Monday, June 4, 2007

Guest Post: Communication Do's and Don'ts for Remote Workers

Editor's Note: In the first of what I hope will be many guest posts, Patrick Lee offers his advice for working remotely. While the post refers primarily to a remote worker employed by a company, think of it in context to a consultant - client relationship as you read. If you are a consultant, you may have encountered these challenges.

Ah, telecommuting. The freedom, the flexibility, the… communication issues?! Yes, that’s right. If you’re working for a client remotely, more than likely you will have communication issues of some sort. Not to worry, though, since most of them are easily solved. The most common problems are undercommunication, using the wrong method, and communicating with the wrong person.

When telecommunicating, there is really very little danger of overcommunicating, so I’m not even going to list that as a potential problem. Undercommunicating, however, is extremely common. One thing to keep in mind when you’re working remotely is that your supervisor never sees you. He or she can walk around the office and see everyone else, but not you. I realize this is mind numbingly obvious, but bear with me and put yourself in your boss’s shoes for a moment. How does your boss know you’re doing your work? How can your boss effectively manage you from a distance?

The answer of course is regular communication. If you’re a full-time remote employee, you should be checking in at least twice a day even if you don’t hear from your boss. I would recommend contacting them in the morning to let them know what you plan to work on that day and to ask any questions you may have. Then at the end of the day, give your boss a recap of what you’ve accomplished and possibly a look ahead to the next work day. If the boss contacts you with a question or concern, respond as soon as possible. If you wait too long, he or she could begin to doubt that you’re actually working as much as you should.

Also, when your boss sends a question via e-mail or responds to your questions, always reply right away with an acknowledgment. Just a simple “Thanks for the info” or “I’ll take care of it” is more than enough to put them at ease until your next check in.

Using the wrong method
In the absence of face to face meetings, you have several other options including phone calls, e-mails, and instant messaging. As a remote worker, you probably feel very comfortable with any and all of these, but chances are that your boss does not. Maybe you have a boss who never even reads e-mail and prefers to pick up the phone. Maybe she is an IM (instant messaging) junkie and bugs you every five minutes, but never checks her phone messages. The possibilities are endless (and maddening).

The trick is to adjust your own communication style to what your boss is comfortable with. If you have an old school boss who spends all of his time on the phone, then call him when you have a question. If your boss spends the whole day sending IM’s, then use that method. Rinse and repeat and adjust as needed.

Another alternative to consider is to get your boss to use a wiki or some sort of web-based project management software. Basecamp by 37signals is a good option here or you could install MediaWiki somewhere that you can both access it. Whatever you do, make sure that your boss is comfortable with the arrangement. How to use these systems effectively is beyond the scope of this article. (I always wanted to say that.)

Communicating with the wrong person
Situations do arise in which a remote worker finds that the person they are reporting to is really too busy to deal with them in an effective manner. Believe me when I say that this is not a good situation to find yourself in. Imagine being stuck on a project, asking several important questions, waiting more than a day before you get answers (but only to some of your questions), and then being asked if the project is still on target. No, this is not a good thing when working remotely.

Your options here depend on the company you’re working for and you’ll have to tread lightly in all cases. You could acknowledge to your boss that you appreciate how busy they are and ask if there’s somebody else in the office who could be your main point of contact. This new person could handle the day-to-day updates, track down answers to your questions, and just fill in your boss periodically on the progress you’re making. A request like this could potentially backfire, so I only recommend it in situations that are becoming impossible.

Final thoughts
One other aspect of your communications to be aware of is your tone. Face to face communication offers a lot of visual cues like gestures and facial expressions that are absent over the phone. And phone calls carry tone of voice and pauses which are absent from e-mail. Just take a few seconds to reread any e-mail you’re about to send and make sure it won’t be misinterpreted.

Working remotely really is a great situation to be in, but it’s not a holy grail. Like any arrangement, it has its potential pitfalls. However, if you are mindful of that and head off problems proactively, it can be a great time in your career. Best of luck in all your telecommuting endeavors.

About the author
Patrick Lee is a consultant (and remote worker) who has successfully developed a practice of telecommuting to service his many clients. You can learn more about him by visiting his blog at

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