Why and how remote teams can use real-time communication

Jelena Simonovic

Last updated on: January 20, 2022

So, here’s a situation: you work in sales from your home and an important client finally contacts you after weeks of silence. They want to buy your product at a lower price and they insist they do it right this moment. You, however, need to check with the higher-ups whether this is a suitable price. So, you’re frantically typing an email, while trying to keep the customer on the phone. Every minute you wait for the response, the customer is getting more frustrated and impatient. The email finally comes through with your manager giving you the OK, so you proceed to seal the deal. 

You pulled through this one. But at what cost to your stress levels? Isn’t there a better way of communicating with coworkers? Sure there is, and it comes in the form of real-time communication.

With this article, we shed some light on this form of communication, and explain its challenges and benefits for remote teams. As a bonus, we included five tips to help you improve real-time communication for your own remote team, so make sure you don’t miss out on those.

Why and how remote teams can use real-time communication - cover

What is real-time communication?

Let’s start by introducing the concept of real-time communication. What is it and how does it work? Simply put, this is a type of communication where there is no delay between the moment one person sends a message, and the moment the intended person or people receive the message that was sent. To sound a bit more fancy and scientific, we might refer to real-time communication as synchronous communication

And how does synchronous communication work? Well, aside from face-to-face conversations, through the use of different types of real-time communication tools.

Next up, we’ll take a look at some of these.

Types of real-time communication tools

As promised, here’s a shortlist of the most commonly-used synchronous communication tools:

  • ☎️ Phone calls. Although receding in popularity among Gen Z-ers, phone calls are still a great way to communicate in real-time. From a purely pragmatic point of view, talking to someone on the phone is very efficient as you can condense what would be a fair number of email exchanges into a single call. Personal preferences are another matter entirely, and many people may not be comfortable with the emphasis phone calls put on the spoken word.
  • 📹 Video conference tools. With the COVID-19 pandemic and the major shift to remote work, the use of video conferencing tools has skyrocketed. With how things look right now, this trend is bound to continue as more and more companies switch to a remote-first approach to business. Much like phone calls, video conferences can be concise and direct, but with an added layer of familiarity, as you get to see the face and mannerisms of other participants in the call.
  • 📱 Team messaging apps. When used correctly, a team messaging app can be a great all-around solution for remote team communication. It has all the necessary features needed to enable real-time communication. It is also less ambiguous than other tools in this category, because exchanges are written down. This leaves less room for misunderstandings and provides the option of reviewing messages at a later date.

Real-time communication examples

What better way to understand a concept than to provide examples. When it comes to real-time communication, some examples might look like this:

🔶 Example 1: Craig is a bank accountant, and he is making great progress with persuading a big client to take interest in the bank. He needs a subtle way to ask his superiors whether the negotiated conditions are OK, so he uses a team messaging app to send a direct message. Craig gets a quick response, and he doesn’t have to disrupt the conversation.

🔶 Example 2: Michele is in a pinch. Her job as a remote UX designer requires her to have a stable Internet connection. However, due to a malfunction, she is unable to report in. So, she phones her supervisor to inform them about the reasons for her absence.

🔶 Example 3: Due to an important change being made to the company policy, David — team leader of a marketing team — organizes a video conference. Attendance is required, and team members have the opportunity to ask questions if there is anything they do not understand.

Which communication tools ARE NOT based around real-time communication?

The antithesis of synchronous is, of course, asynchronous communication. In other words, communication that does not occur in real-time. Some asynchronous communication tools companies use include:

Fax machines 📠

You may wonder — Are fax machines still in use today? Apparently, they are, but in very limited ways. Certain legislations about patient information confidentiality restrict healthcare providers to the use of fax machines. In this, and a few other situations, the primary reason for the use of fax machines is because they are perceived to be more secure — because they can be disconnected from the Internet. As such, they are not susceptible to hacking attempts.

Letters ✉️ 

Another old-fashioned channel for communication, letters and written memos are still used to record important information exchanges. This is especially true for official, governmental, and other formal exchanges.

Email 📧 

The digital counterpart to letters — email. In many ways, email might seem obsolete, as it offers few facets of communication and very little opportunity for effective collaboration. Email exchanges can be slow and contrived, but they still hold a valuable spot in business communication. Especially when it comes to important messages you wouldn’t want to miss.

Text messages 💬

According to an unwritten rule, text messages are used for less formal purposes, as a way of conveying day-to-day information which is not of crucial importance. As convenient as text messages are, they are hardly a good tool to share larger pieces of more important information, as well as other types of resources.

Project management tools 👩‍💻 

 Within project management tools, the emphasis is put on shared documents for coworkers to collaborate on. There is also the option for comments and suggestions, but more general discussions are usually kept for direct messaging tools.

Again, a team messaging app 📱 

To follow up with an example of a direct messaging tool, we have — again — a team messaging/chat app. And how can a team chat app be both a synchronous and asynchronous communication tool? The answer lies in app features that allow the user to set their availability status and notification settings so that their workflow doesn’t get interrupted. This way, by introducing a time delay, the team chat app becomes an asynchronous communication tool.

💡 More on the subject of asynchronous communication in our blog post What remote teams need to know about asynchronous communication.

Why is real-time communication a challenge for remote teams?

Post COVID-19, almost 70% of full-time U.S workers work from home. Chances are, you or someone you know participates in this statistic. So, your own experience may provide insight into some of the reasons remote teams might find it hard to communicate in real-time. Here we included common complaints: the realities of daily life coming in the way, different time zones when teams are international or global, great physical distance, language barriers, and body language differences.

Different time-zones 🕥 

These days, teams are spread all over the world, with team members often checking in from places with hours of time-zone difference. This affects many organizational aspects of the company, such as scheduling meetings, setting due dates, urgent tasks, but also, common day-to-day communication.

🔶 Example:

Micah works from Las Vegas, and his other team member Hugo is from Madrid, Spain. Both are members of a software development team, and have a time difference of nine hours. So, when Micah has an urgent task come up at the end of his workday, Hugo is already deep asleep and cannot respond.

💡 To help with this specific issue, check out our article on Best team practices when working across time zones.

Geographic distance 🌍

In addition to different time zones, the geographic distance itself is a factor that proves challenging for remote teams. Without the opportunity for in-person meetings and face-to-face communication, people from all around the globe are bound to feel distant and isolated. As a result, positive company culture is compromised, which increases chances of employee dissatisfaction and turnover rates.

🔶 Example:

Micah and Hugo have never met in real life. Because of this, their communication remains a bit distant, and both have the feeling that the other person is somewhat unapproachable. Even though this may not seem like that big of a deal, their levels of collaboration have suffered due to stunted interactions.

Language barriers 🗣️ 

With geographic distance comes a difference in customs, values, and of course languages. Video and phone calls with low quality and slow connection, echo, and other interferences might exaggerate the language barrier already existing among team members. Particularly, team members with strong accents may have a hard time trying to make themselves understood by other participants in the call. 

🔶 Example:

Let’s look at the example of Micah and Hugo once again. The official language their software development team uses is English. However, English is not exactly Hugo’s strong suit — especially in the accent department — so they often rely on writing messages in a team chat app, as video calls can get confusing for both participants.

Interpreting body language and gestures 🙆‍♀️

Aside from the language barrier, another factor that might contribute to communication issues is the misinterpretation of body language. In comparison to in-person meetings, phone calls, video conferences, and instant messages have either limited or no room for body language —  which is often the key for successful communication. Also, some people are just stiff in front of a camera. Lacking gestural context, this might translate to the person being interpreted as arrogant or stand-offish. 

🔶 Example:

Here’s how a simple interaction can cause great confusion: Micah and Hugo are in a video call and as a form of greeting, Micah throws up a “peace” sign. The problem is, the two-fingers-extended gesture does mean “peace” in the USA, but in Spain, it means “to break something up”. So, there needs to be plenty of explanation from both sides as to why Hugo thought Micah was gesturing to him to end the call.

Day-to-day home responsibilities coming in the way 🏡

Unfortunately, you cannot put your kids on pause. The same goes for Internet connection glitches, loud construction sites, pets with zoomies, or unexpected visits from the in-laws, delivery men, persistent traveling salesmen, and that nosy neighbor from down the street. As a result, for someone working remotely, day-to-day life can get in the way of real-time communication with their coworkers — and there’s no real way around that.

🔶 Example:

Right in the middle of an important briefing, Micah hears a suspiciously loud sound from the room his dog is in alone. He tries to ignore the noise, but he cannot help being distracted and wondering just how much damage the dog is doing, as he helplessly sits in front of his screen. This results in his superiors reprimanding his absentmindedness — and his sneaker collection is almost entirely obliterated. 

What are the benefits of real-time communication for remote teams?

Why is real-time communication important? What exactly are the advantages of real-time communication? Well, the most important benefits include how they provide opportunities for instant updates and feedback, prompt access to shared documents, as well as little room for misunderstandings.

Real-time updates ℹ️

For starters, we have the most obvious advantage — the possibility of real-time updates. This means that important information can be shared with the intended recipients with no time delay. Obviously, this allows employees to stay in the loop, but also to provide necessary feedback.

🔶 Example:

In the following screenshot, we see that Catherine has asked the interns in a Pumble team chat app channel about changes in the work schedule due to Independence Day. Within minutes, Irene responds, so Catherine can take note and update the schedule.

A quick conversation in Pumble, a team messaging app

Instant feedback 📤

Just as easy as team members get notified of important updates, they can also instantly provide feedback. When a team uses a team messaging app, immediately upon being notified of a message directed at them, team members can respond and resolve the issue at hand.

🔶 Example:

For the needs of campaign planning, we see Stella here asking about the target audience, budget, and other related issues. She uses the “mention” feature, so Jessica and John get instant notifications, and respond as soon as they do.

Pumble conversation with instant feedback

Less room for miscommunication 👌

When team members communicate without a time delay, there is less space for miscommunication to occur. In short, it is easier to ask questions in this format. In contrast, as asynchronous means of communication take time, the opportunity to clear things up efficiently may be lost with people forgetting what they wanted to know.

🔶 Example:

In this next example, we see that Jon intended to give Leslie a task related to contacting a specific customer. However, he was not informed that Leslie had previously taken time off, and wouldn’t be able to attend the call. This exchange quickly clears up any confusion, allowing both team members to stay on the same page.

Pumble conversation quickly resolves potential misunderstanding

Immediate access to shared files 🗄️

When a real-time communication tool has the feature to instantly share files, workflow naturally improves. This happens because it is unobstructed by bloated and untimely emails, and people can get right to the necessary resources without taking detours.

🔶 Example:

Here we see the example of Prof. Stuart sharing a recording of the previous chemistry lecture, so her students can follow the material. She also adds a message about the next class, effectively informing the students about their duties.

file sharing-min-min
Sharing a file in a Pumble channel

5 tips to help establish and improve real-time communication for remote teams

So far, we’ve explored the meaning of real-time communication, some common synchronous and asynchronous communication tools, as well as the challenges and benefits real-time communication has for remote teams. Now that we have a solid grasp of the concept, how can we go about establishing real-time communication for teams that still don’t use it, and improving it for teams that do? 

Here are 5 tips:

1. Use the right collaboration tools

This one is crucial. The explanation is simple — no tools, no communication happening at all, at least in the case of remote teams. So, make sure to invest in high-quality tools that have all the right features to enhance collaboration. 

Apart from being necessary for communication, collaboration tools are used because they provide benefits such as:

  • Saving you money;
  • Increasing the effectiveness of group work;
  • Increasing creativity and innovation;
  • Improving information accessibility; 

With these benefits in mind, paying careful attention to what collaboration tools you implement is a matter of common sense.

🔶 Example:

You and your team can use Pumble — a team messaging app with free features such as unlimited users, unlimited chat history, and a user-friendly interface. 

💡 For a detailed look into collaboration technology and its uses today and in the foreseeable future, take a look at our guide to Collaboration technology: what to use to improve team collaboration.

2. Provide detailed instructions

Next up, we must take into account the importance of providing clear, detailed instructions. These might include interpersonal interaction guidelines, including instructions on:

Additionally, you should provide technical instructions and training on how to use specific collaboration tools. 

With clear instructions within reach, team members are less likely to overstep their roles,  inappropriately interact with others, or neglect their duties.

🔶 Example:

Carrie is the manager for a logistics team, tasked with creating instructions for communication among coworkers. She refers to tips on chat etiquette to create her own guidelines for daily team communication.

3. Encourage a proper work-life balance

It’s easy to get consumed with remote work if there are no clear boundaries of where the office ends and home begins. We’ve all been guilty of this. “Oh, I’m just going to check if there are any important updates” — which leads to half an hour of mindless browsing. As a supervisor, you should encourage work-life balance for your team members, and try not to take up their free hours with overtime work. As for all of us, we should take care to draw clear lines between work time and free time. 

Some ways you can do this are:

  • Limiting screen time outside of work:
  • Turning off notifications;
  • Taking time to really decompress and relax;
  • Engaging in light physical activity, such as yoga, or walking your dog;

In short, find ways to put barriers around your free time, and don’t let it be consumed by work-related issues. This way, you won’t experience as much stress when it comes to real-time communication during work hours, and you can be more prepared to provide feedback when necessary. As a consequence, you also become more productive and efficient. 

🔶 Example:

Steve notices that a lot of his free time is consumed by “just checking for updates” on his work team chat app. So, he makes it a point to exit the app when the work hours are over, and to resist the temptation to open it until the next day.

4. Normalize transparency and encourage feedback

By this point in time, it should be obvious that you should be transparent about internal processes and encourage employee feedback. These are important for remote teams and real-time communication, as the remoteness can add a level of isolation between team members, and real-time communication can be used to dissolve it.

For example, you could use a team messaging app to:

  • Organize weekly, or even daily meetings to share updates;
  • Encourage employee feedback;
  • Encourage free discussion of ideas;
  • Work on breaking-down team silos;

These practices make employees feel more involved and engaged, so they stay committed to their roles and responsibilities.

🔶 Example:

Brenda is a small business owner, who takes great care to keep her employees informed about all the processes the business is going through. She organizes weekly meetings, where she explains her decisions and the direction she plans to take. As a result, her employees care more about the company succeeding, and often provide helpful feedback.

5. Make room for informal activities

As a way of virtual team-building, you should make room for informal team activities. When team members engage in collective activities, their sense of trust, solidarity, and familiarity grows, along with increasing their future collaboration efficiency. This also results in real-time communication becoming easier for team members — after all, if you trust your colleagues and find conversing with them a pleasant experience, you’ll be more likely to reach out when you need to. Some informal activity ideas might include:

  • Informal video meetings;
  • Game-playing sessions;
  • Discussions about common interests

You can really get creative with this tip. Ask your team members about what kind of activities they would be interested in doing, ask if they have any suggestions, and then plan accordingly.

🔶 Example:

As a way of bringing in a more relaxed energy to his start-up, Jerry decides to create a meme channel on Pumble (#funny_memes), the team chat app his team uses. The response is overwhelmingly positive, and employees see it as a nice way to take a break from daily work activities.

In summary

We can attribute the effectiveness of modern-day companies largely to real-time communication tools. The use of these tools has provided people with means of instant communication, overcoming distance and time delays. Even though remote teams might face challenges when it comes to this form of communication, they can still benefit from most of its advantages. With the right approach and by using the tips we provided, you can establish, maintain, and improve real-time communication and collaboration for your remote team.

Author: JelenaSimonovic

Jelena Simonovic is an anthropologist turned writer with a particular interest in human communication. She's an avid researcher of various team collaboration tools and techniques, and their impact on team cooperation.

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