Seamless team communication doesn’t just happen by divine intervention. In fact, for the most strategic of managers, setting up an infrastructure to support great teamwork becomes something of an art.
Imagine a block of marble. Left to stand, inertia will take over and the block of marble remains just so. But in the hands of a skillful artist like Michelangelo, he sees the potential for greatness and sculpts a David.
Similarly, managers see the potential of their teams and must strategically shape them to greatness. This art becomes even more important when teams have remote working components, whether on occasion or full time. Add in the growth factor of new employees and you’ve got a recipe for complete chaos or inertia, unless the manager sets up a system that empowers individuals, promotes communication, and values results.
As a manager, how do you do this? How do you keep people informed, empowered, and engaged? How do you create the infrastructure and processes that inspire creativity without imposing too much order? Here are some tips I’ve learned from years of sculpting:
Get The Right Tools
Your team needs to pick a few basic tools to facilitate team communication:
- Synchronous communication: Chat is changing the game for digital teams, and there are plenty of options to choose from (although many choose Slack). Start by setting up a synchronous communication tool to give team members immediate access to discuss ideas and get questions answered in a timely manner.
- A shared plan: Teams need to be able to see what each member is up to and where projects are in different phases. Without a roadmap or planning tool, managers get sucked into hours of meetings that could be eliminated by having an updated overview that’s accessible at any time. Trello gives teams the ability to see progress without those awful status update meetings.
- Video meeting space: Nothing beats face time for team bonding, and creative collaboration. Remote teams can accomplish the same relationship building as in-person teams by adopting a video communications tool like Skype, Zoom, or join.me.
- Document storage: Whether it’s Dropbox, Box, or Google Drive, teams need to pick a document storage tool and stick with it. A standard system of naming files that everyone knows is also essential. The worst drain on knowledge access is when some people are storing files in Drive while others use Dropbox. It’s a recipe for documents being forever lost if someone is out sick or leaves the company.
- A common calendar: Using the same calendar tool makes scheduling meetings immensely easier within a team. Whether it’s Google Calendar or Fantastical (sniff, bye Sunrise), giving team members equal access to all calendars will put a stop to endless email threads discussing schedules and time zones.
A manager’s job is to make sure everyone on the team knows the basic toolset they have access to. You can absolutely crowdsource the tool selection with your team. But when you emphasize that everyone should use the same tools for team collaboration, you avoid the chaotic silo effect of nobody knowing where anything lives.
We've wrapped up the tips from this article + tons more into a handy (free!) guide to all things remote work. Get it here:
Design Guidelines For Using Said Tools
After your team has picked its toolset, it’s time to have a clear conversation about how the tools will be used. This may seem like overkill, but one thing I’ve learned over the years is that you can’t assume people will use all tools in the same way, especially if they’re doing vastly different things.
For example, it’s common for remote employees to initially feel like they constantly have to have Slack open so it “looks like they’re working.” Doing this could be a huge distraction if, as makers, their work requires hours of focus (think writing, coding, or design).
Design a plan together about how you want to use each tool, and then write down these guidelines in a document that the team can access anytime. The bonus is that it also creates a training resource for new people joining the team.
For example, one of our core team roadmaps is an “Incoming Marketing Requests” Trello board that is shared company wide for anyone to make a request from the Marketing team. There is a card in the first column called “How to Use This Board” that explains each request should have a specified due date, description, and team member assigned to it before someone on the team will triage it.
As a manager, process makes perfect. Having a written reference for how all communication tools are used empowers team members to operate with confidence, knowing they’re all operating within the same framework of understanding how a team functions.
Carve Out Meaningful Meetings
Meetings get a bad rep, but nothing is more efficient than an effective team meeting. A meeting where all stakeholders know what is being discussed, how long the meeting will last, and what they should prepare will set the stage for fewer future meetings. How do you accomplish this?
Similar to having a set of tools and establishing guidelines, team members need to know the structure, cadence, and expectations of team meetings. For example, the Marketing Team at Trello meets once weekly. Before our meeting, each team updates a “Marketing Overview” board with weekly updates on projects. Team members read updates before the meeting and bring questions to the meeting to avoid getting sucked into long monologues on status updates.
During the team meeting, a designated “meeting lead” goes through cards that are added throughout the week as discussion points for the meeting. A designated “scribe” takes notes. For more on how we run meetings with Trello, take a deeper dive in this article.
The summary is that meetings are efficient, focused on an agenda everyone has access to ahead of time, and referenceable. We make sure to keep things fun by including a “Team Bravos” section where members can highlight each other’s contributions during the week.
Keep The Art Of Communication Dynamic
Okay, you’ve now chosen the tools in your toolset, set guidelines for using the tools, and wrapped process around meetings. What next? Teams are constantly evolving, whether it’s because of strategy decisions, product launches, or hiring changes, so it’s important to make sure your team infrastructure is also dynamic.
Check in regularly to make sure guidelines are still relevant. Updating processes is key for keeping team members engaged. For example, the Marketing Team used to have meetings twice a week. As the team grew, it became clear that one meeting would be sufficient for the whole team. We took a vote and it was official. As the team grows even more, we may be moving to bi-weekly or monthly team meetings. The important thing is that as a manager, you have your pulse on how people are feeling and give options for changing processes.
Trello’s flexible nature makes it great for team collaboration for this very reason. Our team boards change regularly to reflect updated processes or changes we think will make the team run more efficiently. All someone has to do is bring up an idea at a team meeting and we’ll make the change if the team agrees. We then document the change in the appropriate resource docs. For managers, this is an amazing way to keep everyone engaged and invested in the team processes.
And It Should Be Fun, Too
GIFs, emoji, and who-knows-what-other new-thing are out there to make work fun. For remote employees who don’t have water cooler access, managers and team members have to create these opportunities to connect emotionally. We do this company-wide with our Mr. Rogers initiative, which groups people from different teams together regularly to discuss non-work related topics.
On the Marketing Team, we have a monthly “Jam Session” where someone leads the team (on video!) in icebreakers or other fun bonding activities. People are more productive when they love their jobs, and encouraging team members to get to know one another will strengthen your team’s morale.
As with any lasting masterpiece, it takes a lot of thought, process, and planning to set up an infrastructure that will keep your team in sync. The good news is that a big part of communication success is getting buy-in and participation from your team. This means less work for you, and more engagement from your team members. Here’s one last look at your creative communications blueprint:
- Pick your tools. Everyone on the team should use the same ones for team collaboration.
- Set and spread the guidelines for using tools. Team members should feel empowered and educated on what to use when.
- Make meetings effective and efficient with a Trello board (or other tool) that encourages productive time management.
- Review processes on a regular basis, and don’t be afraid to make changes.
- Create structured opportunities or venues for digital “water cooler” encounters or just plain fun.
Set up your team to be effective, productive, and fun. In other words, make your team a masterpiece.