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Making Remote Relationships Work

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More and more people are working with colleagues that they never see. In a recent study of U.S companies having more than 5000 employees, Brandman University surveyed 135 key managers about their use of virtual teams (http://www.brandman.edu/research/), finding that 40% of the companies already use them extensively and 56% expect their use to increase.

Instead of communicating face-to-face, these widely distributed employees are collaborating computer-to-computer, creating some predictable challenges. The following tips for making virtual teams work include suggestions from Susan Gerke, adjunct professor at Brandman and author of "Working Remotely".

The advice for employees is followed by suggestions for their managers.

A. Tips for Remote Employees

1. Clarify management expectations.
All employees need to know what their boss expects, but having clear expectations is even more important for telecommuters. When working remotely, you must specifically define deliverables and deadlines. If your boss fails to make expectations clear, then you need to initiate that conversation.

2. Invest time in "getting to know you".
Before jumping into a task with unfamiliar colleagues, take time to learn something about them. Look them up on Facebook or LinkedIn, initiate a get-acquainted email exchange, or spend a few minutes on your first call sharing information about your backgrounds. The more you know about your coworkers, the better you will be able to understand their perspective.

3. Recognize when you need to talk.
One of the greatest potential pitfalls for virtual relationships is the overuse of written communication. Email is a terrific tool, but it has also led to many workplace conflicts (see 10 Things You Should Never Do With Email). When the topic is complicated or potentially contentious, you need to talk, not write.

4. Learn to use the tools.
Technological dinosaurs can be a real drag on virtual teams, because they slow everyone else down. So if you need to work remotely, master the necessary hardware and software.

5. Stay on your boss’s radar.
Remember the old saying "out of sight, out of mind"? If you are located far from your manager, you need to be sure that you are not overlooked or forgotten. So if you tend to be quiet and reserved (see Are You an Office Wallflower?), make a special effort to share information with your boss and arrange for regular progress updates and feedback sessions (see 10 Helpful Things to Say to Your Boss).

6. Always be reliable & dependable.
When colleagues don’t see you on a daily basis, they may feel uneasy about your progress on projects or your ability to meet agreed-upon deadlines. If you develop a reputation for dependability by always doing what you say, they will soon stop worrying. Be sure to give everyone involved a heads-up if a schedule is ever going to slip.

7. Use social media to build relationships.
In the absence of face-to-face interaction, you can stay in touch with your colleagues through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, & other social media. Virtual communication helps remote team members feel connected.

8. Understand cultural differences.
Increasingly, people find themselves on virtual teams with people from other countries. If you will be working with someone from another part of the world, take time to learn about their culture. Their work habits and communication patterns may differ from yours in unexpected ways (see Communicating Across Cultures).

B. Tips for Managers of Virtual Teams

1. Clearly define expected results.
Be very specific with remote employees about deliverables and deadlines. To manage remotely, you need to clearly define what each person is expected to produce.

2. Invest time in face-to-face orientation.
Spend time getting to know new employees in person, even if it means traveling overseas. One face-to-face meeting can make a huge difference in the quality of the relationship and the employee’s feeling of connection with you as their manager (see Ten Helpful Questions to Ask Employees).

3. Over-communicate with remote employees.
We naturally pay more attention to people in our immediate vicinity, so managers must make a special effort not to fall into the "out of sight, out of mind" trap with remote team members. Get into the habit of sharing both official and unofficial work information, and set aside regularly-scheduled times to meet with them. Keep a list of things to discuss, and encourage the employee to do the same.

4. Learn to manage virtual meetings.
Meetings can be challenging, even with everyone in the same room (see Leading a Productive Meeting), but virtual teams also need to master the art of effective communication across distances. Insure that you and your team have appropriate online meeting tools and can use them effectively. If some employees are onsite with you, be sure that remote team members have equal opportunities to participate.

5. Follow through with commitments.
Remote employees can become very frustrated waiting for you to make a decision or get them information. If you procrastinate, you are hurting their ability to be productive. Since they aren’t going to run into you in the hall, their only choice is to wait it out or send you nagging emails, which may feel inappropriate. So you need to follow up.

6. Make smart hiring decisions.
Not everyone is suited for remote work, so you need to hire the right people (see How to Hire Better People). The Brandman study found the following traits to be critical for employees working in virtual teams: solid communication skills, comfort with working independently, ability to pace themselves appropriately, and willingness to be held accountable. Include those abilities in your hiring profile and interview accordingly (see How to Develop Useful Interview Questions)

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