Worker on hammock at beach
Remote working is fast becoming the norm, rather than the exception, thanks to the fact that it offers many benefits for employers and workers alike. The 2015 AfterCollege Career Insight Survey found that 68% of job seekers, who happened to be millennials, would prefer the option to work remotely. Today’s young workforce are more interested in companies that offer flexible, professional work environments. And it’s only good news for employers too: remote workers are 35-40% more productive, while 6 out of 10 employers experience cost savings as a result of telecommuting. But how does a manager build relationships with individuals when the team is scattered across the world, and how does he or she encourage cohesion and create a team culture?

Over the decades, employers valued face-to-face communication with their employees, but today, teams communicate and collaborate computer-to-computer. While this is quickly becoming the norm, it is understandable that for some this way of working can create challenges, such as disconnectedness, miscommunication and a lack of team spirit. In this post, we provide tips on how you can best manage your remote workers, help them stay connected, and establish strong working relationships.

1. Hire the Right People

While remote working proponents love being able to work from home or wherever, it is just not suited to everyone. Therefore, building solid relationships with your remote workers depends, first and foremost, on you hiring the right people. Someone might like the concept, but they may not be cut out for it, so look for someone who:

  • can self-manage their time and deadlines
  • is willing to be held accountable
  • has the ability to pace themselves
  • is comfortable working independently
  • has solid communication skills

By hiring the right people, your team will consist of members who embrace the culture and who are willing to put more effort into building relationships with their co-workers.

2. Learn to Accept (and Even Encourage) the Small Talk

People are social creatures and need a certain amount of engagement to stay connected. In the traditional office environment, this is done by means of water cooler chit chat, and dropping by colleagues’ cubicles. However, in remote working environments, there is no physical proximity and we have to find different ways for teams to develop relationships:

  • encourage employees to connect socially outside of work time, via social media or messaging apps
  • use video calling to catch up
  • allow them to chat via instant messaging when working
  • make notes of birthdays and congratulate them next call or via an email

While it’s natural to want to share more information with people in your immediate vicinity, try to make an effort to share more with your remote workers – both official and unofficial information. Be open to listening to them as well. For example, when you have a call with a remote worker, allow a few minutes for a casual catch up before jumping into the serious work-related discussion. A simple question about the past weekend or recent holiday is one idea.

Working at home

Some colleagues here at Mikogo will share Christmas or other personal photos via our Dropbox account – this is a great and easy way to catch up on what colleagues are doing outside of work which facilitates small talk later, and hence strengthens the remote working relationship. Think about these methods as a way to replicate those quick coffee break conversations you would normally have in the office.

As a remote worker, you can develop important communication skills that will go a long way when interacting with your remote colleagues. When chatting to a colleague, be sure to listen without any interruptions, and ask open questions. Take the time to enjoy those personal catch ups and then shift the conversation to the work at hand.

3. Allow For Emotional Expression

You might have heard that communication is only 7% about the words we use. Thirty-eight percent of what is perceived in communication is through the tone of voice, and 55% body language. This was according to Albert Mehrabian’s book, Silent Messages. Remote workers simply have to adapt the communication style accordingly in order to clearly communicate their intentions through email and instant messaging. How do remote workers accomplish that?

  • Read and re-read messages before you send them, and encourage your team to do the same.
  • Allow workers to use emoji and GIFs to express emotions to distinguish between humor and seriousness.

Kerry Schofield, Chief Psychometrics Officer and co-founder of Good.Co revealed some fascinating findings about meaningful remote working relationships from a study done by Robin Dunbar, which focuses mainly on the size of social groups. Schofield’s research concluded that in-person meetings are more satisfactory than phone calls or text-based conversations (instant messaging or email). However, in a constantly-evolving world with remote workplaces, video conferencing is a highly effective option, as it allows us to display and perceive nonverbal communication, such as gestures and facial expressions. Having access to such technologies makes it easier than ever to maintain healthy working relationships, even when someone is not in your office, or even in your country.

4. Respect Cultural Differences

Virtual teams often consist of people from different countries, and it could take some time to become accustomed to their way of doing things. Some of your team members may have different communication patterns and work habits, which may be unexpected to some remote workers. Language barriers can also create misunderstandings, if one or more remote worker is using English as a second language.

It is important to understand those differences as just that – differences, rather than reading more into it. In order to help employees understand this, it might be helpful to mention to new team members and remote workers that some workers have specific habits, such as available hours, a preferred way to call one another, favorite collaboration tool, or even their personal interests – again to help with the small talk later on. That way, any differences won’t be taken personally, and better relationships can be established.

Goethe said, in The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), “…misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent.” It is usually beneficial to give someone the benefit of the doubt and ask for clarification rather than jumping to conclusions – a great principal to include in your company’s communication standards.

5. Cultivate Availability

Remote workers are generally a goal oriented, productive bunch. According to Inc. Magazine, remote workers are up to 20% more productive when they work on creative tasks. It is therefore important to be available and to follow through on commitments made to your remote workers. They may become frustrated while waiting on you to make decisions, or to supply them with information needed to complete a project.

By procrastinating, you are impacting negatively on their productivity. A remote worker does not have the opportunity to run into you in the office, and may feel awkward about sending you repetitive follow-up emails. As the manager, you have to set the example for your workers. Not everyone works at the same pace as one another: some are faster or slower to respond to emails than others, and at times people won’t be available for calls all day due to meetings or a full schedule. However, in order for teams to succeed, people need to be available and responsive. Here’s how that can be done:

  • share your schedule with co-workers
  • schedule regular check-ins
  • plan for collaborations
  • have a weekly virtual meeting
  • do regular team-building calls

These activities mirror the general office culture to some extent, allowing everyone to stay connected. As the manager, you are responsible for avoiding the out-of-sight, out-of-mind effect with your remote workers.

Different city clocks

6. Distribute remote working tools

One of the best ways to build strong relationships between remote workers and their colleagues, is to ensure that everyone is using software tools that enable them to communicate and collaborate together with ease. Remote workers should have access to all the company tools the in-house employees have, which is important for work morale and productivity. Here are the most important tools your remote worker should have access to:

  • Instant messaging is a great way to communicate quick work-related information.
  • VoIP is a must-have tool that allows workers to speak to one another over the Web for free.
  • File sharing and document management systems, such as Dropbox or Google Docs, enable them to share documents instantly and easily.
  • Screen sharing allows for easy collaboration, meetings, presentations, and training.
  • Online project management system so all workers can see what is being worked on, how is working on which task, and who to contact about certain work.

That’s just a short list. If there is another online tool that you use extensively within your office with in-house employees, consider giving the remote workers access to the tool as well. These tools are designed to boost company productivity and efficiency, and you want to make sure that your remote workers are working to their potential.

By equipping your remote workers, as well as in-house employees, with the above tools you will foster a sense of connectedness between your employees and help the remote workers feel that they are part of the team.

Working with remote workers may not always be easy, but the benefits usually far outweigh the drawbacks, especially when you succeed in building a powerful team of collaborators. What are your most valuable remote working relationship building secrets?