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Troubleshooting Remote Teams’ Communication Troubles

Dear Elizabeth:

I work on a remote team that’s spread all over the world practically! Both coasts of the U.S., Europe and Asia. Even though we have a cloud-based project management system that anyone can access from anywhere, there’s still a lot lost in translation. Sometimes I feel like we spend more time trying to clarify our communication—requests, bugs, feedback—than making substantial headway. Do you have any advice on how to handle geographic and cultural barriers to working remotely? – Communication Breakdown

Dear Communication:

Can you get everyone together for a special kick-off event? That can really help cement relationships on the team and get everyone on the same page for project communications.

However, let’s assume that you can’t for now, because that’s the situation that many project managers find themselves in. First, strip back how you are communicating to the very basics. Stop using project-related or cultural jargon. State expectations clearly, and use the facts. It’s impossible to expect someone else to take a task as a priority if you state it as: “When you get a moment can you look at the risk report for the software changes please?” In my world, that means: “Drop everything and review it now,”—but that’s a culturally-specific interpretation particular to my team!

You could also drop English as the main language for communication when a discussion between native speakers of another language has to happen: Don’t impose English as the language of the tool when it’s hampering communication.

Next, think about how you can stop using words and start using visuals to communicate instead. Clarify your requests with screenshots, graphics and videos of the bug that you upload instead of a long text description.

Finally, take some time to understand how your team members think and respond. The best way to do this is to simply ask. Try to get closer to their culture and working practices. It will help you establish whether cultural differences are holding your project back or if it’s something as simple as the language barrier.


Every month, project management expert, Elizabeth Harrin, fields readers’ questions about the challenges, risks, and rewards of project work on the LiquidPlanner blog. This selection is used with permission.

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