Remote working is now a part of most workplaces in one form or another, whether working with colleagues in distant offices or working in an organization that encourages flexibility in working from home. But without the right process and leadership in place, remote colleagues often feel disconnected from the team and reduce their contribution. Here are five tips for managing these challenges to ensure that you do not lose the value remote members could have brought to the table.
First, embrace technologies that reduce the communication gap. Use video conferencing, not phone conferencing, as often as possible, and show respect for your remote colleague by not starting the meeting until the video conference is working. (Nothing is more frustrating to a remote colleague than joining a call or video conference halfway through because the IT person took fifteen minutes to get everything working.) Video conference will dramatically improve communication in your team and let you see hints of possible productive conflict. I cannot emphasize this enough. If team members feel uncomfortable at first, ignore them. They will get used to it very quickly, and the difference is massive.
Second, make an active effort to ensure that the remote colleague is given the same opportunities as others. As the team leader, it’s up to you to set an example. If a team member starts an impromptu discussion with you about a topic, ask the team member if he or she consulted the remote colleague yet. If not, ask why not. If the team is reviewing a brief while the remote colleague is on the phone, stop to make sure the remote colleague knows which page and paragraph you are discussing, and publicly correct local team members who fail to do this. (You are correcting this for two reasons: it is an example of poor communication, and because the conduct implicitly disrespects a colleague. While you shouldn’t over-dramatize the situation, you should be confident in your correction.) Make clear to other team members that you expect collaboration across the whole team, not just across the office floor. This leadership will send a clear message to your local team members about your expectations and show the remote colleague that you value his or her input.
Third, in your team orientation, discuss remote working and make it a clear team norm that remote colleagues are given the opportunity to be included in emails, meetings, and other events just as any other member. Setting expectations with the team is key, and you have to call out and correct deviations from the norms. A list of team norms is a serious tool that can instead become meaningless fluff if you do not remind team members of their commitment to the norms. (More on setting team norms another time.)
Fourth, give and collect feedback from all team members, including but not limited to the remote worker, about how the remoteness is affecting communication. If local colleagues are failing to involve the remote worker, call them out. Conversely, if they have trouble reaching the remote worker, give that feedback to the remote worker. You need to mine for conflict here by asking good, pointed questions. Use examples of recent team milestones and ask how they collaborated with each other to get there, and where they could have collaborated more. If there are signs of problems–if the remoteness is not making the team collaborate successfully–you need to know and take action.
Finally, do not be afraid to say when remote working is not a fit. In most businesses, it can work if you have the right team, the right technology, and the right leadership. But sometimes, even this is not enough. Do not let the team, the project, or the client suffer for these shortcomings. When one team member is not pulling a fair share of the weight, the impact on morale can be enough to cripple a high-functioning team. I’ve seen it happen firsthand.
Remote workers are becoming standard fare in many organizations, and as you build and grow your teams, you will have to overcome the challenges of geography more often. Keep in mind these tips and ensure that your teams are effective no matter whether you are all under the same roof or thousands of miles apart.