how to get what you need from remote coworkers without aggravation

If you’re like a growing number of workers, you might have one or more coworkers who telecommute. It’s a great benefit for them, but sometimes it can make life harder for people back in the office – if they’re less accessible, or have important information tied up on their local hard drives, or are simply harder to get things from than your coworker right down the hall.

Here are four ways to work more effectively with remote colleagues – and get what you need from them without aggravation.

1. Ask them about their schedule and communication preferences. Does your remote colleague work the same hours as your office does, or do they have non-traditional hours? Are they easiest to get ahold of by email, or should you call if something is time-sensitive? Maybe they make frequent use of instant-message technology and don’t mind if you reach out that way. Knowing this type of information will set you up to reach the person when you need them. (And yes, ideally remote colleagues would give you this information proactively, but not everyone thinks to, so it’s okay to go ahead and ask.)

2. Suggest using technology to make virtual collaboration easier. If you’re working on projects together or might at some point need access to data that only your colleague has, suggest using tools like Dropbox, QuickBase, or even your corporate intranet (depending on its features) to share access to documents and ensure you’re never caught without the latest version of your colleague’s materials.

3. Put some effort into the relationship. When coworkers are in the same location as you, you’ll usually get to know them on a personal level simply by sharing space with them and having natural opportunities for social interaction. This often benefits your work relationships, because when people know and like each other, they tend to be more willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt, kick ideas around together, and go out of their way to help each other. It can be harder to build the same relationship with remote coworkers, since those same opportunities for casual, friendly interaction don’t come up as much. That means that you’ll need to put special effort into building that type of rapport with long-distance collagues.

4. Avoid “out of sight, out of mind.” It can be harder for remote colleagues to know what’s going on in the office; they’re not there for impromptu hallway updates and they don’t have the benefit of water cooler chit-chat. Make a special point of ensuring that they know about significant developments on work that involves them. If something’s mentioned in a meeting that you know will impact their work, mention it to them (or when appropriate, speak up in the moment to note that Jane will want to weigh in on the topic). Or, if you’re grabbing a few coworkers to brainstorm solutions to a problem, don’t overlook your colleague just because she’s not physically present – make a point of finding ways to loop remote workers into these impromptu discussions, even if’s slightly less convenient.

Being diligent about this will pay off not only in strengthening your team’s work, but it will also build the relationship itself (see #3 again).

{ 12 comments… read them below }

  1. Dr. Johnny Fever*

    These are some great pointers. I work in IT where this is movement to co-locate teams, but globalization makes that financially impossible. As a result, we’re turning back to remote workers and these types of efforts could be used to avoid communication regression.

    I would add a low-key icebreaker/introduction to prime to pumps, so to speak. Nothing flashy or too corporate. With a previous offshore team, I used to send weekly Sudoku puzzles via email from my personal daily calendar. It was a great way to break the ice and open communication channels as they worked together to solve the puzzles in down moments. They got used to seeing my name and got to know a bit about me outside of work, and began to feel more comfortable sharing about themselves.

    One other thing I would add is to try to touch base my phone at least once a month. It helps keep the relationships open, gets people used to voices and disposition, and can really drive through communication obstacles through email or IM. It’s much easier to assume positive intent with someone you’ve spoken to somewhat regularly, rather than with a faceless individual.

  2. AMG*

    It seems to me that if you are telecommuting, you should be going out of your way to remain accessible and in contact with others (which I know Alison has said but it bears repeating). If other people are having to do this to connect with you and get key information, you are dropping the ball.

    1. BRR*

      I do a lot of support work for a remote employee and she is amazing at responding quickly. I really appreciate the effort she puts into it.

    2. fposte*

      I was thinking about the difference between an employee who gets to telecommute as a perk vs. remote employees who are remote because the company’s found it advantageous not to house them in the home office. Ultimately, everybody should try to make it work because it’s organizationally advantageous, but I think I agree that the telecommuting employee has more of the onus in that situation while the org has more of the onus in the second.

      1. Dr. Johnny Fever*

        Agreed. If the person chooses to work remotely on occasion, that person should reach out more often. In my job, we set that expectation, too.

        For those that are housed in other locations, the onus is on them to reach out as needed to complete their job, just like I would reach out to them to complete a task.

        The trick for either situation is to discuss the communication expectations openly and honestly with the people involved so that they know what is needed of them, what level of communication is preferred and what is mandatory, and hold individuals accountable if they don’t meet their part of the team’s expectations. At best, this is a team’s mutual discussion and agreement rather than leadership directive, but that depends on the industry and team dynamic.

    3. Mockingjay*

      AMG makes a good point. The onus has to be on the teleworker to stay in the loop.

      A couple of years ago, I worked on a software development project with several contractor companies supporting a Big Government Agency. Chaotic situation; I had to direct the workload of my team, but could not supervise their performance because they worked for different companies. (I kept VERY DETAILED NOTES to cover my backside.)

      One Company B employee on my team was allowed to work remotely, due to personal circumstances (which I wasn’t privy to, since I worked for Company A). Except she hardly worked. She wouldn’t log into the server to check out a document. She would download a copy and email an updated, renamed file a week past due. She didn’t dial in to teleconferences, which would have told her what was going on. She refused to use the IM chat client, because it shows when you are “away as a result of idle.” (Which was most of her day.) To get her to do the simplest task, I would have to compose an email detailing each step. I ended up working on most of her documents myself, to get them out on time for the quarterly software release. I begged my superiors at Big Government Agency for some relief. Could she come in at least 1 day a week? That was when I found out she wasn’t local. She had moved out of state.

      Long story short, the Powers That Be at BGA finally realized that she was a non-performer, and she was eventually removed from the project.

      The real irony is that the BGA flat out told me that I would never be allowed to telecommute because I was too valuable.

  3. Lillie Lane*

    #4, yes, yes, yes. My team (all remote) always seems to be the last to hear about anything. We’ve started being more vocal about the fact that we are not kept in the loop. I was even inadvertently kicked off the company listserv for a while and almost missed the health insurance sign up.

    1. SherryD*

      Feeling out of the loop is so frustrating. I once worked at a satellite office. Our mother office only occasionally forgot to send us essential information, but more frequently we missed out on hearing tidbits that weren’t *essential*, but that would have helped us have a greater understanding of our company and our industry. That’s kind of why I’m not a huge fan of teleworking — when you’re not there, you just don’t know what you’re missing.

    2. azvlr*

      Yes. If you manage or are teammates with remote employees, please make a point to keep them in the loop. Also, try to give the benefit of the doubt if all your interactions are via email or text. So much gets lost when there is no body language and/or voice inflection. What could be just a casual conversation with cube-mates also becomes somehow written, formal and more time consuming. While folks shouldn’t spend hours on chat, make yourself truly accessible to your remote teammates – don’t tell them, “Reach out any time you have a question.” and then act annoyed when they do. Again, that question would have been normal office conversation if not for having to compose and send an email. Having remote employees or co-workers requires an adjustment on your part as well.

  4. Elizabeth West*

    My entire team is remote, though three of them are based here–they work from home when they’re not traveling. Once a month or so they come into the office and we have a fun (and noisy!) day. :) The rest of the department are all in other states. I’ve only met my bosses in person once or twice. We communicate via email and IM quite frequently, so everything gets done in a timely manner. Often they can’t tell if I’m in the office or not (I usually am, unless it’s nasty out or I have service people coming over).

    I could do my entire job remotely–the only thing that would change is a time difference, if I moved anywhere outside of this time zone.

  5. Susan*

    From the other side of this column:

    When I was an intern, one of the editors told us about how she works from home a lot, and she suggested starting each day by emailing your boss with your current projects and their status. She did this of her own will, not because her boss was micromanaging. But I can see how maybe that would alleviate some of this lack of communication.

    I actually work remote now (I’m an independent contractor). I think with the work I do, it’s very obvious that I’m doing it because you end up with a completed project at the end. But I find it’s good to finish projects as early as possible, not just by whenever the deadline technically falls. I think then people don’t question your work ethic. A former professor of mine has had me to talk to her students about what I do on two occasions, and I always tell them you really can’t treat freelance like college (where as long as you get it in on time, you’re all judged equal). I don’t think that’s true in a contractor situation. I think managers make unconscious mental notes that you (versus the other contractors) are someone who doesn’t cause them anxiety because they know they’re going to get the work back well within the timeline, and this makes them more willing to prioritize you for work in the future. So that’s my huge tangent on how the other side — the remote workers — can not aggravate their bosses.

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