Remote working is not a new concept, but thanks to 21st century technology, the global workforce is able to span geography and time zones as never before. Without regular face-to-face contact, though, some employees may find themselves lost in cyberspace — feeling out of touch with management and colleagues, and facing difficulties presenting ideas and influencing decisions.
Karen Lachtanski, who knows first-hand the challenges of working remotely, finds that flexibility keeps her engaged with her colleagues around the world.
Based in the US, Lachtanski is director of global corporate communications for Y Soft, a multinational technology company with headquarters in Brno, Czech Republic. The time difference between her office in San José, California, and her company’s offices is nine hours.
“Working with employees in different time zones can mean connecting with them at odd hours,” she said. “I may have calls at 7am or during late afternoons or at night. My team has to be flexible, and we make it work.”
Lachtanski also flies to her company’s headquarters in the Czech Republic from time to time for face-to-face meetings with her managers and colleagues, which helps her maintain visibility.
For some individuals, it is not practical or even possible to travel to meetings, and they may become isolated from other team members. They need to adopt strategies for ensuring their voices are heard when they are not on-site.
Lachtanski, along with two management consultants based in the UK, offers ways remote workers can avoid being forgotten in a virtual environment.
Participate in virtual meetings. Mark Bouch, managing director of Leading Change, a business strategy consultancy in London, is excited about the continued evolution of Microsoft Teams, an online platform that enables virtual face-to-face team collaboration. “If you’ve got a team of 12 people, it’s important to have the same dynamic you would in an office,” he said. For dispersed teams that need to meet on a regular basis, software like Teams, which integrates Skype for Business, instant messaging, and easy access videoconferencing, makes those meetings possible. “We can communicate in many different ways over different channels, but the aim is to make a dispersed team feel connected so people aren’t isolated,” he said.
Establish rules of engagement. While it is typically the role of a team leader to develop protocols for engaging with colleagues, any employee may suggest ideas for the best ways to stay in touch, like scheduling a weekly phone call for everyone to check in, according to Claire Snowdon, an international business adviser and director of Snowdon Consulting in Oxford, UK. “The team’s leader and colleagues should engage in a dialogue to feed their own needs and wants into the engagement protocol, and every individual should be empowered to contribute,” Snowdon said.
Build relationships. Get to know your colleagues as people, Lachtanski advised. “Investing time in becoming acquainted with your co-workers will help you make friends and open the door to having personal chats with them,” she said. Developing friendships will help everyone on your team look forward to speaking with one another and will help you stay connected. Snowdon advocated cultivating a “buddy system”, a way of bonding with someone you can call upon if you’re having difficulties or if you have a question and no way to get a resolution until the next formal meeting.
Be visible and available. Maintaining visibility can be challenging if everyone on a team is geographically dispersed. “If enough employees are working together via conference call or video, visibility becomes second nature,” Lachtanski said. However, if video or audio conferencing is not a regular activity, you need to make the effort to be visible in other ways, such as checking in with your manager or your team through email, Skype, or weekly phone calls. And make sure your colleagues know when you are available for conferencing. “It’s best to set standard business hours for being online, unless you make special arrangements with your managers and co-workers,” Lachtanski said.
Create a system for accountability. When you work remotely, your boss might not be plugged into your daily activities. “You have to become adept at logging what you are doing,” Snowdon said. “At some stage, you may have to report on your work.” She said remote workers should track everything, become skilled at writing reports, and log your progress, especially when you achieve a goal or complete a contract. Be sure to volunteer to share your success with your team.
Establish common goals. When people are not connected with one another, they must be guided by common goals that bind them together, according to Bouch. Creative use of technology certainly helps, but technology alone will not make a remote team effective. “Every person on the team should understand and relate what they are doing to the team’s common intent,” he said. “In addition, everyone in a remote team should think constantly about how they actively engage their colleagues, seeking advice, contributing ideas, and recognising other people’s effort.”
— Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.