No big secret here: It’s communication. But despite how simple the answer may be, it’s not easy for everyone to do well.
Assuming you’re already skilled in your line of work, it’s the only other thing you need to do well. Time management is important, sure. But even those who are excellent at managing their time will fail if they are not good communicators. Here are a few communication methods I've picked up over the years that help me and my remote team do our work better.
Be awkwardly honest
When you’re working remotely you don’t have the luxury of reading body language, hearing tone or seeing expressions. That leaves a lot to your imagination, and sometimes your mind can get carried away. You might inject some deep meaning into a Slack message that was meant to be a joke. Or you might misread an email and assume it’s a harsh reprimand when it’s really a friendly reminder.
Rather than over-analyzing things and spiraling, talk it out. You don’t need to get whiny or beg for validation, but you might say, “Hey, we haven’t checked in lately and I’m feeling disconnected. Are you feeling positive about this project? Anything we should discuss?” or “I’ve been spinning my wheels on this all day and rather than drive myself crazy, I thought I’d ask your opinion.” Whether your boss or team is feeling positive or not, they will appreciate you being proactive and asking.
It may feel a little awkward at first, but you'll soon establish an expectation of honesty between you and your coworkers. And you will feel a lot better when you’re not distracted wondering what everyone is thinking 10,000 miles away.
State your assumptions
If you’re unsure, state what you think you’re supposed to do. If you’re pretty certain, state what you plan to do. If you’re positive you understood, state what you are going to do.
The point here is, don't leave anything up to chance. Your assumption may be totally wrong and when you're working alone, it's easy to follow an assumption too far before someone stops you. Assess the situation and state your next steps. If you’re wrong, you will be set straight. If you’re right, you will assure the client or your boss that you’re all over it.
Asking questions like, "What are the requirements? What do I need to do?” are only meant to buy time and put the responsibility back on the other person. Stating your assumptions keeps the project moving forward. You are making sure everyone is on the same page and giving the other person something to REACT to, rather than asking them to do something for you.
With this approach, you will spend less time chasing people down, dealing with miscommunication and redoing work. Just put it all on the table.
Cut out the big talk
The beauty of remote working: You save so much time when you’re always not sitting in conference rooms listening to people bullshit and throw buzzwords around. Embrace this gift and keep it out of your online conversations too. It takes a long time to type “360-degree holistic storytelling-based approach” on Slack. So don’t. Your work and team will be better for it.
Share your WIPs
Without a creative director or teammate walking behind your computer or stopping by your desk to check in, you can easily get sucked into a project without sharing your progress. You may end up slaving away on something that wouldn’t have worked from the start, or getting stuck on a roadblock someone could have easily cleared up for you. Meanwhile, your team or client is growing anxious wondering what you’re up to.
Share your works in progress. Important: Your goal is not necessarily to get feedback yet. It’s simply to state here’s where I am, here’s what I’m doing, here’s where it’s going. It’s as simple as sharing a screenshot or dropping a link in a Slack message. This removes anxiety for your team. They don’t need to micromanage you, they learn to trust that you are working even when you’re not “active” or talking, and they know the status of a project at a glance.
Most creative directors or managers know what to expect from a WIP – they’re not going to jump in and say “Why is the kerning not fixed here?” or “Why are you putting that box there?” It’s in progress, it’s not time for that yet. They will likely glance your WIP, nod and get back to whatever they were doing before. Or they may give you a tip and point you in a different direction if it’s necessary. Or they may not look at all. The point is staying connected and providing peace of mind.
Know when a phone call vs. email is needed
You may disagree with me here as I’m not a social person and could easily do away with phone calls altogether, but I’d say 99% of the time, any issue or conversation can be resolved via email. In fact, I think email is often the best place to resolve a problem because there’s no beating around the bush, awkward pauses or multiple voices talking over each other. You have time to craft your message and leave no room for question. Here are the rare times I believe a phone call is necessary:
1. When you or someone else is upset - This is NOT the time for an email, because anything you write in anger will be immortalized in writing. And past the glorious 3-second window Gmail’s “Undo” button provides, there’s no taking an email back. It can be saved or even forwarded to someone else. And I don’t know about you, but I often regret the things I write in anger – and very often, they come back to bite me. On top of that, it’s easy to let tension and resentment build via written communication. Getting on the phone and hearing the other person’s voice, with no email to hide behind, reminds you to be polite and respectful. It also reminds you we’re all people trying our best.
2. At the beginning of a relationship - Obviously, a personal connection can be made via phone that’s very different than email.
3. To keep social people sane - If your teammate is someone who needs social interaction and validation, a simple phone call can work wonders for their productivity and mental state. As I mentioned, I am not this person. However, I make an effort to have phone calls with the people on my team who are. It also makes a remote job feel more real/tangible when you occasionally hear a person’s voice who is invested in your work.
4. On a highly collaborative project - If you find you are saying the same thing to different people or passing messages along a chain of people all the time, you’ll likely save a lot of time and annoyance by setting up a quick phone call. Make it short and have a structure in place for this call. This doesn’t even have to be a recurring call, which can become routine and end up wasting time. Set up status calls only as you need them. Then instead of sending the same Slack message to different people all day, you can actually get to work.
Almost no one, especially clients, will be annoyed with over-communication. Especially if you’re not asking anything of them. When in doubt, send a one-sentence email update. It shouldn’t take time out of your day or feel like a hassle. Over-communicating should be naturally integrated into your workflow.
I preach the daily check-in email every chance I get. Each day, my team sends me an email with three bulleted lists: What I Did Today, What I’m Doing Tomorrow and What I’m Stuck On. This keeps me informed as their manager and helps them stay on task and accountable each day. It takes them less than 5 minutes. It makes a world of difference.