6 Tips for Working "Virtually" with Remote Offices and Clients

Virtual MeetingsI have been marketing to U.S. customers for the last few years. Nothing unusual in that, except that I live in India. And for the most part, my bosses and many of the other people I work with have been based in the U.S.

With the increasingly flat world we live in, many people (especially those of us who work in the outsourcing industry) work with clients, teams or managers who are based in different offices and often different continents. This brings a whole different set of challenges to working in close proximity to your team with your boss sitting in the next room.

The biggest disadvantage of not communicating face-to-face is that you lose out on the non-verbal cues in a conversation. The same statement, without the context of tone or body language can be interpreted as an earnest suggestion or sarcasm, an honest apology or a defensive excuse.

Here are a few suggestions I have for how those of us in such a situation can communicate and work effectively. These are by no means exhaustive, and I'd love to know what you would add to the list.

Pay attention to language.

Given the absence of non-verbal use, the words you use are even more important. If the language you are communicating in isn't your native language (let's take English for someone in India or the Philippines), it's important to understand the nuances of the language, to catch the meaning of the words as expressed in context. If you aren't comfortable communicating in English, that's the first thing to work on. Take language classes, read extensively (especially news and popular literature of the relevant country--for me, of course, that's the U.S.), use a dictionary and ask someone to mentor you. If your work requires extensive written communication (by email or chat), business communication skills aren't just nice-to-have, they are important for survival.

Initiate communication.

When you are not working in the same office with your boss or client, it can be difficult for them to understand how you are spending your time. To make sure they perceive the value your work is adding, initiate communication. Do not wait for your manager to ask for a status update: send an email mentioning your progress or initiate discussions on issues you are facing. Remember, for practical purposes, unless your boss (or client) knows about the effort you are putting in, you might not be putting in that effort at all.

Communicate regularly and frequently.

Set up a weekly or even a daily call, even though you think you won't need it. (Remember, some of those meetings will be canceled due to other priorities, so schedule generously.) Setting aside some time to chat about work lets you focus on less urgent or underlying issues that aren't covered in more formal email. And remember, you can't really "brainstorm" over email.  While I'm a big fan of professional communication, spontaneity and synergy often generate ideas in a way a tame email chain cannot.

Prevent and resolve misunderstandings.

Read over every communication you send and make sure it's error-free and conveys the right message before you send it (even if it's merely a chat message). Trust me, replying a few minutes later is infinitely preferable to an ill-thought-out reply. If you do send out something and then realize it was incomplete or wrongly-worded, send out another email right away explaining what you meant.

If you receive a reply that implies your message has been misunderstood, apologize and clarify. If you aren't sure you understood what the other party communicated, ask questions. It is much better to ask five more questions and understand what is required from you than realize much too late that you got it wrong.

Use technology effectively.

Many workplaces nowadays have video-conferencing. If yours doesn't, buy or borrow a web cam for a weekly video call. Technology enables better communication (starting with that spelling-and-grammar-check button on your email).

Find out what mode of communication works best for you and your co-worker. Some people are outgoing and love to talk. For them, the best substitute to a face-to-face meeting is a video conference. Some prefer the unobtrusiveness of email. Others might really open up over chat. Find out what your boss/client/co-worker prefers and meet them in their comfort zone.

Connect outside of work.

It's easy when you never see your boss or co-worker in person, to forget that he or she is, in fact, a person. Try to find out a little about their lives, just as you would for co-workers sitting near you. Ask how their day went, what school their children go to and where they're taking their next vacation. Tell them how you spent your weekend. Working with people you know and like is much more satisfying than working with faceless strangers. You might even find a friend!

I have never seen one boss I worked with for a few months some years ago. But we got to know each other over chat and email, and remained in touch after we stopped working together. When my husband visited his town once, my former boss invited him over and introduced him to his family, and they spent an entire day together. We're still in touch--and yet I've still never met him!


Comments

Any advice/tips for creating a safe, online virtual office that feels like a physical office. My whole operation is outsourced to contractor/employees in Ga, NY, the Phillipines - but I need to create the feeling that we are in the same office. I am going to try the weekly videoconference meetings or at least Skype voice meetings. I found one service but would love to hear of others.

I like that you mention chatting as well as emailing your boss. My friend lives in Chicago but her boss is in Omaha, and they use Yahoo chat. Granted, she used to live in Omaha (and dislike her boss!), but that instant communication is a good tool.

http://www.cassiecares.com

I use both chat and email. With my earlier boss whom I mentioned in my last paragraph, we used email for work and chat for anything else we wanted to discuss. With my current boss, we use mostly email, back and forth all day. But sometimes, nothing can replace the spontaneity and informality of instant messaging!

Your tip about initiating communication is so spot on...I regularly work remotely, and because I'm not physically in the presence of others in the office, they tend to think I'm watching soaps (do people even still do that?), enjoying 2-hour lunch dates and sipping cocktails at 3 p.m.

The more I reach out -- by phone, email or setting up meetings -- the more they understand the scope of my work. Just because I'm not playing gopher in the cubicle maze doesn't mean I'm not working!

Exactly. You can even game this in your favor, by remembering to write some emails on days you aren't being very productive... but by no means am I suggesting you do that.

This was chock full of good advice. I really liked your piece about "Preventing and resolving misunderstandings." So often in the corporate setting I found that those on the receiving end of a written communication gave the worst possible meaning to the content instead of giving the sender the benefit of the doubt and going back for clarification - to your point, five more times if needed - to ensure they got it right. This is key to ensure not only open communication but harmony in the workplace, too.

Great post, and cheers on being pressed!

http://yourlifesentence.wordpress.com/

Thank you, Teri! (For the kind words, and for letting me know I was "Pressed" - I was wondering at all the comments!)

You make a good point - and indeed, both parties in a communication should try to make sure they're getting it right.

I can't tell you how much I appreciate this post! I blog from Haiti, which sometimes feels like living on the outer edge of virtual insanity. Congratulations on being freshly pressed, and Happy Holidays from here in Port-au-Prince!

The possibly most important issue:

Beware of people reading what they want to or expect to read.

There are many people out there who rely too much on external cues and too little of what the text actually says: If they expect a rude/angry/snotty/whatnot answer, they will tend to read this into the actual answer---unless it is very clear on the topic. If they are in a poor (or good, but that is rarely dangerous) mood, they might project their own modes onto the author of the text. If your last interaction was positive/negative they might presume that the text is written as a continuation. Etc.

(This applies in particular to women, for some reason.)

Thanks for the thoughtful comment. That's partly what I meant in "prevent and resolve misunderstandings". I don't know if this is a gendered issue though.

I do think it's better to communicate more rather than less - take more effort to get what you're saying across in the first instance. Which is why it's important to take some time over the message and make sure it's written as best as you can - almost everything CAN be interpreted differently, but we have to try to make it easier for people not to.

The tips are wonderful and they make you realize that you still need to try to reach out to people even if you are working remotely.

It's funny, but you seem to be stressing the niceties that happen in face-to-face contact. They never do go out of style no matter how you communicate.

Yes, that's true. It's just easy sometimes to forget that there's a person at the end of the other computer, you know.

Thank God I don't have to worry about this! Just the drudgery of writing my blog & books by my lonesome!! Ha, Ha!

evelyngarone.com

Actually once you start doing this and it becomes second nature, it isn't any more difficult than face-to-face communication (easier, for introverts like me).

All the best with the books and the blog!

Nice post. This will come in handy for me - I'm starting a new "virtual" job very soon. Thank you for posting and congratulations on getting Freshly Pressed!

I can connect with what you are saying and I also work part-time online. It seems that you have accomplished enough in this field and you mean what you are saying. Continue posting tips that would help other people working virtually. Will drop by your blog from time to time. =p

Thanks, Kayne. I hadn't realized this post would strike such a chord... it's made me want to think and leanr about this topic in more depth!

Hi Unmana

As I was reading and agreeing with your handy tips, I had one of those "aha moments" that I'd like to share.

As I was reading, the thought reoccurred to me that developing good relationships in an online environment, is essentially what we are aiming for, and as you also imply that communicating online is no less different or difficult than communicating face-to-face.
Then I realised that perhaps your tips essentially contain important aspects or perhaps building blocks to establishing any sort of relationship, whether they are online or face-to-face, or husband/wife, parent/children, student/teacher, etc.
Will revisit after I have pondered this further.

Well, all communication has basically the same purpose - to put your message across effectively. I'm glad you agree with my post and that it made you think.

This is a great post - I will link to it later. Mostly just wanted to say congrats on being freshly pressed!

Really well thought out blog post - I agrree. As a psychologist I'm not sure we could maintain a theraputic rapport but... maybe one day

Thanks Unmana - I especially liked your tip to connect with people outside of work...nice post.

This article exemplifies the beauty of technology today - enabling us to connect with people with whom we would have never met/interacted with in real life! I love how you've really taken advantage of the technology available to us to form real relationships with people, albeit virtual!

That's what I like most about technology - that it helps us be more human and connect more, not less.

Good one. I totally agree with you. I am a fresh freelance software developer. What you said has come to be part and parcel of modern software development methodology. Truly it's fun to work with people we know.

Yes, most of us in the outsourcing industry (be it software development like yours or advertising and marketing production like ours) face a similar situation at work.

wonderful. though I'm keen on starting the last one.

Thank you! Definitely going to bring this up at the next office meeting!

Thank you! Do tell me how it goes - I'd love more suggestions and anecdotes.

Technology for better communication, you mean? I'm in no way an expert, but I use Skype a lot, for voice and video calls. The quality is often better than phone calls!

Interesting and useful tips. Would there be any similar technological processes suggested for micro businesses or cottage industries that are run from home?

Pages

Add new comment