Try to see eye-to-eye with your remote team


The power of the human face is even more important when your staff are working at home

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Recent research from ILM highlighted some of the difficulties posed by remote working. An almost universal concern was the potential for misunderstandings that arises when working with people you don’t see every day.

Remote working requires many of the same interpersonal skills that are necessary when working with people in the same time zone, in the same office. We want people to understand what we are saying; to do the things we ask them to do, in the way we want them done; to meet deadlines; not to take offence when we highlight that things haven’t gone as well as we would have liked them to; to make work a pleasant experience; to share a sense of satisfaction at a job well done; and to contribute to a feeling that our work has intrinsic worth.

But this is a formidable list of demands – even when colleagues are near us and we have a better chance of noticing misunderstandings, clarifying confusions in the moment they arise, rectifying errors by a brief exchange of words and responding to our colleagues’ moods by noticing their helpful non-verbal cues. So how can we achieve the same ambitions when we only have video, phone and email? How can we relate to colleagues who are not in the same room or time zone, who we might never have met in person?

Be honest about your strengths as a communicator – do you write clear, concise and helpful documents? Seek feedback from recipients of your written communication and if the answer is ‘no’, think carefully before you send a written communication, recognize that you might not get the response you want, and consider what additional support your written communication needs, to ensure its message is clearly conveyed.

This groundwork usually involves a conversation – it could range from a general apology for your lack of writing skills when you first encounter a new colleague, to a dedicated phone call
explaining what’s about to arrive by email and the message you intend it to convey. Spoken communication can be more effective than written, even if it’s one way. Don’t just assume that a written email is the answer if there are time differences – record a voice or video memo and email that instead. Sometimes, protocols demand that email is the only option, but treat email as an exchange that can be formal and/or friendly but not an appropriate medium through which to convey anger or frustration. Email ping pong is rarely a good idea: a two-step serve-and-return is ideal but once a rally starts there are no winners – interrupt the rally with a phone call.

Most of us like recognition for our achievements and an appreciative nod or encouraging smile in a meeting is very welcome. Consider how to convey such gestures in a virtual way; for example, a texted emoticon conveys appreciation rather well.

If misunderstandings keep arising and colleagues are closer to the disappointing end of the continuum, talk about it – email won’t move that dial.


Kate Cooper is head of applied research and policy at the Institute of Leadership & Management

Watch again – See our expert webinar on working with remote teams