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Summary:

Like most people, I’ve worked on both sides of the remote working fence — as a remote worker, and as an office-bound staffer working with remote colleagues. From the latter perspective, there are three things that I really found difficult about working with remote colleagues. If you can overcome these in your day-to-day work, you’ll likely make life easier for yourself, as well as your on-site colleagues.

lildirectionLike most people, I’ve worked on both sides of the remote working fence — as a remote worker, and as an office-bound staffer working with remote colleagues. From the latter perspective, there are three things that I really found difficult about working with remote colleagues. If you can overcome these in your day-to-day work, you’ll likely make life easier for yourself, as well as your on-site colleagues.

1. Contactability
Each organization takes a different approach to communications, but I’ve found that, often, my remote colleagues may not be available through all the forms of communication I want or need to use.

For example, one colleague refused to use instant messaging, preferring the phone, but, since I needed to be in touch with her frequently about many small things, I preferred instant message. It grated every time — often multiple times each day — I had to call her to ask some small question.

The easier you make it for on-site colleagues to get in touch with you, the better. Little things like this don’t just make it easier to get work done, they can also enable you to feel more like you’re part of the team — and help the office team feel like you’re right there with them. Communicate the way your colleagues want to communicate, and encourage them to do the same with you (of course!).

2. Consistency
I mentioned the importance of building rapport for remote workers earlier, and consistency of communication is key to this — I find remote workers who are chatty one day but moody the next a big challenge to work with. But consistency isn’t just about communication; it’s also important to turn out work at a consistent standard, to meet deadlines and any expectations you’ve set among your on-site colleagues.

The occasions when I’ve worked with inconsistent remote workers have been very hairy indeed. I never knew how a request for help was going to be taken, or if I was going to get a satisfactory result to the timeframe we’d agreed. In situations like this, I’d end up trying to do as much as I could without that remote colleague, and I’d be less likely to involve them in additional work or projects over time.

3. Transparency
It can be all too easy for my remote colleagues to push my email to the side and keep doing something else. In an office environment, I usually get quick responses to my questions, and if not, I can always stop by my colleague’s desk and speak to them. Not so if they’re remote. Not knowing where the person is or what they’re doing can be a real pain, particularly when your communication is urgent.

The remote workers I like best are transparent about what they’re doing — they let you know if they won’t be around because they have an appointment, they tell you they’ve received your urgent email and will give you a call in ten minutes, once they’ve called someone else about something that’s a higher priority.

Those are the three things I think that remote workers do worst. They may well also be the three things that on-site workers do worst, but if you’re on-site, you have many opportunities to embellish the professional (and personal) persona you project to your colleagues. If you’re a remote worker, they can seriously hinder your working relationships and your ability to do your job.

What do you think are the things remote workers do worst?

  1. It seems that it’s just one thing that you believe remote workers do poorly: communication. And I agree with you.

    On the other hand, it makes me crazy when my office-bound colleagues send “urgent email”. If it’s urgent, send an IM or pick up the phone, and if it’s not urgent, put it in email instead. I cannot be productive if I drop whatever I’m doing every time a new email messages arrives or I’m forced to process six trivial IM’s/phone calls each hour. If you habitually waste too much of my day, you can bet I’ll seek the boss’ blessing for my plan to modify your behavior. :)

    Thanks so much for a thought provoking article.

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  2. I think what you’ve identified is that office bound workers and remote workers are very different personality types and while they often compliment each others style, are also unique.

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  3. I agree with Arthur, it seems to all boil down to communication. Definitely is important to establish the ‘urgent’ and ‘non-urgent’ modes of communication with the remote worker. Some people say they will treat email with more urgency than phone, that they are more reachable there. These days I feel like I should tweet someone if I want to reach them.
    Of course, if they are working FOR you, then they should conform to the type of communication you prefer to use, in my opinion.

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  4. I agree that basic communication is critical to the success of remote work programs. However, in my experience the responsibility is more in the lap of the workers’ managers, who so often fail to appreciate how different it is to work remotely. I’ve seen plenty of examples of individuals reaching out and connecting with their peers (either also remote workers, or office-bound colleagues). I’d have to say the managers bear a bigger responsibility for the problem than you’re suggesting here.

    I also recommend you read Michelle Conlin’s latest thought piece in Business Week, on Telecommuting and Personality Type (http://www.businessweek.com/managing/content/jun2009/ca20090616_482794.htm)for some good insights into how remote workers can “re-create” the corporate office environment.

    Finally, lets focus on what remote workers do best, not worst. Our research highlights that in spite of the barriers and challenges, they are on average 15% – 20% more productive than when they were stuck in a corporate office. What does that say about what office workers do worst?

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  5. one of the ways of ensuring transparency can be to ensure that every email is replied to… with even a “i am looking into it” this should be made mandatory.. however many may be stll disregard to do that.

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