and beyond.

You also have to make a particular point of thanking and rewarding those who deserve it.

To ensure their remote workers’ achievements are acknowledged, Teamwork.com holds quarterly “Teamwork Legend” awards in which their employees’ contributions are rewarded with certificates and gift cards.

You can read more about this and other ways Teamwork.com manages successful remote teams here.

7. Buffer – Schedule regular retreats

One of the biggest barriers to creating a great company culture in remote teams is a lack of face-to-face contact (video helps, but is no substitute for working with your colleagues in person).

To get around this, Buffer schedules all-expenses-paid retreats for the whole company, three times a year. This means they’re paying for flights, accommodations and (most) meals, as well as a few activities.

It’s worth bearing in mind that these retreats aren’t “holidays” as such. The team is expected to work their usual hours (give or take), but for these 10 days the team can come together and operate like a “typical” company (except for all the after-hours social activities).

You can read more about Buffer’s retreats and watch a couple of videos on what they’re like and why they do them here.

8. Edoc – Create a culture of learning

One of the secrets to being happy and fulfilled at work is feeling confident in your abilities – being sure that you’re good at what you do. Questioning our ability to do our job will drag us down, and understandably so.

This is why it’s important for every company to give their staff the tools they need to develop their skills and perform their jobs to the highest possible standard. Of course, ensuring remote employees have what they need isn’t always easy. Often senior members of staff will train more junior employees in-house – an approach that’s difficult, if not impossible to replicate remotely.

However, just because it’s more difficult to keep remote staff up to speed than in-house staff doesn’t mean you should leave them to figure things out for themselves and hope for the best.

Edoc, which builds tools designed to aid in productivity and collaboration, understands this, and as a result has incorporated a “culture of learning” into their overall company culture.

As well as ensuring employees have access to courses and other training opportunities, Edoc hosts a whole month of company-wide professional training sessions every year.

In fact, Edoc’s CEO Jim Mullaney once hosted six weeks of “Friday leadership trainings” from his own home. Local staff were invited to come along in person while those who lived further afield could telecommute.

The result is happier staff that sticks around longer. As Jim says: “If employees aren’t learning, they’re leaving.”

Read more about how Edoc built a great remote company culture here.

9. Basecamp – It doesn’t have to be all or nothing

Often when we think about remote working, we think about employees on the other side of the world from their employer, or people traveling the world, working from a palm-tree lined beach (totally impractical, but it makes a great visual).

Image Credit

The reality, however, is that not all remote staff always work remotely. Often staff that lives locally will switch between working remotely and coming into the office as it suits. This is great for company culture, since staff benefits from regular face-to-face contact. It’s also an ideal middle ground for many employees who have obligations that prevent them from working in an office full-time, but that would miss the social aspect of sharing workspace with a team.

In other cases, some companies will employ a mix of remote and in-house workers.

This is something the project management specialists at Basecamp have done. Their team started out working in a traditional office setting but found that the space they had was bigger than they anticipated needing, and that the rent was too high.
As a result they decided to rent just a few desks instead. Today, the majority, but not all, of their employees work remotely.

10. Zapier – Trust your team

Trust is essential in all companies, but it’s even more important when you work remotely. This is something Zapier has come to understand while building a team of remote workers.

The issue largely comes down to the fact that distributed teams don’t know how much or how hard their colleagues are working. While some companies try to resolve this with rules dictating things like when bums should be on seats, or even requiring them to be on camera all day (yes, this is a real thing at some firms) most companies, like Zapier, understand that all you really need is trust.

If the work’s getting done that’s a sure sign your remote employees are pulling their weight, and really, that’s all you need to know.

Read more about how Zapier has built their remote company culture here.

Do you have any tips to add for creating culture across remote teams? Comments are below if you have a moment to share them:

Hung Pham is the founder of Culture Summit, a conference that brings together founders, thought leaders, and culture champions to share insights, strategies, and best practices on transforming company culture from the bottom up.

Building Culture and Uncovering Innovation in Global Companies

Building Culture and Uncovering Innovation in Global Companies

Monica Adractas, Director at Workplace by Facebook

Hung Pham is the founder of Culture Summit, a conference that brings together founders, thought leaders, and culture champions to share insights, strategies, and best practices on transforming company culture from the bottom up.