How to write for a remote world

Three lessons for communication in a distributed team

More than a year into this pandemic and most of us are still working from home. Early in this forced experiment, we were still trying to recreate the informal parts of the office. But by now, attempts to recreate this dynamic fall flat. Virtual drinks with your colleagues may have seemed fun a year ago, but we now know they’re much less energising than going on a coffee run together.

We’ve tired of attempts to recreate in-person interactions, but even when the pandemic is over remote work is going to play some part of our future. Our communication now has to be prepared for anywhere from a few, to a few thousand, of our close and distant colleagues. 

There’s a better strategy for this reality than scheduling another Zoom meeting. It’s learning how to “write for remote”.

Good remote communication is crucial for a distributed team. Whether you’re going back to the office post-vaccine or permanently working from home, there’s three key lessons you should keep in mind for how to communicate in a post-pandemic world.

Slack-ify your writing (yes, emojis)

Using images in communication is fundamental to capturing attention. In addition to conveying information visually, images can set the tone of communication and express the mood and feelings of the speaker - things that are hard to do with just text. 

Graphs and charts are good visual tools, but so are emojis. Emojis grab attention, show personality, and are authentic.

The key is to use them casually, not that often, and in the right context. You don’t want someone reading 🙏 and wondering if you meant “pray” or “high five”. You may read 🤔 as “thinking” but others might find it questioning or skeptical. Even something as banal as a smile (🙂) can apparently be passive-aggressive. If in doubt, double check.

Think of emojis like slang - when you use them correctly and in small doses - it builds connection and authenticity. 

Dr Wiki (or, how i learned to stop worrying and love Confluence)

If you work in a global business, chances are someone far away can’t join your next important Zoom meeting. They might watch a recording if they find time, but it’s even better if they have an option to simply read an overview of the topics covered. It’s better than keeping the playback tab open for a week and never watching the video because you ran out of time.

Using your company’s wiki for meeting notes is an easy way to let people get a quick summary of what was discussed, debated, and decided. Sharing notes this way goes hand in hand with blogging about team developments, all-hands meetings, and trusty email to building a culture of transparency and open information flows in a remote world. 

Whatever system you use, having a template for documentation makes it easier for people to follow. For the writer, it also helps introduce some rigor to your thinking and means it doesn't always feel like you're starting from scratch. The Confluence templates from Atlassian are quite good and cover most use cases.

Pay attention to feedback

Consciously or not, most of us are attuned to body language. In person, we can tell how a talk is landing in the room. Furrowed brows convey concern or skepticism, while phones in hands means your delivery is flat.

In remote teams, we mostly lose these human cues. But we ignore how our teammates react to our communication at our own peril. 

Written words leave room for interpretation and misinterpretation can affect morale and engagement.

So, pay attention to the feedback signals you do get. If comments on, or reactions to, your post suggest worry or skepticism, talk to the person directly and leave a public reply summarising your response. Spending ten minutes on a video call with a colleague and noting this publicly can often clear up what would otherwise cause tension.