19. august 2021

Communication is the essence of successful teamwork. Communication skills are highly valued on the job market and in 2018 they were ranked first in the list of candidates’ ‘must have’ skills and qualities by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

In distributed teams individual communication skills matter greatly but are insufficient if the whole communication process is not properly set up.

Olha Kohut shares some practical advice from the experience she has gained over the last 13 years working in a Conscensia distributed team. Five of those years were spent in the position of Team Lead establishing and managing the communication process.

1. Choose video calls if possible. The non-verbal part of communication provides a great deal of information. Watching as well as listening to colleagues helps in finding mutual agreement faster than listening alone.

2. Write a summary. It systemizes the work process and mitigates the risk of misunderstanding during a call. This is, of course, not necessary after every short call, but is a must-have for meetings where discussion and approval of important matters takes place.

3. Call instead of email. Talking, sharing screens and asking questions usually works better than long letters with extended explanations which can be lost among dozens of similar ones. Of course, if the question is simple and doesn’t affect the rest of the team, emails will work too.

4. Divide and prioritize communication channels. Analyze the project needs and define the most urgent channels. For example, emails are more important than chat messengers, but DevOps chat has the highest priority. It helps to quickly respond to the most urgent messages and not to lose them among other messages.

5. Do cross-team cooperation. In my project the BI team is in Ukraine and the PO team is located in Denmark. We cross-operate using regular BI knowledge-sharing sessions and Demos. Doing this makes us feel like one whole team working towards the same goals.

6. Organize team-building meetings whenever possible. Out of office communication is crucial for strong relationships, especially at the beginning of the project. We always try to meet in person if there is a chance. Sometimes the Ukrainian team goes to Denmark, sometimes the Danish team comes to us. It helps us to remember that we work with people, not with functions.

7. Be open to experiments. Each team is different and the Team Lead should try different approaches in order to ascertain the one that will work for each, very particular, team. It is okay to test a few of them.

8. Incorporate knowledge management. There is a live culture in every team based on the people who shape and reflect it. Knowledge management helps to integrate new members faster and make them a part of this team culture.

9. Learn your partner’s culture. Cultural aspects affect communication, always. Take note of those aspects and keep them in mind. For example, in Ukraine workplace hierarchy is quite common. Danes are more prone to flat organization. Understanding others’ culture is only possible when understanding your own. Learn more about yourself and you will know more about others.

Managing communication is a never-ending story. It is a flow that runs as long as the project. A manager’s task is to ensure the right direction of that flow and its pace. It takes trust towards all parts of distributed teams, interest in the project and knowledge of tips and hints that might be helpful.