Telecommuting Tips: Making Remote Relationships Work

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Now that more and more people are working from home, we need to recognize that remote collaboration presents some unique challenges.  To communicate effectively from a distance, both managers and employees need to adopt some specific skills and strategies.

Here are some suggestions for remote employees, followed by advice for their managers.

A. Tips for Remote Employees

1. Clarify management expectations.
When working remotely, you must have a very clear understanding of deliverables and deadlines. Without the informal interactions that are part of daily life in the office, it is all too easy to head off in the wrong direction, resulting in wasted time and effort.  So if your boss fails to convey clear expectations about an assignment or project, you must initiate that conversation yourself.

2. Invest time in “getting to know you”.
If you are undertaking 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 take time during your first meeting to share 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 timesaver, but it has also led to many workplace conflicts and misunderstandings. 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 are new to Zoom, Teams, Slack, or whatever software your group is using, you must not only master the technology, but also understand the appropriate group “etiquette” when using those tools.

5. Stay on your boss’s radar.
Remember the old saying “out of sight, out of mind?” If you are not in regular communication with your manager, you need to be sure that you don’t get overlooked or forgotten. If you tend to be quiet and reserved – or extremely independent – make a special effort to share information with your boss and arrange for regular progress updates and feedback sessions.

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

7. Use social media to build relationships.
In the absence of face-to-face interaction, stay in touch with your colleagues using whatever social media platforms are preferred by your coworkers. Friendly informal interactions can help 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.

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 must clearly describe exactly how success will be defined for each assignment or project.

2. Invest time in face-to-face orientation.
If it’s possible to have a safe in-person meeting with new employees, make time to do so. One face-to-face conversation can make a huge difference in the quality of the relationship and the new hire’s feeling of connection with you as their manager.

3. Over-communicate with remote employees.
We naturally pay less attention to people when they are not in our immediate vicinity, so managers must make a special effort to avoid 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. Keep a list of things to discuss, and encourage your employees to do the same.

4. Learn to manage virtual meetings.
Meetings can be challenging with everyone in the same room, but virtual teams must also master the art of effective communication across distances. Ensure that you and your team have appropriate online meeting tools and train everyone to use them effectively. If some employees are physically present 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 their manager to make a decision or provide information.  If you procrastinate, you are hurting their ability to be productive. Since they can’t drop by to give a casual reminder, their only choice is to wait it out or send nagging messages, which may feel inappropriate. So meet your commitments and follow up.

6. Make smart hiring decisions.
Not everyone is suited for remote work, so if teleworking is going to become the new norm, you need to hire the right people. Research has found the following traits to be critical for employees working in virtual teams: solid communication skills, comfort 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)