Telecommuting is now an indelible part of the workplace. The question is no longer if you'll be part of a remote team, it's how to make that team as effective, and connected, as possible.
Creating a successful remote workforce takes much more than shipping a laptop out of company headquarters. It starts with hiring the right people, but the way you manage those people is even more important. An effective remote team is built upon human interaction, trust, and technology - in that order.
Let's be honest: it's hard to connect with someone you don't know. Nuances of language and personality get lost over the phone and IM; video conferencing can't compete with after-work drinks. But each of these interactions has its place in workplace communication, both onsite and off. Taken together, they form a communication stream that can be strategically deployed to empower and engage your remote team.
The secret? Move strategically from high visibility to low fidelity. Whether you've just hired a new remote employee, or want to improve your relationship with existing telecommuters, this progression establishes and advances team collaboration.
1. Kick It off in Person
There is no replacement for face-to-face interaction, especially at the beginning of a relationship. Bring your employees to the mothership to give them a tangible sense of company culture. Make them feel like part of the team on campus and put a face to as many names as possible. Provide a welcoming, well-prepared work station and coordinate both work and non-work related activities: brainstorming sessions, executive meet-and-greets, lunches, happy hours. The travel costs will be well worth the investment in your team's foundation.
2. Encourage Video Conferencing
As your remote employee settles in, push for video conferencing rather than phone calls. You might get some pushback here - for many people, the biggest benefit of telecommuting is working in pajamas, and scheduled conference calling has become the de facto form of corporate communication. But seeing each other makes a huge difference. Facial expressions and body language often say more than words, and sharing your space, even virtually, boosts familiarity. A quick ping - "got a sec?" - followed by a short video chat furthers trust and productivity far more effectively than a conference call scheduled three days earlier.
3. Transition to Audio
No matter how sophisticated video collaboration becomes, we'll never escape the conference call. And that's ok. Especially once your team is comfortable with you and each other, phone calls are an easy way to touch base. As mutual trust increases, flexibility does as well. Video chats aren't a good solution if you need to check in while at your kid's soccer game, or join a meeting from the road. Use the phone and VOIP to stay in touch when your team is away from the desk.
4. Stay Connected With Text and IM
Text and instant message are ubiquitous in the workplace, and with good reason: IM is the easiest way to get a quick response. But be careful of relying too heavily on IM until remote employees are well established. A strong instant message culture can make new team members feel tied to their desks, which fosters anxiety - the opposite of trust. In addition, it's virtually impossible to convey inflection and emotion over text, which gets tricky when you don't know each other well. Conversely, once those relationships are established, IM is a great way to communicate concisely. At your desk or out and about, a quick text keeps you in sync with your team without wasted time or resources.
From freelancers to the enterprise, telecommuting is here to stay. Starting with high visibility, in-person touchpoints, using video to deepen your relationships, and relying on convenient, low fidelity communication models as trust develops can help the telecommuters on your team feel more engaged, and less remote.