A productivity hacker's guide to

Integrating remote teams

Executive Overview

Today’s corporate culture is drowning in email, which is inefficient and delays decision-making. There was a time when businesses relied almost exclusively on the telephone, calling colleagues for information or conferring with suppliers and vendors by phone. Even conference calls proved an efficient means of coming together to make decisions. In the last few decades, however, workers are spending more time cleaning out their email inbox than they are returning telephone calls, and business productivity has suffered as a result.

It’s also ironic that as communications technology continues to evolve, actual communication seems to have suffered. Today’s workers are more scattered and connected than ever, working remotely while traveling or telecommuting, but they are talking less. Telecommuting and hiring remote workers are becoming more popular practices, increasing the volume of email and live chat over the web.

As remote employees and telecommuting become the norm for business, it’s become more challenging to integrate remote teams, nurture collaboration, and improve efficiency. It’s time to rethink the corporate telephone system and get employees talking again.


Okay, let’s talk! Today’s organizations rely entirely too much on email. Email has become the go-to for all business interactions—including group discussions. And while email started as a good idea that offered a boon to business communications, as email volume has gone up, productivity has plummeted. Email actually slows down decision-making. Consider how long it takes to reach a decision using an email thread with questions and answers back and forth versus making a simple telephone call. Or consider how many email exchanges wind up as a telephone exchange because the original email request was lost in someone’s inbox.

The average office worker¹ sends and receives more than 120 emails—this includes receiving 90 emails each work day. And mobile technology has only made the problem worse. Now employees can check their email day and night using smartphones and tablets. Surveys show that workers spend 6.3 hours a day² checking email, including 3.2 hours addressing work-related messages. Other studies show that email occupies 23 percent of the average employee’s workday, and the average worker checks email 36 times each hour. The demands of email undermine worker concentration and productivity. While employees can receive a great sense of accomplishment when they clear out their email inbox, in truth, they are getting less done.

In a study conducted³ by the University of California, Irvine, and the U.S. Army, a test group was selected and cut off from email for five days; all incoming email and alerts were diverted for review later. Monitoring software was also installed to measure the test subjects’ computer activity, and heart rate monitors were used to measure stress. The study found the test subjects were more productive. They spent more time focused on the project at hand, without interruption or trying to multitask and deal with email at the same time. They also felt less stress and even reported feeling more relaxed and focused. The same test subjects also changed their communications tactics. There were more face-to-face conversations, and they used the telephone more frequently.

So why has today’s workforce abandoned the telephone as a communication and collaboration tool? Let’s deconstruct the changes in office communications and the breakdown in collaborative strategies for remote teams.

The Deterioration of Business Communications

Since the turn of the 20th century4, the telephone has been used as a tool for business communications. Telephone use for business became commonplace and over time evolved to created demand for roles such as receptionists, switchboard operators, and ultimately telemarketers. For decades, the telephone was the fastest and least expensive way to reach customers and vendors. Then there came email.

There are some who say email was invented by Ray Tomlinson in 1972, although the roots of computer messaging go back much further. Like the Internet itself, email started as part of the ARPANET and was primarily used by the military, from which about 75 percent of ARPANET traffic came. As the ARPANET evolved into the Internet, email continued to be the “killer app” and still serves as the backbone of Internet communications.

Email offers a variety of advantages for business use. It allows you to communicate anytime, anywhere, helping workers stay on top of projects. This can promote a stream-of-consciousness management style, where managing a single project becomes a series of emails as new ideas emerge. However, email does ensure that most of the details are addressed.

Even though an email culture has come to dominate in most companies, it’s often more efficient to pick up the phone.

One of the big advantages of email is that it leaves a documented trail. Every email generated is recorded, so you can refer back to it, including seeing who had the last action item and dropped the ball. And email threads can be shared among various coworkers and managers in order to make sure everyone is up to date (and to cover your own backside).

Where email truly fails is in its lack of immediacy and its negative impact on productivity. Although a single phone call could likely be used to resolve a business issue, today we generate email instead. A single query can become a back-and-forth exchange that can delay resolution by hours, days, weeks, or even months. And the more email is generated, the more email responses are required, and ultimately we end up in an endless infinite abyss of email messages.

It’s no wonder that workers feel a sense of accomplishment when they get through their email inbox, even if nothing is actually resolved.

Even though an email culture has come to dominate in most companies, it’s often more efficient to pick up the phone. A phone call has more urgency and can yield an immediate response, but email has become more comfortable for workers, because it provides a written record and eliminates the need to actually converse with another human being, not really an ideal way to promote team collaboration.

Text Messages Only, Please

To complicate matters further, the new Millennial workforce has adopted the martphone as its communication tool of choice, and it would rather text than talk. ccording to a 2014 Gallup poll5, 68 percent of those polled between the ages of 18 nd 29 use text messages “a lot” versus 47 percent of those between ages 30 and 9 and 26 percent of those between ages 50 and 64. At the same time, usage of obile voice minutes for Millennials dropped6 from an average of 1,200 per month o 900 per month between 2008 and 2010.

Uses a smartphone as their primary communication tool

Age 18-29

Age 30-49

Age 50-64

The Millennial workforce feels that phone calls are intrusive, that calling without a text or email first is presumptuous and puts your needs ahead of the recipient. There also is a sense of “busyness” among Millennials, and they believe that texting forces people to “get to the point,” without wasted time in small talk or trying to deal with the emotional responses that are shared in telephone calls.

While a written communication such as a text or email may seem to be an impersonal way to impart only vital information, in truth, it creates more communications problems than it solves. For example, you can’t impart tone in an email or text, which is why there is often miscommunication. The reader will often impose his or her own mood on a written message and read in emotion and meaning that aren’t there. Sometimes you want to impart emotion in a message, such as when you are experiencing frustration or trying to impart a sense of urgency, which is hard to do in a written message. Also, consider that you can’t close a sale without a personal connection, and you can’t make that kind of connection exclusively in an email message.

You Can’t Forge a Team Using Email Alone

The executive’s greatest challenge in managing an email work environment is breaking down the barriers to true communications and building collaborative teams. This factor alone can have a major impact on your organization’s culture. The greatest problems with email are the same as its benefits: It can be written from anywhere, anytime, which tends to promote worker isolation. Employees can be sitting next to each other in adjacent cubicles or across the country, and they don’t have to actually talk to one another as long as they can send an impersonal email. However, a telephone call is still one of the most effective means of communication, especially when galvanizing remote teams.

When it comes to team management, the number-one challenge, according to 41 percent7 of employees surveyed is lack of effective communication. Effective communication translates into real dollars. Research for this study shows miscommunication (employees receiving the wrong message or not understanding the instructions), costs Fortune 500 companies as much as $37 billion per year. On top of that, it’s also been shown that the average annual cost to companies for ineffective communication (waiting for information, assessing unwanted communication, inefficient coordination, and barriers to collaboration), is about $26,000 per employee per year.

Technology and strategy are important factors in promoting collaboration, especially for remote teams. People need to be trained in how to communicate and collaborate effectively, and they need the tools to make teamwork easier, such as online collaboration tools. Those companies that do have highly effective communication are twice as likely to use technology for internal communication, twice as likely to have well-documented communication strategies, and seven times more likely to use leading-edge communication tools.

72% of organizations are adopting “bring your own device” (BYOD) strategies to allow employees to use their own mobile devices in order to access company email and applications.

Mobile communication tools in particular are proving valuable in promoting productivity and providing a new means to bring together remote teams. Today, 90 percent of Americans8 own a mobile phone, and 81 percent are using phones for text messages, 60 percent for Internet access, and 52 percent for sending and receiving email. At the same time, 72 percent of organizations9 are adopting “bring your own device” (BYOD) strategies to allow employees to use their own mobile devices in order to access company email and applications.

The popularity and power of smartphones and mobile devices, coupled with better communication and collaboration strategies, is the key to the successful management of remote teams. The concept is simple: Improve productivity by encouraging remote teams to collaborate using the mobile tools they already know and love.

Mobile Collaboration Promotes Remote-Team Productivity

It’s time to ditch the company telephone systems in favor of tools that are better suited for today’s mobile, distributed workforce. Employees are already using their smartphones all day, every day, including at the office. Why not harness that mobile technology in order to promote greater team collaboration, without having to add to company overhead?

In many ways, smartphones are the ideal collaboration tool. In addition to being able to make telephone calls, they can support email exchange, text messaging, file transfer, and Web access. Standardizing on smartphones for business offers many of the advantages of unified communications10 (UC). Where UC systems take advantage of high-speed computer networking to provide a single pipe that enables multiple types of communication—voice, email, text, file exchange, and video—smartphones offer the same capabilities in a wireless device, but without requiring expensive handsets or broadband networks.

In many ways, smartphones are the ideal collaboration tool. In addition to being able to make telephone calls, they can support email exchange, text messaging, file transfer, and Web access.

With the increase in the number of remote workers and telecommuters, standardizing on smartphones for collaboration makes perfect sense. The smartphone offers the same capabilities as sophisticated UC systems, but without the overhead. Employees insist on using their smartphones for work, so embracing BYOD and substituting the company phone system with personal smartphones promotes team connectivity.

More companies are looking at BYOD smartphone strategies as part of their business operations. In fact, experts predict that BYOD may soon be a requirement11 rather than a privilege, and businesses are actually going to stop providing employee smartphones and reduce reimbursements for BYOD use. One report indicates12 that only seven percent of businesses are paying for mobile devices, and only 18 percent are giving employees a mobile-phone stipend. Companies know that employees will continue to use their own mobile hardware for work, and fewer employers are willing to pay for the privilege.

So what can you do to improve your team’s communication in 2017? It might be time to start researching your options.