Communication between team members is naturally full of challenges, as you’re asking a group of people who have unique personalities, backgrounds, and experiences to immediately get along and understand each other’s nuances so well that they work synergistically together.
Many people living in the same household can’t even do that!
Then there’s the added complication of communicating between remote team members who may be working across the country or the world.
There’s nothing intuitive about communicating across time zones with team members from different cultures and generations. But there are ways to bridge communication divides for less stressful work days and higher team performance.
At Upwork, we operate with over 2,000+ team members spread across more than 800 cities worldwide. Here’s what we learned about how to improve communication within a team:
- Adopt location-agnostic solutions
- Start the week off together
- Understand everyone’s unique communication style
- Send out surveys
- Use the right communication tools
- Utilize project management software
- Create a single source of truth
- Conduct team trainings
- Set regular one-on-ones
- Develop clear meeting agendas
- Hold team building activities
- Develop project intake forms
- Respect time zones
- Generate feedback loops
1. Improve team communication—in-person and remote
You can’t talk about improving team communication anymore without addressing both in-person and remote team members, because about half of businesses are adopting some form of a hybrid workplace where some team members work onsite and some remotely. And most businesses (78%) work with remote freelancers.
Workplace trends suggest that even if employees are required to work onsite, chances are you’ll work with a vendor, partner, or contractor working from a different location.
It may be worth ensuring that all of your communication processes address both onsite and remote members. For example, some businesses adopt a meeting policy where every onsite attendee logs in from their desks if a single person is attending remotely. Doing so prevent
2. Start the week off with a quick meeting
Before you cringe at adding another meeting to your calendar, understand that pulling the group together for a quick check-in can save you time throughout the week. These meetings should:
- Align everyone on objectives and daily tasks.
- Update them on initiatives across functions.
- Provide members an opportunity to voice potential issues and share ideas.
Weekly meetings don’t need to be long, maybe 15 to 30 minutes at most. If you have remote team members, consider making it a general practice to hold video calls. Seeing faces encourages people to connect and engage, which may ease the isolation that remote members tend to feel.
You may want to facilitate engagement by having a camera on policy. Although we have this policy at Upwork, we also have the understanding that there are times when team members need to have their camera off, and that’s okay.
3. Understand everyone's unique communication style
Good communication is as much about how you express yourself outwardly as how you perceive information as it’s being shared with you. If you don’t provide a way for members to understand their different communication styles, they may become a catalyst for misunderstanding and conflict.
For example, action-focused people tend to concentrate on problems and challenges. They’re often fast-paced, direct, and may fire off a string of clarifying questions, to which they expect immediate, fact-based answers. They want things done and have no problems telling you what you need to do.
A more analytical person may move more slowly and methodically. They find stability in processes and prefer to answer questions after thinking things through. They could feel that the action-focused person’s fast pace is too pushy and reckless, and interpret their bluntness as demanding and condescending. This may cause them to push back on ideas and be less collaborative.
Communication involves so much psychology that the best way to understand each other’s communication styles is through expert help.
You can find help to fit within your resources and needs. For example, team members can take basic courses online from education platforms like LinkedIn Learning and Udemy. Or you could contract a Human Resources specialist or business coach for personalized team training.
You could also have everyone take a personality test like DISC®. As you can see below, these tests and assessments all use their own framework, but they all provide the same goals: to help resolve conflict and increase performance in teams.
Myers-Briggs personality test
The MBTI® framework is based on the psychological types identified by psychiatrist Carl Jung in the 1920s. The framework identifies how an individual perceives information, processes data, makes decisions, and interacts with others.
Belbin Team Roles test
The Belbin Team Roles identifies behavioral strengths and weaknesses within teams. Based on those findings, it provides language individuals can use to improve communication and understanding.
DISC® profiles deepen an individual’s understanding of how they relate to others, based on their own preferences and tendencies. Each person receives actionable strategies to help them improve their interactions and ultimately, their performance.
4. Send out surveys to help the team improve
It’s rare to get a team’s communication process right the first time. To be honest, you may never be finished as you’ll likely need to make adjustments as new team members come onboard and as the business changes. Surveys provide an effective way to identify what needs tweaking and how to do it.
You don’t have to spend a lot of time, or money creating surveys. Many tools are free, like Google Forms and SurveyMonkey, with intuitive drag and drop features so you can build a survey within minutes.
Here are a few ways to get more out of your surveys:
- Keep it anonymous so that respondents feel safe sharing candidly.
- Set a survey goal to keep questions focused. Make it specific. Instead of saying, I want to know if they like the new project management tool. Aim for something like, I want to understand why they’re still relying on the old spreadsheets.
- Mix open- and close-ended questions to avoid survey fatigue and gather qualitative and quantitative data. For example, an open-ended question may be: What do you think we could do differently to improve XYZ?
Close-ended questions can include ratings and multiple choice questions like, How many hours a week are you saving with the new software?
- Use simple, clear words and short sentences. Instead of asking, Was the training not good? Consider: How would you rate the training overall?
- Pay attention to how you phrase things to avoid bias. For example, instead of asking, What problems do you have with our weekly meeting format? Consider something like What are your thoughts about our weekly meetings?
Be open to hearing technical, organizational, and cultural feedback. Then be transparent by reporting what you learned and what steps you’ll be taking next. People feel heard and valued when you close the feedback loop in this way, which may encourage them to share their concerns and ideas in the next survey.
5. Use the right communication tools
Using the right communication tools involves knowing which tool to use for what type of communication. Remote work expert, Tsedal Neeley, suggests picking the appropriate level of lean vs rich media and synchronous vs asynchronous communication channels. Synchronous communication takes place in real time, like a video call. Asynchronous doesn’t require immediate response, like email.
The good news is, you already do most of this without thinking about it. For example, if you’re doing something straightforward like verifying you received a file, you may send a confirmation via Slack (lean, asynchronous). If a situation involves less straightforward communication, such as a group brainstorming session, then you’d probably opt for a video chat (rich, synchronous).
The idea here is to be aware of your choices, so you’re not defaulting to what’s familiar. Instead, you’re choosing what’s best, such as when deciding:
Should you Slack or email?
Both of these channels can easily get flooded with requests. Since Slack and email are both considered leaner media, email can be used for less immediate communication or something that requires the recipient to provide a longer, more thoughtful response.
For example, if you have a meeting in 20 minutes and can’t attend, you may send the other party a quick message on Slack asking to reschedule.
If you have questions about a report that may require the recipient to provide some additional research or documentation, you may want to email that. Email gives them time to think things through and space to explain.
Should you meet or email?
Meetings are important, but they’re not always necessary. Meetings—even a quick video chat—can interrupt a person’s productivity, because every minute spent meeting about the work is time not doing the work. Then they must work longer days to make up for the time spent in meetings. That’s like greasing the wheels on a car sliding towards burnout.
When you’re deciding between a meeting or sending an email, ask yourself:
- Can your request or issue be satisfactorily resolved through email?
- Are you meeting just to make sure they’re doing the work? (We’re not judging here, but this smells of micromanaging).
- Can you wait a few hours for a response?
If you’re dealing with a difficult conversation or an urgent, complex issue, a meeting is probably best.
But if you’re just sharing information, or the issue isn’t urgent, email may be better. Then the other person can respond without interrupting their productivity flow.
On a related note …
Try not to “over Zoom”
As the world learned during 2020, not every meeting has to be on Zoom. Seeing faces on screens can ease the loneliness and isolation that remote workers often feel, which can increase engagement. But one study found it can have the opposite effect when overdone.
Even if you’re hosting fun activities like virtual coffee chats, they add time in front of the camera, which can stress out team members. The study found:
- 65% indicated that being on video is best for team engagement, but only 11% of their video meetings are being used for that purpose
- 58% of self-identified introverts and 40% of extroverts are tired of being on camera
6. Utilize project management software
Projects involve so many details and moving parts that it can be difficult to remain organized when you’re managing multiple or complex projects. Adopting the right project management software can reduce confusion and ensure nothing falls through the cracks by making clear who’s doing what, how their progress is affecting other pending tasks, and how the overall project is tracking.
- Built-in chat
- File sharing
- Mobile app
- Integration with your go-to tools like Zoom and Slack
- Customizable teams and roles permissions
Although these tools can shave hours off time spent searching for information and updating multiple spreadsheets, you still need a real human for setting up a project management communication plan and driving how a project unfolds.
But all that doesn’t have to fall on your shoulders; you could contract a project manager on demand. The robust search feature on Upwork enables you to find a professional with the type of industry, experience, and technical skills to launch any project and push it successfully across the finish line.
7. Develop team documentation hygiene
Multiple versions of a document, a folder that doesn’t include the file you’re looking for, piecemealing information from several sources, people requesting the same information again and again … we’ve all been there. It’s not only frustrating, but it also wastes time and increases opportunities for miscommunication.
Project management software may help keep documents organized and accessible, but that’s usually just for a project. For all the other documents that get shared between team members and across functions, we suggest creating a single source of truth.
Most companies are using a cloud-based hub where documents are stored, shared, and provide real-time collaboration across the organization. Team members can access them 24/7 x 365, which enables them to stay productive, no matter where they’re working or time of day. And you can set visibility permissions to maintain document security.
Depending on your security requirements, compatibility with your core tools, and types of files shared, you may benefit from multiple tools. For example, an engineering team may build and share code via Bitbucket, and use Google Drive for everything else.
Popular file sharing tools include:
- Google Drive: Good if you’re familiar with Google Workspace (formerly GSuite).
- Dropbox Business: Good if you only need a management system for storing and sharing documents and don’t need automation features to streamline workflows.
- Microsoft OneDrive: Good if you’re familiar with Microsoft products.
- Egnyte: Offers less storage space compared to others, but has lots of useful features.
- Bitbucket: One of the go-to repository hosting services for developers.
- WeTransfer: Free, no-frills file transfer service with no cloud storage.
- iCloud: Good if you’re familiar with Apple products.
8. Conduct communication training
On a macro level, communication training helps establish a communication style consistent with the brand and business culture. This includes how you talk to customers and vendors, and the words used in your marketing.
On a micro level, communication training helps individuals achieve their goals. They may learn skills like how to gain manager support for a new project or how to productively handle difficult conversations with a colleague.
Here are a few signs a team could benefit from communication training:
- They struggle to get people excited about an idea.
- They feel let down when they delegate tasks.
- They feel misunderstood and isolated.
- They feel it’s easier to work alone than with a team.
- They avoid certain people because they come off too “strong” or are “chatty.”
- They don’t feel heard or respected.
- They walk away from meetings thinking it was a waste of time.
If you don’t have an in-house expert to design and deliver a training program, consider offering the work to an independent training specialist.
Independent training specialists can show team members how to smooth out their interpersonal skills to increase collaboration, hone their presentation styles to deliver messages with greater clarity and impact, and improve their listening aptitude to reduce misunderstandings and strengthen relationships.
9. Set regular one-on-one meetings
Scheduling regular check-ins with each team member lets you handle concerns before they potentially affect a team member’s work and work life. As mentioned earlier, it’s easy for those who work remotely to feel isolated and lonely. This may lead even top performers to disengage from work over time and look for job opportunities elsewhere.
Conducting regular 1:1s does take time, especially when you have a larger team, but they can be quick, 15-minute chats and happen once a month. The goal is to hold them regularly and provide time for individuals to feel heard, valued, and supported.
Check out this brief video for ideas on how to structure successful 1:1s.
10. Develop clear meeting agendas and outcomes
When you have meetings, keep them relevant and succinct to respect everyone’s time. You can keep meetings focused by:
- Only bringing in team members relevant to the specific aspect of the project discussed.
- Narrowing the scope of meetings so there’s time to go into details about each issue.
- Meet as frequently as timelines and project complexity require.
For weekly meetings, you may want to keep a running agenda on a shared document. This enables attendees to see what will be discussed and prepare accordingly.
If you’re holding video meetings, consider recording them. Doing so allows people who couldn’t attend a chance to catch up. And recordings enable people to reference past meetings.
11. Hold non-work based team building activities
Whether you’re working remotely or onsite, team building activities are still one of the best ways to strengthen relationships, which is a fast track to building trust. If appropriate, consider including independent professionals involved in the work. It shows you value their contributions and the time together may improve work relationships between internal and external talent.
When team members interact outside of a typical work environment, they learn about each other beyond their skills and roles. This may lead to deeper connections, so when they return to their desks, they may feel comfortable speaking freely and be willing to work out issues before it blooms into conflict. And they may be more willing to offer each other help.
Events don’t have to be fancy or day-long affairs. Some can be virtual group events. If you’re looking for an alternative to the overdone virtual happy hour, many companies, such as Airbnb and TeamBuilding, provide a highly effective alternative.
Organized virtual experiences provide fun team building activities for remote and onsite teams
12. Develop intake forms for projects
If project requests are flying in from several directions, it may be difficult deciding which projects to work on and which to prioritize. Intake forms can provide clarity and organization by creating a standardized system for submitting requests. The resulting consistency:
- Makes faster work of prioritizing projects and identifying resources.
- Reduces the risk of losing information and keeps details organized.
- Provides all of the information upfront, so you’re not going back and forth asking requestors for details.
- Enables you to save time by automating repetitive administrative tasks.
- Keeps you updated on workloads, so you can manage stress loads and burnout.
What you include in a project intake form depends on your function and team needs. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Who’s requesting the project?
- Who (team member) will oversee it?
- What type of project is it?
- What are the deliverables?
- How will the work be used?
- What’s the goal of the project?
- Who’s the audience?
- What are the deadlines?
- Will this support a larger project?
13. Be aware of different time zones
As the world grows comfortable with hybrid workplaces (people working remotely and onsite), and hybrid workforces (employees and independent professionals), you may deal with time differences that span more than the three hours between east and west coasts.
At Upwork, some of our team members may be 19 hours ahead, so finding the right time for group meetings and virtual team building activities can get challenging. Time conversion tools like World Time Buddy make quick work of finding a time that’s doable for everyone.
And when you’re planning team building activities, you may want to choose something that’s appropriate for all time zones. An online event on mixing cocktails may be fun for those ending their work day, but probably not for those just starting theirs.
14. Develop a feedback loop to encourage transparency
Transparency is critical for improving communication between team members—especially when some are working remotely, as they can’t see what’s happening and may mistake silence for a lack of action.
For example, let’s say a member came to you with a concern. For the next few weeks, you gather information and formulate a solution with hopes to implement it soon. In the meantime, the team member hadn’t heard from you in weeks, so they assume you didn’t care enough to take action. This tarnishes how valued they feel, which dims their passion slightly. And they decide the next time they have a concern, it’s better to keep it inside because nothing will change anyway.
You can prevent situations like this by making transparency a habit. When your team brings up concerns, show them that you’re actively addressing them. Talk candidly about the concerns raised and the steps you’re taking to resolve them, and provide updates as appropriate. And after sending out surveys, consider sharing the results and always follow up on what you say you’ll do.
This level of openness requires being vulnerable, which may not be easy at first. But the more you listen and respond openly to your team’s needs, the more united and compassionate they’ll all be with you and each other.
Note that feedback loops can also include updates about what's happening with other projects, goals, and successes within the department and the business. Having such knowledge provides everyone a bigger picture view of how their work contributes to larger business goals. Which may help them feel a greater connection with the business overall.
The true reward
Humans are all unique, complex individuals, so improving communication between team members requires intentional effort on several fronts: from tactical operations to developing an individual’s soft skills.
Your efforts may result in a high-performing team who operates at their full potential, but that may not be the true reward. The communication lessons they learn at work may spill over into their personal lives, so they can enjoy more fulfilling relationships everywhere.
Upwork is not affiliated with and does not sponsor or endorse any of the tools or services discussed in this section. These tools and services are provided only as potential options, and each reader and company should take the time needed to adequately analyze and determine the tools or services that would best fit their specific needs and situation.
Get This Article as a PDF
For easy printing, reading, and sharing.