Henry Butler is no stranger to working abroad. Since graduating from Middlebury College, he has held roles across government, marketing, business development, and finance. In November 2015, he joined the team at CAAAPITAL – a private marketplace that invests in renewable energy projects.
Butler works with seven colleagues based in two countries on two separate continents across two different timezones. Luckily, CAAAPITAL has a voice messaging app – WhatsApp voice notes – to keep its small but global team in tact.
“We have been using WhatsApp voice notes since our company was founded more than two years ago,” Butler explains. “In the U.S., most people use text messaging. However, in other countries, WhatsApp is more common. We plan to continue [utilizing] WhatsApp and its voice notes feature as our business grows.”
The working world is becoming more global – and more disparate by default. A Gallup poll conducted last year found that 37 percent of U.S. workers said they telecommuted. That’s a fourfold jump from the 9 percent who said the same back in 1995.
This has several benefits for small business owners. Building a remote workforce offers you the freedom to hire talent anywhere in the world. This offers a wider range of applicants than you’d gain from recruiting within one specific market. If this talent is based in low-cost areas, you might be able to skip sky-high city salaries. And the productivity boost of building one’s own workspace means that employers can reap the rewards.
But hiring top talent for global teams is one thing. Using the right tools to keep these teams engaged is quite another.
Small business teams that are based around the world face a wide range of communications tests. Social distance is the biggest threat for cross-cultural remote teams. Without a strategic process for how to communicate – and the right tools to manage that process- social distance can rear its isolating head.
Perhaps that’s why the market for voice messaging apps is on the rise. Gartner research shows that the market for secure mobile communications technologies (SMCs) has grown in both tool offerings and sales volumes since July 2014. Using WhatsApp as an SMC offers several ways for small business owners to prevent social distance.
The tool’s acquisition by Facebook means it’s free to use across global boundaries. And in an age of security concerns, WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption is a massive plus (news-savvy readers who are concerned that WhatsApp will share data with Facebook can learn how to prevent it here).
If you’ve never used voice messaging apps, it can be tough to know how your team will receive one. Luckily, its intimate and agile nature makes it a strong option for remote teams. Here are three tips to bring voice messaging apps into your own small and global workforce:
Look at integrations
Voice messaging apps are an ideal way to preserve the human voice’s warmth and context. This is crucial for teams of colleagues that work in different parts of the world, where the same written text might be received differently.
But using a voice messaging app like WhatsApp’s voice notes doesn’t mean you should shelve everything else. Gartner research on the rise of SMCs advises businesses to “minimize the user experience impact of the solution, and favor the ones that partner or integrate” with the communications tools that your team already uses.
As Rosie Spinks wrote for Quartz, one of WhatsApp’s core benefits is its integration into a global platform. This erases the need to download a new app on your phone or use a specific operating system.
Butler emphasizes that his team at CAAAPITAL sends voice notes alongside the use of email and Slack. Rather than being a zero sum game, he says that using WhatsApp voice notes alongside written words offers complimentary benefits:
“[WhatsApp voice notes are] faster than typing a message in Slack or email, making it more useful for urgent messages. It allows more personal communication because you can convey your tone and mood. And it’s especially convenient for business travelers because you can connect with people within your company wherever you are in the world, without having to use your computer.”
Set clear boundaries
It should go without saying that use of any tool in a business context should never get sloppy. The challenge is that voice messaging apps’ upside – its intimacy – can also be a detractor.
Spinks wrote in her article for Quartz that tools like WhatsApp voice notes are modeled off the use of WeChat – the Chinese mobile messaging service that acts as a digital cocoon. Its 700 million users can pay bills, make videos, and conduct group chats to share everything from voice notes to files. Some users even shun email in lieu of conducting business within WeChat.
But in the Western world, users tend to prefer a wider range of communications tools based on different, more specific needs. Voice messaging apps preserve colleagues’ tone and nuance. But they are also more informal. This can send mixed signals if you want to use voice notes in a business context.
So, before you introduce a voice messaging app to your global team, be specific about how – and when – it should be used. Write down a clear strategy that outlines the contexts in which voice notes are expected, and share that strategy with your team. Butler says this is especially important if you plan to use voice messaging apps for client communication:
“Occasionally, we use WhatsApp voice notes to communicate with our clients. However, this is only in very specific situations – usually with clients [whom] we have a strong rapport with and who view us as an extension of their team, not just a service provider. This is because compared to a phone call or email, voice notes are more informal.”
Encourage team adoption
Every person matters on a small, remote team. And those teams are more productive when they all use the same tools. That means it’s important to have all of your team members use a voice messaging app if you choose to introduce one.
This might cause some apprehension. Colleagues could worry that access to their personal numbers creates a blurred boundary between work and home – especially if they live in countries that try to segment these two spheres of life.
To alleviate this, clarify expectations with your team. Start by reviewing the nuance of who you’ll be communicating with: Where in the world do these people live? Which working hours they keep relative to your own? When are they most likely to reach out? Based on his experience using voice notes in the global finance world, Butler says the answers to all these questions will help your own team understand how to use them:
“I would say it depends on the organization and industry. For our company, and in finance in general, we don’t mind communicating outside of normal business hours – but most communication is off on the weekends. There is definitely a line where business can spill into personal life, so a policy needs to be put in place in the beginning.”
With more than one billion global users, WhatsApp is the world’s most popular messaging tool. So, it makes sense that small, globally dispersed teams use it to stay connected. Voice messaging tools like WhatsApp voice notes are still in an early stage of mass adoption. But they are also growing in value. That makes them a sweet spot for global teams that need to stay in touch when those teams are oceans apart.