Effective strategies for working remotely

Hafod_19122010_0046If you haven’t worked remotely yourself, or worked with other people who work remotely, you might not know that it can be extremely difficult, and that misunderstandings can abound.

When we work on site, we take it for granted that we can speak to people face to face. We watch their facial expressions and body language. And we talk about what we did over the weekend, where we’re planning to go for our next holiday, and which pets or kids are sick. It’s second nature. We do all these things without thinking about them. Sure some people are better at it than others, but generally, we can all get by.

Working remotely, we often don’t have these face to face connections, and so we have to learn strategies to help us communicate more effectively. Here are some that have worked for me.

1. Exchange photos.

I’ve been lucky, that in most cases I’ve worked remotely with teams of people I’ve met in person. That means I can put a face to a name, so when I’m talking to the person on the phone, or emailing them, I can picture them in my head. They’re a real person. But in a couple of situations, I’ve worked with people I’ve never met, and sometimes not even spoken to over the phone (due to differences in time zones.) In those cases, communication was strained, and we’d send emails back and forth, often talking at cross purposes, or unhappy with the outcome. I’d find myself thinking who is this person and why can’t they understand that what I’m suggesting makes sense, or why do they agree with me and then ignore me. Sound familiar? Exchanging photos gave us more respect for each other. When we emailed, we remembered we were talking to a person, and communication became easier.

2. Skype, instant messages, chat, video call, talk.

Sometimes email is just too formal. With Skype and other instant messaging clients, you can have a quick chat to get the answer to a question, or you can make free voice or video calls. I think these tools in particular have revolutionized remote work, making it much easier to connect with people.

3. Don’t just talk about work.

In North America especially, we’re in a constant rush to meet deadlines, or just to get more done in the day, so when we work remotely, we want to get right to the point, rather than engage in pointless chitchat. But I think chatting about things outside of work helps us build better relationships. Learning something about the people we’re working with makes for better conversations and fewer misunderstandings. If chitchat isn’t your thing, consider connecting to people on Facebook or other social media, where you can post links to interesting sites and articles. Just remember who is reading your updates when it comes to the personal stuff.

4. Watch your language.

As I’ve said before, in email it’s critical to pay close attention to the way we phrase things. Something you might be able to say to someone in person, comes across as terse or rude in email. As James from Men With Pens suggests, use exclamation marks, emoticons, humor, and disclaimers. If you’re feeling cranky about a problem at home, sometimes it’s best to say so. That way the person you’re emailing knows they’re not the cause of your short responses.

5. Give context.

And don’t forget the context. If you’ve just come out of a meeting where a decision was made, mention that in your email. When you’re working remotely, nothing is worse than receiving a directive out of the blue, and not knowing who made the decision or why. Just today I had an email from someone about changing the frequency of my invoicing. Since this person worked on the other side of the continent, and I’d seen email from other people who I thought might be in the same department, I asked “So do you work with..?” The result was a back and forth conversation about who worked in the department and what their jobs are, and I got the context I needed, that the decision about invoicing frequency had come from the manager of the department. And I learned a little bit more about my contact, so that I’d feel comfortable sending her questions again.

How about you? What strategies work for you?

Photo via Flickr user Charmaine

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