These days, teams can use email, chat, and video conference to have meetings and exchange information from anywhere in the world. With connectivity like this, people don’t have to be in the same room anymore to collaborate, so it’s no surprise that remote work is on the rise. With an 80% increase in the number of people working remotely from 2005 to 2012, it’s clear that more teams are going remote – introducing remote customer service vs co-located customer support.
If you’re a support leader whose team works onsite, you might be wondering whether it’d be better to go remote. Or, if your team is remote and you’re struggling, you might be wondering what all the hype is about.
There are tons of perks for remote customer service teams: saving money on office overhead costs, expanding time zone coverage, opening up a wider talent pool, and giving employees more flexibility. In fact, flexible hours and work-from-home options rank in employees’ top five desired benefits, alongside health insurance, according to a recent study from the Harvard Business Review.
On the other hand, it can be more difficult for remote customer service teams to stay in sync. Employees can miss out on the spontaneous conversations and free-flow information typical in an office environment. Remote work can make it difficult to build camaraderie, especially cross-functionally with other teams who work onsite. In some cases, remote employees are less likely to be promoted.
The reality is that there’s no silver bullet here. There are ups and downs to both remote and co-located team structures. Deciding on the right one, or even mixing the two, is more art than science, and requires careful consideration of the benefits and drawbacks of each. Ultimately, no matter what your structure is, your team success depends more on how you run your team than where it’s located. Two of the biggest areas that any team can focus on are communication and culture, which you can customize to suit your team’s chosen configuration.
Communicate better, wherever you are
Communication patterns naturally differ for each type of team. Co-located workers have the advantage of physical proximity. It’s easy to to stop by someone’s desk for a quick unplanned chat for spur-of-the-moment meetings. Being able to see someone in person also makes it easier to read nonverbal cues like tone of voice, facial expression, and body language. This means that co-located teams can have more real-time and impromptu conversations.
For remote customer service workers scattered across many timezones, communication needs to happen more asynchronously. And without the context of nonverbal messages, remote customer service employees need more context and clarity in messaging in order to reduce the possibility of misinterpretation.
Despite these differences, both types of teams can benefit from more process around communication. While most teams have a bevy of communication tools, there’s often no governance on which one is best for different communication needs.
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to establish a clear process for how and when to use each tool. Without consistent usage, your team wastes valuable time trying to find the information they need or flat out doesn’t find it at all. Or worse, they find something that’s outdated, and end up giving a customer an incorrect answer. Confusion reigns, your team feels out of the loop, and quality and morale suffer.
Choose the right tools for communicating
Choose the right communication tool for the task at hand. Chat apps like Slack are great for chatter and jokes, urgent questions, or quick one-on-one check-ins. These tools have a more conversational feel, so a Slack channel can easily mimic water cooler conversations where people pop-in from time to time to shoot the breeze. Sending a chat message can also be a good signal for time-sensitivity since it’s kind of like a virtual tap on the shoulder.
Important details can get buried in chats and emails, and long chains are overwhelming. Store documentation, meeting minutes, and daily updates in a central repository that’s easy to navigate and search. Atlassian Confluence is a great tool for this, but it’s by no means the only solution. Look for something that’s built to organize information, has powerful search capabilities, and allows for version control.
A central home for information is especially important when remote customer service employees work around the clock. At certain hours, they can’t access the tribal knowledge that’s floating around the office because your operations manager is fast asleep. Even co-located teams can benefit from a rigorous focus on information management. Your particular system is up to you, but there needs to be a system.
Helping the team adopt a new system of communication guidelines can take time. Employees will stray outside of it as they learn the ropes. In those cases, gently guide your team to move their conversation to the correct channel. Over time, you’ll notice you don’t have to do any guiding at all, and your team will love being able to find what they need. They’ll feel empowered, and the quality and accuracy of your support will improve.
Ream more: Empower Your Customer Service Team
Make great communication a habit
Along with your system, establish routines that prompt team members to communicate. Use daily updates with priorities and news, and offer end-of-shift handoffs reporting on what popped up throughout the day.
If you’re co-located, take advantage of the physical proximity. Hold more face-to-face meetings, and make a habit of striking up conversation. Just make sure that items of importance that surface in those meetings and conversations are later documented for anyone who may have missed out. If you’re remote, the solitude of your home office might call for more regular digital facetime. Try streaming a video feed of each team member’s office through a tool like appear.in.
Automattic’s internal motto is “communication is oxygen.” It keeps teams alive and functioning smoothly. When you work in the same office, communication happens naturally. But when you’re working remotely, it takes more effort to check-in. That’s why building these internal processes is important. Communicating is something that everyone can do, so it’s often overlooked and left to run itself. But with a little elbow grease, you can create an intentional, well-oiled communication machine that works for any type of team.
Build an unshakeable team culture
Strong culture is the backbone of a strong team. Culture is often talked about, but rarely defined. It’s essentially the spirit of your organization, and includes your work environment, mission, goals, and values. No matter where they work, your employees need to share in your culture in order to perpetuate it, as well as to feel connected to the company and work in harmony with the rest of the team.
Hire the perfect fit
Culture starts with hiring. The way you hire is essentially how you cultivate the future culture of your team. Especially amidst growth, it can be tempting to relax your standards to get seats filled, but even one poor hire can disrupt the rhythm of the team. Make sure your hiring process is thorough and thoughtful to ensure that candidates you hire are a fit. You need to be 100% sold before making an offer to anyone new.
A hiring rubric can help you rate how closely the candidate fits each of your values. How much do they exhibit the traits needed to succeed in either work environment? Remote customer service workers generally need to be more independent and self-motivated. Co-located workers will need to value a more consistent schedule over flexibility if they’re expected to be in the office every day. They need to be able to manage office distractions. Make sure you’re asking the right questions to assess these traits.
Questions for remote customer service workers:
• Can you tell me about a time when you worked under limited supervision?
• How do you keep yourself organized?
• When was the last time you had to make a decision without having all the facts?
Questions for co-located customer service workers:
• How do you manage distractions?
• What kind of environment is best for you in order to be productive?
• What do you value more: routine or novelty?
Create connections in-office or remotely
Once you have the right people on your team, you need to make sure they’re connected. This part of culture is especially crucial in support. In times of stress for support teams, fun and work friendships can fall by the wayside, even though they help buffer potential burnout. Build routines that encourage socialization and fun, but that don’t require too much effort. Make them a given, non-negotiable part of your team operations. This way, they keep happening even when resources are strained.
Co-located teams can do things face-to-face, but remote teams can do just as much through technology:
• If you’re co-located, schedule monthly lunches. If you’re remote, make it a point for everyone to go out at the same time, share food photos, and chat for a while.
• Pair up co-located employees for coffee dates. The team at Culture Amp proves that you can do the same thing remotely.
• Any type of team can organize a book club, join up on fitness goals through an app or Slackbot like Health Hero, or organize shared playlists on Spotify.
With a little creativity, there are tons of possibilities to bring your team together.
Set up your team for success
There’s no magical team structure that runs without challenges. Due to their unique situations, remote and co-located teams differ. Each setup has its pros and cons. No matter what, successful teams come from strong management.
Acknowledging your team’s communication and cultural needs, and adapting your techniques, builds a foundation for a world-class team, no matter where in the world you are.