Common Communication Problems with Distributed Teams

Common Communication Problems with Distributed Teams

Many industries require in and out-of-office work to deliver their products or services. This business model is common in construction, media, oil and gas, and manufacturing. However, the rise of remote work has also caused traditional in-office positions to be carried out by distributed teams.

The format of distributed teams can lead to specific communication challenges that require tailored solutions. 

Defining Distributed Teams

Distributed teams are a distinct business model that is often confused with other types of arrangements. For example, companies that work with external contractors are not distributed. This is because contractors perform work that is not integral to the company’s business model. Additionally, contractors are not obligated to follow company policies and procedures like employees

While some distributed teams are remote, not all remote teams are distributed. Distributed workers are out-of-office for the purpose of completing their work. A manager who visits several construction sites to check on progress as part of their normal job duties is a typical example. Companies based in multiple locations also have a distributed workforce.

Communication Problems in Distributed Teams

The defining qualities of distributed teams lead to communication issues. Since all distributed team members are employees, they must complete their work according to the criteria set by the company. However, communicating and maintaining these standards can be difficult. Distributed teams also face unique challenges in building a company culture. 

Here are a few more of the most common communication issues amongst distributed workforces.

Few Face-to-Face Interactions

In-person interactions are important for both employees and employers. Employees use face-to-face interactions to create bonds with their colleagues and develop a sense of belonging within the company. For supervisors and managers, in-person interactions are essential for building trust.

Distributed teams can make in-person interactions rare, or in some cases impossible. However, there are ways that companies can encourage team members to socialize and interact with one another.

Virtual meetings are suitable for communicating both business-related information and team-building activities. Incorporating a relaxed socializing session in an all hands meeting agenda gives employees time to get to know one another. 

Depending on the company’s size and budget, planning an annual retreat that encourages all team members to gather in one place can also boost employee engagement and foster a sense of community within the team. 

Difficult Oversight

When employees are located across the world, or even the region, managing projects and tasks can become unwieldy.

Managers must have confidence that employees are using their time appropriately, even if they are working out in the field or in an out-of-office location. 

The first step to overcoming this issue is by hiring individuals who demonstrate skills such as self-direction and integrity. Employers should vet candidates thoroughly and contact references if necessary.

Maintaining communication during the workday can also reduce the need for oversight. For example, a robust project management platform would allow workers to update their status and keep all team members in the loop. 

As distributed members may not have access to their computers, any communication tool must be accessible on a smartphone and have options for offline communication. 

Unsuitable Work Environments

Some distributed team members conduct their work in settings that are not conducive to virtual work. Employees checking in on remote worksites may not have reliable internet access.

In these cases, companies should have separate communication plans for distributed workers. For example, notifying the team when a staff member is off-site and potentially inaccessible for the day. This will set reasonable expectations regarding response times.

Communication methods should also vary based on urgency.  Reminders, questions, and other low-importance communications can be sent through communication tools or email. If there is an emergency or urgent message, then the worker should be contacted by phone. 

Setting these boundaries ensures that important communications get through while allowing the worker to focus on the tasks in front of them. 

International Differences

Distributed teams may be located in different parts of the world. Language barriers, time differences, and different work culture norms can all impact communication.

Employers can get ahead of this by selecting communication tools that

automatically adjust to the worker’s time zone. Additionally, employees should organize projects and tasks based on these time differences. For example, dependent tasks can be assigned to workers in earlier time zones to improve workflow and avoid bottlenecks.