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I work with a team who is distributed. Most of our staff works remotely. As a result, communication is much more important.

The team consists of managers, supervisors, marketing personnel, web designers, web developers, testing engineers, and internal users.

With such a large group with a diverse variety of skills and job roles, it's important that team members be great, proactive communicators.

What are some steps that a project manager can take that will help create an environment that encourages open, proactive communication, regular check-ins and updates, and encourages people to seek answers to problems and bring those to my attention that they can't solve on their own?

FINAL UPDATE: Thanks everyone for the great answers! I found value in each one, which made it extremely difficult to accept an answer.

13

Make it easy for people to communicate - start with communicating the communication plan. The idea of having push and pull communications is great. Remember though, that you can't just expect people to read either format.

Make it interesting and if possible entertaining. Where you can use a chatty tone of voice, it feels more like people are talking about something rather than just hearing it. Invite people to participate in the communications. Maybe have a newsletter/blog and have guest reporters. If people are geographically separated, have a section about what's going on in the area - like a little tourist blurb.

I suggest following up periodically to check if people are reading/hearing the communications. It can be as easy as a scavenger hunt for information and have some small prizes.

The real point is that communications is work. I've noticed that often when communications 'fail' it's because no one was working it.

  • +1 for making it interesting and entertaining. That is a difficult thing to do. – Geo Feb 21 '11 at 20:18
  • Thanks for the tips. You're right that communication is work. You've definitely given me some ideas to help us improve by distributing the workload. Communication can't be only one person's responsibility; otherwise, it fails. Your suggestions shift the burden around the team. – jmort253 Feb 22 '11 at 2:22
7

First of all, whatever you end up doing, document it on a communication plan. Nothing fancy but at least the what/how/when/frequency in a table format.


One technique that I used when I had a team that was cross-functional and also half way around the world, was having communication gateways with their respective backups. Basically for each team, you have communicator. That person was always on the meetings with the other communicators on the other teams. They were the voice of their team.

As you can imagine, you need good team work for each sub-team for this to work.

Another important thing to mention is, that communicators will have the responsibility to collect the status and send it to you. They will also try to solve issues before they are escalated to the PM.

As SBWorks pointed out. Any twitter, or Facebook type of application will work to keep everyone on the loop, but these application without proper process could become part of the problem as well.

  • +1 Great advice about the communicator roles. I tried using software for this, but none seem to have all the features I want. – jmort253 Feb 22 '11 at 1:50
  • 1
    Technology only works if you already have process in place. Technology without process is waste of time, process without technology is waste of resources' time. Let me know how it works out, I am interested to know if it solves your situation. – Geo Feb 22 '11 at 2:05
6

As an ultra-basic recommendation, offer a mix of "push" and "pull" options.

Have a web-based tool for posting information, asking questions, etc. but don't stop there. Configure the system to send alert e-mails but allow people to customize the alerts. But send out interesting and relevant regular updates via e-mail. I find that relying on a website-only communications method is less successful than the mixed situation (because people don't take the time to look). However, e-mail spam is equally problematic (they filter you out).

It actually takes a lot of energy to write something that people will actually read so I try to send everyone-on-the-team updates on a bi-weekly basis. These updates are e-mail advertising blurbs with links back to the website. The website is

I don't use it now but a lot of people like Basecamp for this. They regularly update the feature set so what I used three years ago has likely changed a lot.

6

it's important that team members be great, proactive communicators

Don't enforce them to communicate, make them wish to communicate with you, and between each other. Your project rules have to tell them, explicitly: "either you communicate and live, or you keep silence and die".

  • But how does one do this? How do I show value in the live vs die methodology? Thanks! – jmort253 Feb 22 '11 at 2:12
  • @jmort it's part of your "Human Resource Plan", where you specify motivation of every team member. Every one of them has to have a clear answer to the question: "what I'm doing it for?". Once the question is answered communication won't be an issue any more. In 99% cases this question is not answered and people are trying to solve communication, scope, time, and quality issues first. – yegor256 Feb 22 '11 at 7:34
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I have successfully used Basecamp in the past for this. I would also highly recommend Yammer which is sort of like Twitter for a private business. We use this extensively at work to ask questions to a large group of people, get crowd-sourced answers, post status, etc. This tool also allows you to create public and private groups so there can be more focused recommendations.

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Encourage face to face discussions for co-located teams. For distributed teams, use phone calls, Skype calls, whatsapp calls etc. Only use emails for follow ups and documentation.Daily scrums are also an effective tool for communication. For stakeholders, have detailed status reports presented regularly at a defined time. Make sure to communicate progress, risks, issues, dependencies clearly to avoid surprises if things go wrong

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