Working remotely is a sought-after perk when it comes to employment, but that doesn’t mean it’s all rainbows and unicorns. Workplace politics can be more frequent and complicated when you work from home, according to research by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, coauthors of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High.
Their new study of 1,153 employees found that 52% of remote workers feel their onsite colleagues don’t treat them equally, 41% believe their colleagues say bad things about them behind their back, and 64% think that colleagues make changes to projects without warning them. Unfortunately, remote employees also have a hard time resolving these problems; 84% say that their concern dragged on for a few days or more, and 47% admit to letting it drag on for a few weeks or more.
The success of co-located teams relies on managers with quality communication skills, says Maxfield. “The fact that people work remotely is not going away, but out of sight can be out of mind,” he says. “While people love the flexibility, leaders need to step up and become more effective.”
Maxfield and Grenny asked employees to share examples of what skilled managers do, and the answers distilled into these seven basic skills:
1. They Have Frequent and Consistent Check-ins
Nearly half of respondents said the most successful managers checked in frequently and regularly with remote employees. “Remote employees don’t get talked to as often,” says Maxfield. “It’s easy to lose track and assume everything is fine.”
While the cadence of the check-ins varied, it’s important that it be consistent, touching base from daily to to twice a week to weekly.
2. They Communicate In Person
Whenever possible, communication should be “high bandwidth,” says Maxfield. “Low is snail mail and high is taking an airplane to be face to face,” he says. “A phone call is better than an email, but it’s better to move from a phone to FaceTime or a GoToMeeting where you can read expressions and see things someone is not saying.”
In person is even better. Leaders should meet with remote employees or schedule a mandatory in-office day once a week, month, quarter, or year. One in four respondents said managers who insisted on some face time with remote employees were more successful.
3. They Practice Stellar Communication Skills
We’re all busy and stretched, and sending a memo or email feels adequate, but it’s almost never enough, says Maxfield. Good leaders need to find a way to get their team to open up and share concerns.
“They gauge reaction, play devil’s advocate, and make it safe for people to voice disagreement,” he says. “People are less likely to disagree when they work remotely, and letting it slide comes back to bite you. It’s better to err on the side of over-communicating.”
4. They Make Their Expectations Explicit
When it comes to managing remote teams, being clear about expectations is mandatory. “It seems obvious,” says Maxfield. “When you’re working down the hall, you can update others in casual, routine, seamless ways. When someone is remote and expectations change, they often don’t know it.”
Put expectations in writing. Include the schedule, resources, quality, and deliverable, and continually review and update it. Managers who are explicit with their expectations have happier teams that can deliver, says Maxfield.
5. They’re Always Available
Successful managers have an open door-policy for remote and onsite employees—even when team members are in different time zones. “It doesn’t work if you’re not willing to take calls at 9:30 p.m. or be on conference calls at 4 a.m.—remote colleagues are,” says Maxfield. “It has its downside, but it’s not as bad as getting on a plane.”
Good leaders go above and beyond to be available so that remote employees can always count on their manager to respond to pressing concerns.
6. They Stay On Top of New Technology
“Technology is improving on a daily basis, and it keeps providing us with better ways to stay in touch,” says Maxfield. “As those changes happen, leaders are on top of them.”
7. They Build Relationships
Onsite teams can easily build a sense of camaraderie. “It’s intuitive when you work together,” says Maxfield. “You don’t just talk about work; you see colleagues as well-rounded and fleshed out, complicated people.”
With remote workers, however, communication often sticks to the current project. “You may fail to realize their spouse has cancer or their child is struggling in college,” says Maxfield. “If you don’t manage humans and you’re just managing a pair of hands, you don’t build commitment and understanding, and you miss an opportunity to tap into their creativity and ingenuity.”
Good managers go out of their way to form personal bonds with remote employees, using check-in time to ask about their personal life, families, and hobbies.