We communicate with strangers in almost every customer service interaction, whether it be over the phone or in person during a retail exchange. This personal unknowing is often why we experience misunderstandings and misrouted information. But we almost expect that in customer service, don’t we?
We don’t expect these same challenges when communicating with our fellow employees. Yet within the workplace, it’s becoming increasingly common to collaborate with near-strangers across different offices, regions, and time zones. In these instances, there’s not the equivalent of a return policy or a handy call script to guide the conversation to a happy place.
Frankly, it can be tough to collaborate with nearby cubicle mates even after you’ve built rapport, celebrated birthdays, or swapped photos of your respective kids. You might share deliverables but have competing priorities. You might have opposing work habits. Or you might sport different personalities. That’s the nature of the beast, but add some distance or the “out of sight, out of mind” factor, and it only becomes more difficult.
Any customer service rep can tell you that it’s hard to accurately read the tone of someone you don’t know. (Are they angry or just abrupt? Are they a nervous person or having a nervous breakdown?) These difficulties are exacerbated when your colleagues are half a world away.
So what’s the best way to keep the lines of communication open and flowing with someone you’ve maybe never met? Read on for a few tips from companies who make communicating with remote employees work.
Set virtual dates: Or recurring office hours—your call on the syntax. Either way, it takes time to get to know someone, so set up regular time on your calendar with long-distance colleagues. If you’re in different time zones, maybe one of you grabs a coffee while the other pours a glass of wine. This might be an hour where you make a concerted effort to chat about work and life, or just a quiet working date where you (or your whole team) are connected by video conferencing and available to chat as you type.
If you’re in different time zones, maybe one of you grabs a coffee while the other pours a glass of wine.
Virtual dates can also include working sessions in a Google doc, or time on collaboration tools or employee networking sites, like Yammer. Atlassian employees use the company's Confluence tool to post an introduction that explains a bit about their professional background, hobbies, and family life. It’s one easy way to get personal, fast.
Words to use: As Slack’s CEO tells it, the best way to get to know someone is to offer this invitation: “Tell me your story.” Humility and empathy is crucial to Slack’s culture as a fast-growing, design-oriented company, which relies on feeling empathy for a product’s users. Other types of open-ended questions might include “Tell me more about what you’re working on,” or “What’s been happening since we last met?” Throw these empathy-building questions into your virtual meetings or collaboration tool and see how quickly you learn about your faraway colleagues.
Empathy-building is among many reasons that diversity in workplace culture is a great strength. By embracing the challenge of scaling different cultures, mindsets, experiences, and ways of working, everyone has the chance to expand their capacity for empathy.
Over-communicate: Some very successful tech startups that have built their business on an almost totally remote or distributed model—InVision, GitHub, and Zapier, to name a few. These companies prove that distance doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker, though Zapier emphasizes, in their guide to remote working, that culture-building between distributed teams has to be intentional.
Zapier CEO Wade Foster’s candid and comprehensive guide mentions what’s known as “Imposter Syndrome”... that feeling of doing something wrong, or of self-doubt, that creeps up when you’re feeling disconnected. Although many remote workers are self-motivated, the power of the in-person high-five, or the value of a work spouse, cannot be underestimated.
For this reason, it’s important to make time to say hello, schedule hand-offs between shifts, and generally err on the side of over-communicating. This gives all parties a chance to work through anything that might have been lost in translation or that still feels a bit unclear. On the same note, Mandy Brown, CEO of Editorially, recommends recording meetings so that there’s always something to go back and reference.
Share the load: Over-communicating does not mean setting up unnecessary meetings. When time zone differences are pronounced, it’s important to be mindful of constantly cutting into your colleagues’ early morning preschool drop-offs or late night House of Cards binge-watching.
And just because your company’s headquarters are in New York doesn’t mean that New Yorkers are exempt from an early morning or late night call. We’re all people here, and we all need a life. Putting the off-hours meetings solely on remote employees isn’t fair and, as in a marriage (or any relationship), shouldering uneven burdens breeds resentment.
Putting the off-hours meetings solely on remote employees isn’t fair and, as in a marriage (or any relationship), shouldering uneven burdens breeds resentment.
Sococo, a distributed company at “the forefront of the workplace evolution”, recommends an “after-9-before-5” policy. If a meeting can’t be held within those limits, in everyone’s time zone, consider the alternatives. Some companies hold more frequent, shorter scrum meetings over a collaboration tool and one longer “in person” meeting that adheres to a clear agenda. These might rotate times so that everyone has to take a turn with an off-hour call. And start your virtual meetings just like you do the in-person ones, with a quick ice-breaker or warm-up to help keep things feeling personal.
Ready to put it into practice?
For more on the benefits of distributed teams, read how to successfully build and manage a virtual team, including hiring must-haves, tools for collaboration, and tips on coaching from a distance.
Suzanne Barnecut is a content marketer for Zendesk and a frequent contributor to Relate. Fascinated by technology, but a diehard reader of paper-made books and sender of snail mail. Find her on Twitter: @elisesuz.