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The irony of this digitally connected world of ours is that devices have installed distances between people who work in proximity and shortened distances between people who work remotely. How often have we had neighbors send us emails, WhatsApp messages or text messages, only for an annoying outburst from a third colleague who enters the exchange wondering why people don’t just talk to each other. At the same time, aided by tools such as telepresence and video conferences, colleagues who work remotely no longer perceive the same distance that our predecessors experienced.

I have dealt with colleagues who work remotely for more than 16 years. Based on my own experience, here are a few tips on leading colleagues who work remotely:

successful_teams_working_remotelyReverse travel: How often have we heard employees complain about their managers visiting big locations, but ignoring remote locations? I flipped this around completely a few years ago, when I started “reverse travel.” The colleague travels to headquarters rather than wait for his leader to get on a rough ride to the countryside. Multiple benefits emanate – the leader gets to meet only the employee in his location whereas the employee gets to meet several stakeholders at the head office.

Key projects: We tend to give projects (over and above day jobs) to the ones nearest to us, without doing a scientific assessment of idle time. The colleagues at remote locations are the ones who may have more time on hand (since they are not called for meetings at the drop of a hat!) and also seek more visibility as they do not have the benefit of accidental/corridor discussions. Interestingly, we even awarded this year’s the best project award on my team to the person who worked in the remotest location.

Weightage to communication skills: People who work remotely need to be good communicators. Period. A friend of mine had a couple of really skilled colleagues in remote locations. The lady with excellent communication skills overcame the distance barrier and moved on to bigger roles as she could easily convince her colleagues through her diction and articulation without having to be physically present. The male colleague who just couldn’t communicate, failed to build a good image, and eventually had to move on.

Simple use of technology: Recently, when I took over a new team, scattered across multiple locations, I just made use of a very simple tool – created a WhatsApp group. People went berserk – wishing one another well on birthdays, posting photos of achievements, and sharing best practices etc. So much so, that the energy visible in the group interaction led, ironically, to requests for WhatsApp groups of colleagues located in the same office.

Open culture: Trust is essential when colleagues rely on remote interactions since non-verbal communication plays such an important role in human interaction. And an essential element of trust is open culture…which, in turn, is built brick by brick through open discussions on expectations, ground rules, et al.

Feeling of connectedness: We under-estimate the power of grapevine and corridor talk in terms of their ability to keep employees motivated and engaged. It is extremely important to share news with colleagues in remote locations. I used to make it a point to spend half an hour every week sharing notes on areas outside the team’s core responsibilities so that they had a good sense of what’s going on in the company. My peer’s team had a strict business-like focus on work alone. My team’s attrition was 40 percent of the others’ due to this practice.

As technology replaces supervision, and we move to purely outcome-based roles, lets raise a toast to the new way of working – work from anywhere as long as you deliver! A case in point is a friend of mine who moved across three countries in three years because his firm’s policy was very clear – work from anywhere, travel to the home office twice a year, and deliver on the agreed-upon outcomes.

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