Remote Work: Functioning Effectively When People Aren’t Next to You

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May 13, 2015
This article is part of a series called Remote Work.

A lot of what we used to know about working with others changes when our co-workers sit 10,000 miles away, instead of 10 feet away.

Today we have to add “working with remote colleagues” to our basic skill set, whether that involves an outsourced contractor, a headquarters or field office in another country, those working in home offices, or a colleague temporarily transferred.

And here’s the kicker: Ensuring remote productivity isn’t just the responsibility of the team leader. Everyone owns responsibility for it. So what can you do to ensure you and your remote co-workers stay jointly productive?

7 ways to ease remote worker issues

Aside from the things you’d do with any other co-worker, you can try these measures:

  1. Study your co-worker’s culture, if it’s different from your own. A familiar greeting can score you brownie points with a new remote partner. Furthermore, knowing what not to do can avoid culture clashes. In some cultures, people prefer to be called by their full first names, rather than a shortened version like Rob or Ray. In others, they readily accept nicknames to make communication easier.
  2. Establish a common organization culture. If you both work for the same team, you should establish a procedure that works most productively for all involved, without insisting on doing things your way. Find some common ground where you can meet. Not only does it make communication and paperwork easier, a common culture fosters camaraderie.
  3. Communicate often. Since your waking/working hours may be entirely opposite, as they would be if you worked with someone from Indonesia or Australia, make sure to respond to emails right away. If not, instead of a 24 lag, you could have a 48 hour lag, which is bad for business. Try to batch your questions in fewer emails. Also answer your remote partner’s questions and requests as completely as possible; don’t answer one part of the email while ignoring another, because you may be preventing them from moving forward.
  4. Arrange workable teleconference times when everyone in the group can attend, no matter where they are in the world. Or trade-off who will have the early mornings or late nights. It may require a great deal of compromise to find a time when everyone can meet. For example, you may need to stay up until 11 pm if that coincides with your remote partner’s morning shift. Try to switch around the inconveniences, and keep the teleconferences both short and to a minimum, knowing that someone may be calling in from home with children running around.
  5. Establish blackout periods. These represent the opposite of set communication times — periods when team members, especially those living in distant time zones, should be left alone. Aside from sleep and rest times, take into account religious holidays and high holy days like Christmas, the Queen’s birthday, Yom Kippur, Ramadan, etc. Be patient with delays from people who are celebrating holidays and taking vacations, just as you would want them to do for you.
  6. Set clear milestones and deadlines. Make everyone aware of when a particular task or project is due — and take into account the International Dateline — not just time zones. A colleague once missed a deadline simply because he didn’t realize his client lived in the Far East. The project was due on Nov. 1, and that’s when he turned it in; but by then, it was Nov. 2 where his remote partner worked.
  7. Share feedback regularly. Tell each other how well you’re doing, and talk about any challenges, especially if they’re based on cultural differences. One person may take on incredible amounts of work just to impress their supervisors and then can’t turn in their projects on time. On the other hand, they may think you’re lazy if you don’t overwork yourself! Whatever the case, keep talking and work to find solutions that satisfy everyone.

Remote possibilities

If you work in the white-collar world, you’ll almost certainly end up working with or supervising remote co-workers at some point. How you handle them will vary according to whether they work from home in the suburbs a dozen miles away, a few states away, or in another country.

But some considerations apply to anyone in a remote work environment. Given the unique nature of each such situation, you’ll surely work out additional guidelines to help you keep up with your faraway comrades.

How has remote partnering worked for you? Let us know!

This was originally published on Laura Stack’s The Productivity Pro blog.

This article is part of a series called Remote Work.