Communicating Across Remote Workplaces

As many smaller to mid-size companies evolve into global organizations, the way we collaborate with one another also needs to evolve. We continue to see a plethora of technology based solutions being rolled out to enable more global collaboration. I personally rely heavily on the hardware, software, apps, and the ubiquitous 24/7 access to get the job done, whatever that job may be at any given time. But lately I’ve been working with more remote teammates and I realize that while we definitely have good technology to collaborate, we sometimes forget the human element to how we effectively communicate with one another. No matter how good your technology, the effectiveness of simple human interactions plays a huge part in how successful we will be in the workplace.

I have some remote coworkers who I’ve worked with for over two years who I have never met in person. How is it I can often communicate better with them than people I see on a daily or weekly basis? Below are a few tips I recommend to keep up effective communications with everyone you work with, wherever they may be located.

Know the Org Chart

With teams who are spread out across multiple offices in multiple time zones, it is critical to understand not only your day-to-day teammates, but also all members of the extended team, especially the decision makers. We often get so caught up in the day-to-day activities with our closest teammates, we can lose track of the big picture and overall goals of a project. If you never get the opportunity to interact with key decision makers, try to make a point to connect with a team member who may have closer access to that person, and check in with them periodically to get a sense of what’s going on with your project at a higher level. Was there a big meeting with the client that you weren’t aware of? Is the boss in a good mood about the progress of the project? Sometimes you may not find out about these details for several days or weeks. People tend to be less productive when they feel left out of the loop.

Check the Calendars

Whatever method works best for you, make sure you and your team keep your calendars up to date and that everyone has access to each other’s calendar. I often work on multiple projects at once, as do my teammates, so it’s critical that everyone has a clear understanding of when people will be working on the same project and when we are traveling, in meetings with other clients, and generally unavailable. I run into conflicts all the time when someone assumes that I am available to work on something, or schedules a meeting or phone call for a time when my calendar clearly indicates I am unavailable. This leads to wasted time with back and forth emails and phone calls to re-schedule meetings.

Respect Your Time and Others

Along the line of calendars, make sure you understand the other client commitments of your teammates and that they also understand your other commitments. It is also critical to respect your own time and block out appropriate time to focus on your deadlines. I often juggle multiple tasks in a given day or week, and it’s easy to lose control of your own schedule when the phone rings unexpectedly or an email comes in that you think you can answer quickly but ends up taking you an hour. When calling someone unexpectedly, be sure to ask them if they are actually available to talk. And if you are truly unavailable to talk, simply don’t answer the phone. If you need focused time and have to turn off email and your phone for a bit, make sure you let your teammates know you will be unavailable and who they can contact to get information. Unfortunatley, most of us work in a culture of interruption, and being able to own your time can be very difficult.

Make it Personal

When you see people every day and sit near them, it’s easy to build a personal connection. But with remote teammates, the relationship can easily become very impersonal. This past year my group started to have each team member do a brief 3-5 minute presentation about themself on our team calls, focusing more on our personal lives. The benefit is that you get to learn something new and personal about each other such as shared interests, hobbies, common family situations, alumni from your college, etc. These are great nuggets of information you can use to connect with each other next time you are on the phone. Stronger personal connections can lead to deeper trust and understanding with each other. I love it when I can connect with people and ask how their kids are doing, or how their marathon training is coming along, etc.

Daily Check-In

Regardless of the schedule of your projects, I recommend a daily check-in with your closest remote teammates. At the beginning or end of each day, find some way to quickly connect with one another, whether it is on the phone, webcam, IM, etc. There are plenty of options. When your teammates are sitting next to you, it’s easy to have a quick morning chat over coffee and to see what everyone is working on, but when you don’t have the luxury of face-to-face interaction, you lose that daily connection. A daily check-in will help strengthen those personal relationships as well as avoid certain teammates feeling left out of the loop. The check-in also serves as a good recap of the progress that was made each day, and also helps to reduce any overlap of work. We all know how frustrating it can be when you find out that two people have been working on the same task, due to lack of simple communication. I find a quick phone call in the morning or an end-of-day summary email works well in most situations. If you have more advanced technology, great, but you don’t need it for some of these simple check-ins.

4 Comments
  1. April 11th, 2013 - 10:43 pm

    Good points all. I’ve found Skype is indispensible and recently discovered the cloud-based CRM ActiveCollab as a great PM tool. And no I’m not selling their product. :)

  2. April 17th, 2013 - 8:01 am
    Nate Larmore said:

    Great points about one of the best topics in business collaboration. Thank you!

  3. April 17th, 2013 - 8:27 am

    I’ve never met Mike in person, but he’s one of my “go to guys” for help with all kinds of stuff! (thanks for always being there MM!) :)

  4. April 18th, 2013 - 1:25 am

    Who do you see? Take time to see these virtuals as human. A handwritten note sent by mail carries incredible weight conveying thoughtfulness. While small gifts can be sent physically using technology, both are a way to inspire meaningful connection

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