The biggest barrier to remote work that most people identify is the lack of visual cues, that is, when you're working remotely with someone else, you cannot see them and therefore don't have as much information about them as you would face to face. It's much more difficult to determine how someone else feels about an idea (or about you) if you cannot read their body language or see their facial expressions.

Technology makes a big difference. For remote workers, one of the most important technology considerations is flexibility. Remote workers are typically more effective if they (a) have a range of technology options that they can choose from, and (b) know how to choose technology to fit the needs of a given task or situation.

With technology, there is often a trade-off between speed and richness. For example, reaching your manager to alert him/her to an unfolding crisis requires speed, and initially is often best accomplished via a technology such as text message or IM. On the other hand, once the manager is alerted, she is likely to have questions about the crisis that require a richer medium of communication, such as e-mail, to address appropriately. Later on, once the crisis is defused, you may wish to hold a post mortem session with your manager to discuss what went well and what could be done differently in the future to avoid similar crises. This discussion is likely more sensitive and nuanced, and is best conducted via a very rich technology such as Skype or videoconferencing (or at the very least telephone).

Policies and processes can be used to help establish a ‘virtual workspace' for remote workers. Managers who infrequently (or never) see their remote workers should ensure that they have established clear norms and expectations not only for the work product itself, but also for the relationship the manager expects to have with the worker. Ideally, regular virtual check-ins will be scheduled well in advance, so that the remote worker knows what to expect. It is also critical for managers to make themselves equally available to remote and face-to-face subordinates. Remote workers often report feeling “abandoned” by employers, in large part because they face higher obstacles in competing for their managers' time and attention.

The need to allocate time for social interaction is often overlooked, that is, conversation related to non-work topics between remote colleagues.  In a face-to-face setting, this interaction typically occurs organically, via small talk that takes place between co-workers in passing, or at the beginning of meetings. While it seems inconsequential at the time, this social interaction is an important foundational pillar of strong, trusting professional relationships. Yet, this social step is often bypassed in virtual communications — workers tend to get right to the task at hand, often feeling that socializing by phone or e-mail or videoconference would be construed as unprofessional, or ‘slacking.'

The savvy virtual manager knows that opportunities for social interaction need to be established much more explicitly in a remote work setting. Many managers of remote workers who I have spoken to strategically set aside specific times for remote teams to have social conversations. Some do this as the first 10 minutes of regular team videoconferences, others reserve a longer period — say 30 to 60 minutes — every month, for team members to talk about things they have been doing outside of work. Some managers even go as far as to order pizza or sandwiches to be delivered to their remote workers, timed so that they all arrive at the start of a team meeting. These tactics often feel artificial or stilted at first, but can become an important basis for relationship development, which then leads to more effective, productive work relationships.

Barbara Larson

Executive Professor, Management & Organizational Development