Low-Bandwidth Teams: Remaining Human from Afar

Long Distance CommunicationThe past twenty years have seen a rampant increase in what I call Low Bandwidth Relationships: Work or personal relationships that are based around video, audio, or textual communication with little or no face to face interaction. If in the past being remote meant that you couldn’t communicate very much at all, we now have emails, texts, instant messaging, group chats, social networking, and video conferencing tools that account for a growing percentage of our daily interactions.

These tools have vastly increased our ability to maintain work relationships across vast distances, and have made remote and even completely distributed teams possible. At worst, though, they can mask fundamental failures of communication by providing a very good illusion: Something that looks and feels like communication, but really isn’t.

Body language and facial expression, tone of voice and contextual awareness – even real presence vs. absence indicators are largely missing from our online interactions. As our brain strives to fill in the gaps, we often get a very distorted picture of who our team members are, what challenges they are facing, and what motivates them. Problems can go undetected, misunderstandings can multiply, and projects may even be derailed by miscommunications around priorities, subtleties of meaning, and levels of commitment.

In the past 10 years I have managed a remote team and two distributed teams and had to deal with those challenges first hand. When, not long ago, a friend asked me for advice on a similar situation, I tried to formulate my thoughts on the topic more systematically. Below are some thoughts on how to work remotely with a team while keeping communication real:

  1. Meet First in Real Life – The first few meetings with your team members are a critical period, in which all parties form the basis of their opinions and conceptions. As such, it is quite important that those meetings happen in the most bandwidth-rich environment possible: real life. If at all possible, spend a few days working together with new team members in the same location. Go out to have drinks. Getting to know them as people will form a stable basis on which you can build your remote relationship.
  2. Opt for High Bandwidth – Convenience tends to lure us towards lower-bandwidth communications, but don’t give in! Never send an email when you can gain a fuller understanding via chat. And never do via chat what is better discussed through an audio or video call. Try to hold important discussions in real life, where everybody can have a chance to speak and be fully understood.
  3. Value Frequency and Consistency  – Short, frequent communications are key for keeping teams productive and avoiding bottlenecks and errors of judgment. On the other hand, random interruptions are never good for productivity. For that reason, sticking to a light but routine schedule of communication is best. Knowing that there will be a time to discuss suggestions, air out disagreements, and catch up on developments will promote trust and teamwork, and make everybody more productive.
  4. Seek Out Context – Maintaining awareness of another person’s context becomes much harder when the other person is remote. The flow of information stops as soon as the call stops, and it is therefore easy to fill in the gaps in non productive ways, or worse – forget that the person has an independent existence beyond the span of the call. It is important, therefore, to seek out context. Learn as much as you can about their regular work environment, the type of interruptions they face, and any special circumstances. Ask about people’s mood, plans, and schedule.
  5. Be Mindful of Tone – Textual messages, especially short ones, can often be read in very different ways based on our own personal biases and insecurities. Emotional tone is largely missing from textual messages, and our brain has no choice but to fill in the gaps. The problem occurs when we do so without being aware that we’re doing it. Unless we are mindful, our interpretation gains the power of fact, and this affects our judgment of people’s motivation, commitment, priorities, and attitude. It’s always a good idea to pause and consider whether you might possibly be misreading tone. It’s also important to pay very close attention to tone in your own messages, and try to be sure it comes across clearly.
  6. Make Time for Empathy – Empathy, or our ability to read and emotionally respond to the feelings of others around us, is crucial to building effective teams. Unfortunately for Low-Bandwidth relationships, empathy is often put at risk. It is easier for a manager to expect unreasonable things from tired employees they can’t see. It’s also easier for employees to ascribe insensitivity to a manager that is out of sight, or dealing with faraway, unseen challenges. It’s important therefore to engage empathy actively: talk about your aspirations and frustrations and seek them out in others. It feels more natural when bonding over beers in real life than on an early-morning Skype call. But do it anyway, and you’ll gain valuable insight.
  7. Expect Complexity – We may wish we could reduce the people around us to simple, easy to remember labels – but we can’t. When we are exposed to people’s full human complexity on a daily basis, this fact is easy to remember. In a long term Low-Bandwidth situation, however, people tend to flatten in our minds and become abstractions. A team member who’s demotivated because his priorities are unclear might seem simply lazy. A team member going through tough time at home might suddenly seem flaky for no reason. The truth, however, is that people are enormously complex. The less information flow you have about them on a regular basis, the more likely you are to make grave errors and oversimplifications. If your model of a team member is too simple, it is almost certainly false. When it comes to another person, real understanding is complex, nuanced, and subtle. Seek it out!
  8. When Possible, Move – Low-Bandwidth relationships are no fun. They require more effort, offer less reward, and present more risks than co-located relationships. The ideal solution will always be to co-locate. Co-locating enables you to form personal as well as professional relationships with the people you work with, which will help keep you happy and motivated for longer. It will allow you to create and participate more extensively in team culture, and may help you generate better opportunities down the line.

As new tools evolve and change our ability to communicate, for better or worse, the science of management will have to catch up and account for those changes. Until the science evolves, however, those who work with and manage others remotely must remain mindful of the human implications of the new medium, and struggle to maintain a human attitude and process. It’s important not only for productivity, but also for happiness.