In the past, ideas of "virtual work" might have included colleagues from a different country or visions of mysterious IT specialists who hacked your computer by day and only crept out at night.
Today, virtual work is woven into the fabric of our experience. Remote working is essentially using technology to conduct business, often with nearby colleagues. This may include:
- Using e-mail or IM to conduct business with nearby colleagues (in your city or down your hallway)
- Multi-site meetings involving video-conferencing or simulcast options
- Flex-scheduling that allows employees to work part of the week from home
Virtual work is on the rise: a 2017 Gallup report found 43% percent of Americans work remotely to some degree. Fifty-six percent of software startups worldwide have outsourced their work (contributing to the demand for remote workers) and, according to research by Gartner, organizations that embrace remote working will increase employee retention rates by 10%.
While there are many advantages to enhanced technology, there are unique difficulties to overcome. Whether you're keeping a team accountable or sharing instructions (but can't point at someone's computer screen over their shoulder), the demand for good communication has significantly increased!
Productive Virtual Relationships
What communication skills will you need to succeed in remote working relationships?
Whether you're e-mailing your colleague across the table or uploading blueprints to a design specialist in another time zone, here are some guidelines to grow your skills:
Establish Rules of Engagement
When working face-to-face, the style of communication evolves naturally.
You don't barge through a door when it is shut or get offended if someone pauses after you ask a question. But since we lose non-verbal cues in remote working, it's important to establish connection guidelines. Your team should discuss what technology you will use, how often to correspond, and the preferred method of communication. If one person enjoys e-mail but another sends 10 texts per hour, tension can build quickly. A multi-tasking supervisor may prefer to connect once a day, while a project manager might want hourly updates. If you're not sure where to begin, ask your team:
- What time of the day is best to catch you?
- What times are off limits?
- Is it ever ok to send a text message?
- What is the best way to share files?
- How should we connect offline if confusion arises?
- How will we eliminate lost or duplicated work?
Before starting a project, it's important for colleagues to establish a foundation.
To build relational trust, have one face-to-face (or video-conference) meeting to gain confidence in each other. Include simple social elements (questions that are sincere but not overly personal), share some of your own interests and career aspirations, and let a friendship develop naturally.
When colleagues work remotely, they're not as confident that you are looking out for their best interests. Seek to affirm good work or have a little fun, even just light-hearted online banter.
Take the initiative in giving regular progress updates, completing projects on time, or voicing questions and concerns before they spiral out of control.
Without nonverbal cues, silence can be damaging, so respond to e-mails quickly and honestly, even if you need more time to resolve an issue. Restate questions in your own words to ensure you are understanding any problems and be honest if you feel someone is hindering the workflow of your team.
Maintaining strong, productive virtual relationships takes extra tact and attention, but these contacts can lead to years of fruitfulness. Sow seeds of intentionality now and enjoy a high yield in years to come.