The Complexity of Remote Work Relationships

June 17, 2024 9:00 am Published by
Smiling entrepreneur taking notes and working online in her kitchen | Appreciation at Work with Dr. Paul White

A challenge in successfully managing relationships with remote team members is that there is not just one type of remote employee – although we tend to talk about them that way. We clump them all together, discussing how to deal with “remote employees” when, in reality, a wide variety of different relationships exist among remote workers, just as is the case with onsite team members.

One obvious variable to consider is the type of employee and their job function. Who works remotely? Executives and administrators. Managers. Supervisors. Front-line workers. Accountants. Customer Service associates. Salespeople. Administrative Assistants. HR Directors. Just as with in-person relationships, a multitude of combinations exist – between employees & supervisor, a team of managers and their director, cross-organizational relationships (like, accounting and IT working together on a project), as well as the dynamics of the management hierarchy. For example, there is a difference between an employee making a request of their supervisor and the supervisor asking for something from that employee.

Another component is what we will call the “degree” of remoteness. This is a combination of the distance, the history and percentage of time worked offsite, and the frequency of face-to-face interaction. The relationship with a colleague who works from home but lives in the area, and works remotely four out of five days, and is seen by others at least once a week is different than they type of relationship you’ll have with a coworker who lives and works across the country (or world), is remote 100% of the time, and that you may only see in person once a year at an annual company gathering.

One factor that is especially important in remote work-based relationships is the mode of communication. Part of this is determined by the nature of the work and part can be personal preference. For example, if an architect and her assistant are collaborating on a project, they need to be able to connect via a videoconference platform so they can share their screens to examine drawings and models. Alternatively, one supervisor for a construction general contractor may prefer to get information via text while another would like calls so they can discuss issues, rather than text back and forth.

Finally, there is the issue of who is involved in the communication. Similar to onsite interactions, one-on-one communication is usually the simplest and most straightforward (although we each have individuals with whom we really struggle to communicate clearly).

Then you have small groups of three or four, a team meeting of five to eight, and then larger group meetings — which are typically structured best in a unidirectional format (one person talking at a time to the rest of the group).

All of these variables together combine to create a complicated matrix of different types of relationships between remote employees and their coworkers. So, what can you do to facilitate clear communication and healthy collegial relationships?

As a psychologist, I often find that the best path is to go back to the basics.

First, clarify and communicate. Clarify expectations about behavior and communication – what is the same regardless of whether a person is remote or onsite? For example, the expectation of the timeliness of a response would typically be the same (unless one person works in a time zone several hours away). Do you let team members search the Internet during in-person meetings? What is your expectation for virtual videoconferences? Whatever it is, be consistent and let people know.

Second, when possible, communicate with others in the ways that are most effective for them.While this can be confusing when dealing with a large number of team members, most of us learn about individuals’ preferences –that Stephen is more likely to see and respond to a text while Nichole prefers getting information via email. In the same vein, when appropriate, let others know the best way to communicate with you.

Finally, be gracious in how you relate to others and try to give them the benefit of the doubt. Healthy relationships require effort, patience, and a commitment to try to work together collaboratively. If someone is delayed in getting back to you, don’t rush to make a negative attribution about them (“they are irresponsible”).  Rather, investigate, ask questions, and seek to better understand their circumstances.

Relationships are difficult. Workplace relationships can be more so, and remote workplace relationships clearly have significant challenges. But healthy ones can develop if we consider the challenges involved and work together to be supportive of one another.

In next week’s blog, we’ll discuss how to communicate appreciation to remote colleagues.

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Are you looking for a training resource geared toward remote employees? Check out our Virtual Appreciation at Work Training Kit!

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Published by
June 17, 2024 9:00 am

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