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