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PALO IT on creating a remote work culture: Avoiding common pitfalls (Part 2)

Many of us are trying to find ways to adjust to what is now becoming our biggest work-from-home experiment. Whether your organisation has adopted a sweeping remote work policy, or you collaborate with global team members or clients who have done so, many now find themselves in a new, potentially confusing environment. The circumstances surrounding the coronavirus, and its effects on teamwork, motivated us to dig a bit deeper into what works, and what doesn't, when 'work from home' is the new norm.

In part two of this series, we’re delving into the more common pitfalls faced when adopting a remote work culture. If you missed part one on tools of the trade, be sure to give it a read.


Getting right to the point

When you're moving into a remote work culture, you need to eliminate fluff, prioritise clarity and summarise concepts using bullet points. Big sentences are too bulky, confusing and don't sound like a conversation.

Consider face-to-face dialogue – if you want to ask something or share an idea, you need to focus and be direct. Any other method of communication should strive for the same.

Also, watch out when someone is taking too long to communicate using remote chats. He or she is probably trying to write what would better be communicated as a long-form email, and not participating in the conversation.


Look out for the Godzilla email

Emails are the most common mode of remote communication, and when people shift to remote work they tend to rely on them more than usual. Threads will be longer, heavier and less objective. One strategy to avoid this is to set rules for email use. For instance, you can use email to: share a summary of discussions (if you don't have a wiki in place), broadcast very specific information, and share files (if you don't have a file repository).

You should avoid emails when you want to start a conversation or want to ask a question. For those purposes, a simple voice or video call, or private group chat gets the job done and in turn will boost team communication.

The general rule here is, if you personally feel that a long email (or thread) would be more effective if replaced by a conversation, you’re probably right.

Voice and video come first

Non-verbal is an important part of all communication. Body language, facial expressions, tone of voice – all of this helps people to pass along a message, and the lack of it can lead to misunderstanding. That’s why voice or video are a must for complex or sensitive topics, and everyone should be able to join a voice or video chat when necessary.

Sometimes the need for it is not obvious, but you can identify some signs, like overly-long chat conversations or back-and-forth emails that drag on for ages. Once you see this becoming routine, interrupt the flow, and put everyone involved on a call.

Tools that can help in this endeavour include:

  Video/Voice chat tools

  • Google Hangouts, Skype, Zello (Voice only)

 Team chat tools

  • Slack, Microsoft Teams

 Messaging tools

  • Whatsapp, WeChat, Telegram


Bad meeting planning is a problem in co-located workspaces, and in remote spaces it's even more damaging. When a team starts to work remotely, the first concern of most managers is "will they really be working, or just slacking off?" An undue reaction to this concern is to plan several check-ins, chats, status reports and the like to ensure work is being done.

It’s important to keep in mind that every time someone’s workflow is disrupted, productivity and work quality suffer. Have you ever been right in the middle of a task that requires your utmost attention and energy, only to have someone break your concentration? Then you know how detrimental this can be.

At the onset of remote work culture, meetings will happen, it’s only natural. But, you can improve their relevance and flow as time goes on.

Anytime you hold a meeting, ask yourself a question: can we avoid doing this again? Suss out what kind of information you could gather in the moment to avoid disturbing colleagues again.

Status report meetings in particular can be easily avoided by implementing a task manager. JIRA and Trello are both strong options.

Large-scale meetings can be avoided by narrowing what needs to be discussed. Three or four smaller meetings with the right crowd are much more beneficial than one three-hour whale of a meeting where every person on the call tries to handle their business at once. While managers might view this as optimising time, for everyone else, it’s quite the opposite. It’s not necessary to include every person in every conversation.

On the topic of inclusion, only hold meetings when you need everyone involved to be contributing to the conversation. If it’s just a dialogue between two people, or even a one-way message someone is trying to get across, there are better ways of approaching this communication.

If there is one must-have for remote meetings, it’s a timebox, and—you guessed it—it should be short. Anything longer than an hour is ineffective. Also, make sure you include short breaks within that timebox.

Finally, if you really need a long roster of people discussing something regularly, create a solid schedule so people can organise their days around the meeting. In this situation, remember that it’s nigh impossible to coordinate everyone’s availability. 

The key here is finding a balance. Keeping get-togethers scarce enough that people value, or even look forward to the chat, while still keeping them frequent enough to optimise information flow.

Simulating your office

The best way to establish good remote communication is to simulate an environment where everyone is in the same room.

In a physical workplace, if you need to have a quick chat with someone, you wouldn’t send an invite, you’d just walk over to your colleague and tap them on the shoulder.

But this can get messy in a remote work culture. All the back-and-forth exchange required when scheduling a call can be gruelling. To avoid this, just pick up the phone, and call! If someone doesn’t answer, you can assume they were busy, and try again later.

In the long run, this helps in team awareness, and leads to the prioritisation of voice and video calls.

Again, if you’re in a physical workplace, you often overhear conversations, and join ad hoc discussions. Communication happens all the time, all around us, and it’s easy to take that for granted. Luckily, this can be simulated, more or less, in a remote environment thanks to open voice/video rooms.

You can implement an open room by having a voice or video call that’s constantly online, where a specific group of people can connect during work hours.

This way, anytime someone wants to talk to the group he or she can join the call and speak. Inside the room, people can also speak to each other whenever they want, without the need to schedule a call. If conversations get too extensive, individuals can disconnect, connect in a private call, and sort it out.

Of course, each room member also needs to be aware of their surroundings (the mute button is key!)

A team text omnichannel can mimic a physical environment as well. If all team communication starts there, more than one person can follow any conversation, even if they are not directly involved.

The common pitfall here is letting the channel act as a disturbance. If conversations get too long or too specific, participants must migrate to a more private group chat, or join a voice/video call to deep-dive without disturbing someone who doesn't want that level of detail. 

Implementing a remote work culture isn’t as huge of a leap as some make it out to be. Knowing the common pitfalls before jumping in head-first is half the battle. Keep an eye on our blog for part three in this series, focusing on team visibility and good habits.

Useful links

Digital Innovation PALO IT on creating a remote work culture: Tools of the trade (Part 1) PALO IT on creating a remote work culture: Let’s get visible (Part 3) PALO IT on creating a remote work culture: Routines and regimens (Part 4)