5 Ways to Improve Communication in a Remote Work Environment
Colin Rigley

Technology has opened up a new world. This is a world in which we no longer have to occupy the same physical space to get work done and find new ways to improve communication.

Increasingly, companies are understanding and capitalizing on the benefits of deploying a remote workforce and giving employees the flexibility to work wherever they are the most productive. And, according to emerging research, many people find they are more productive in locations outside the traditional office. For example, Nicholas Bloom and James Liang found in a study of the Chinese travel site Ctrip that “people working from home completed 13.5% more calls than the staff in the office did,” according to the Harvard Business Review.

A Stanford Business article referencing the same study said Bloom “found solid evidence at one company that allowing workers to work from home produced a large productivity boost as well as happier workers.”

Overall, remote work continues to trend upward, with a 26 percent increase in open remote job postings in 2014 as compared to the previous year. According to Fortune, 83 percent of hiring managers say telecommuting will be “more prevalent in the next five years.”

At Carpool, we have long encouraged employees to work remotely—whether that’s from home or anywhere else they feel productive—when necessary, but more recently, we took things a step further. In July, Carpool began the Office Anywhere experiment: one month in which all Carpool employees were heavily encouraged to work outside the office. And while it’s easy to identify the benefits of working remotely—a better job-life balance, increased flexibility, lowered commute times, for instance—we know that it’s also important to acknowledge the downfalls and find solutions to make working remotely as good, if not better, than heading into the office as per usual.

1: Coordinate Schedules

Once you can no longer see your coworkers, you need to be transparent with your schedule. When working remotely, it is vital that other employees, managers, and clients know how to find you when they need you. This also means letting people know when you will not be available, or when your availability is more limited.

Likewise, it’s important for remote employees to set a schedule and help keep themselves oriented and following a set routine to avoid falling prey to distractions that can arise outside of an office setting.

“Though we can still effectively communicate tasks and information through our online tools, we may lose the opportunity to connect relationally with team members,” says Carpool Graphic Designer Alana Espineli. “It’s important to keep a regular schedule when working from home. This helps my brain get into ‘work mode’ even if I’m not in the office.”

2: Use Video and Know How to Use It

Working from home means you’ll be taking a lot of Web calls, so be sure to get a decent pair of headphones that you can use rather than computer speakers, which often cause feedback and echo on calls.

At Carpool, we even take it a step further by posting quick selfie videos recapping meetings others may have missed and posting them on our collaborative network so anyone can catch up on a meeting they couldn’t join. (We’ve been calling them “asynchronous meetings.”)

“I recently moved across the country from Carpool’s headquarters and we made a conscious effort to use video conferencing more,” says Carpool Account Director Darren Litchfield. “It was amazing what a difference it made beyond simple audio calls. I feel much more connected and there is much less miscommunication. And I find myself showering, doing my hair, and even getting fully dressed every day, even if I never step foot in an office.”

3: Find an Effective Task Tracker

Often, when we’re in the office, we tend to take a casual approach to assigning tasks. When you’re surrounded by coworkers and managers, this process can range from a simple tap on the shoulder to an email. But that process will not work when your workforce isn’t colocated in a physical space.

So what do you do? Three words: FOLLOW. THE. PROCESS.

That process must include some form of task tracking. At Carpool, we rely on Asana, which allows us to easily shift projects and tasks from one team member to another. This is a useful tool when we’re all in the same location, but it is invaluable when we’re working remotely. A task-tracker like Asana allows you to move a project though a predetermined workflow and it improves the flow of information between team members, who all have visibility on the person responsible for a given task, the conversations around that task, and the associated deadlines.

“To keep focused and productive, kick up your use of Asana for personal as well as team tasks,” says Carpool Director of Strategy Chris Slemp. “To be better connected, talk through your work in Facebook at Work, even if it seems like you’re talking to yourself.”

4: Work Where You’re Most Productive

Whether you have a home office, favorite coffee shop, welcoming park, or just a really comfortable couch, your work environment can greatly affect your ability to be productive.

The key to working remotely is in its flexibility. It doesn’t matter where you are as long as where you are is the right place for you. Over the course of our Office Anywhere experiment, everyone at Carpool has found different places to work that help them maximize their productivity. Some employees have even worked from the office a few days or for a few hours in the morning or afternoon. Others have stayed in their home offices, or settled into cozy corners of local cafes. Most of us have actually tried multiple locations, depending on our tasks for any given day, a particular mood, or even the weather.

Every work environment comes with some positives as well as some negatives.

“I have more freedom to expand my creativity and release the stress from some tough coding tasks,” says Carpool Software Engineer Samuel HyunGyu Kim. “But I have to put in more effort to build trust with my coworkers and discipline myself from being distracted.”

5: Over-Communicate

Now that you’re no longer in a physical space with other people all the time, communication takes on more importance. Where once you might have been able to take a lunch whenever was most convenient, or go about your day without advertising your work schedule, working remotely means you need to become more public with your daily routine.

That means notifying coworkers when you will be away and letting them know how to reach you for urgent tasks. It also means posting your day’s tasks in a public space to increase company-wide (or at least team-wide) transparency and ease the virtual barrier between yourself, coworkers, and sometimes with clients. Granted, many people will be reluctant to begin working out loud, but the benefits—such as breaking down silos and opening new channels of collaboration—outweigh the perceived downsides.

“My advice is to over-communicate; we have to build the trust that we all are getting our work done,” says Carpool Social Engagement Specialist and Community Manager Alexandra Kruse. “Use communication tools you have to ensure that you don’t lose contact with the team. If something is not working, speak up and voice your concerns. Once you find your rhythm, things will fall into place.”