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Summary:

The tricky part in having remote employees is making sure that they feel like they are an integral part of team and not second-class citizens. Here are a few ways to make sure that your virtual team members feel loved, instead of neglected:

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It can be tough to be a remote employee in a company, especially if most of the team is located elsewhere. I’ve worked remotely both part-time and full-time over the past decade and learned that the way a company treats it virtual team members can make it a great experience or a miserable one.

Having virtual team members can be a huge asset because you can take advantage of talent regardless of physical location, and you increase the diversity of ideas by having team members who aren’t all living in the same city and having similar experiences. The tricky part is making sure that your remote employees feel like they are an integral part of team and not a second-class citizens. Here are a few ways to make sure that your virtual team members feel loved, instead of neglected:

  • Real-time collaboration. Make sure that you have plenty of opportunities for real-time online collaboration for your entire team that allow for virtual members to participate as equals. This replaces the water cooler, hallway discussions and any other quick conversations that you might have by dropping by someone’s desk. The easiest way to do this is to make sure that your whole team is using some kind instant messaging service where they can easily ask questions, share links, work together on projects or just catch up and chat. An even better way to do this is to set up a group chat room or team IRC channel where members can all work together and talk to each other at the same time. By having everyone together in one channel, you don’t need to know who to ask when you have a question, and everyone can keep up with many team conversations whether they are an active participant or just reading the conversation. There are plenty of public tools and public IRC channels that you can use if your team consists of a mix of employees and people outside of the company, but you can also set up instant messaging servers, including group chats based on Jabber / XMPP or internal IRC servers, that live completely inside of the corporate firewall so you can have private company conversations.
  • Asynchronous collaboration. Real-time collaboration is great, but not everyone is online 24 hours a day. Email is the classic example of asynchronous communication, and it’s a good way to make sure that everyone on the team receives critical information or updates at the same time. You should also keep in mind that some tasks aren’t going to be as easy to accomplish in email or a text chat. Documentation collaboration, for example, is one of those activities that works better when people can create, edit and update the same version independently regardless of time zone or physical location. You’ll want to make sure that your team has a good document collaboration solution, like a wiki, Google Docs or other tools. This obviously lets your team work together on documentation, but it also gives you a place where you can keep materials that the whole team needs to be able to find. You can store organization charts, contact lists, meeting minutes and materials, presentations and much more. By having everything in a single place where the whole team can find it makes it easier for your virtual team members to easily have access to the same information as your in-person employees.
  • Hallway conversations. If you even occasionally work in an office, hallway conversations are just a fact of life. When we see other human beings, we are often reminded of that question we forgot to ask them or in casual conversation some piece of important information creeps up. After you have these informal discussions, think about whether any of the information would be useful for your virtual employees. If so, drop them a quick note to let them know what you talked about and point them to other people that they might want to contact for more information. Just because you have hallway conversations doesn’t mean that your virtual team members can’t also benefit.
  • Meetings. Structure your meetings to allow your remote employees to participate as equals. For meetings where some participants are in a conference room, make sure that you send out the agenda and any materials in advance along with a plan for how virtual team members should attend and still be able to hear the discussion. Usually, this means that you need a bridge number where multiple people can call into the line, along with a great speakerphone for the room. During the meetings, remember that the people on the phone can’t see into the room, so you should avoid drawing on the whiteboard or using flip charts, and don’t forget to ask if they have any questions or comments, since you won’t be able to see puzzled looks or body language indicating that they want to add something to the discussion. If the remote employees consistently have a hard time hearing the people in the room, you should consider having everyone call into the meeting from their desk phones. While you lose some face-to-face time for people in the office, you allow everyone to participate equally in the meeting.
  • Meet in person. Don’t forget to get together in person at the same location at least occasionally. Take advantage of conferences or large meetings as an excuse to get the whole team together. Having everyone in the same location can help team members get to know each other better and improve their working relationships when working together later online.

How do you make sure that your virtual team members don’t feel neglected?

Photo courtesy Flickr user xdmag

 

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  1. I’ve had two distinctly different experiences in this area. My first year of telecommuting was spent with a company that didn’t quite “get it” in regards to communicating with remote workers. The in-office workers had much better relationships with management than those of us who worked from home.

    Now in my second year of telecommuting, with a different company, I am thrilled at the level of communication and involvement that I feel as a telecommuter.

    One tip I would recommend to any manager of telecommuters: To have those “hallway conversations” with a remote worker, take some time each day to go through your IM or discussion board members list. Stop at each remote worker’s name and think of anything you’d been meaning to discuss with them, then send them an IM to have a quick “hallway discussion” with them. Or just send them a quick message to say hi and see how their day is going. Chances are, they might have something to ask you too.

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  2. @Dawn, I totally share the same experience.
    I’ve been managing remote teams for the past 10 years.
    My best friend as been Instant Messaging.

    We use open source jabber (http://xmpp.org/) servers to im chat & video chat on a private secured network, as well as our own internal voice over ip system (http://asterisk.org).

    In addition of real-time messages we use wikis, email (a lot) and web collaboration tools like http://ofuz.com

    Last we try to meet in “real life” once a year.

    The same management rules as in offices apply to get your team happy and feel loved but the communication medium are different and it take some time to master them in order to communicate and understand emotions.

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  3. Teams looking for a great group chat system and don’t want to waste time learning how to setup their own IRC or Jabber server should check out HipChat: http://www.hipchat.com

    We created HipChat specifically for business use and have many helpful features you won’t find in a self-run IRC/Jabber network: drag & drop file sharing, archived and searchable chat history, integrations with many other serivces, an API, and mobile access. Plus, you don’t have to manage a thing!

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  4. I worked for HyperOffice remotely from India before finally making the switch. We used HyperOffice for asynchronous collaboration which included email, document collaboration, project management and schedule coordination. We used Skype for synchronous collaboration (IM and audio conferences). I also did a video about how that worked – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=na3Tao39sjg

    I recently made the switch and work at the headquarters now. I was a happy remote worker, and continued to work in that position for 3 years, because I had all the necessary tools to accomplish my tasks, and importantly, because of a very supportive management, which went the extra mile to keep me involved and motivated.

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