Making Long-Distance Relationships Work

Problems that involve remote colleagues result in significantly more severe impacts to productivity, cost, quality, and time, according to a survey by VitalSmarts and Training magazine. But the situation isn’t hopeless. Here are some steps that can help.

“If people were down the hall, I’d know what to do. But most of them work half-way across the world.”

It used to be that only nerds and defective managers would use phone calls and e-mails alone to address performance problems. Savvy leaders would practice “management by walking around.” They’d meet with the person, face to face, because they’d want to use every interpersonal skill in their tool kit.

But the world has changed. Now many of us rely on virtual communication—not because we’re nerds, but because we’re working with people we’ve never met and may never meet.

VitalSmarts partnered with Training magazine to explore the kinds of problems this new work environment creates, and to offer some solutions. We surveyed more than 2,000 employees and managers to learn from their experiences.

The New World of Work
Our data confirmed that the world has changed: Some 64 percent of the people we surveyed work with remote team members on a frequent basis.

These people rely extensively on virtual communication to solve problems. E-mail, conference calls, and phone calls are the most common. No surprise there, but we were surprised to find instant messaging came in as one of the top three communication tools for nearly half the respondents.

As predicted, many problems are magnified when colleagues are remote. In fact, the survey revealed people are four times as likely to say that remote employees:

  • Don’t fight for their priorities.
  • Don’t work on their project or give it a half-hearted effort.
  • Make changes without warning.

And it isn’t just cooperation that gets sapped by distance— trust is drained, as well. People are three times as likely to say people who are remote:

  • Try to mislead them instead of giving accurate and timely information.
  • Don’t follow through on commitments.
  • Don’t make deadlines.
  • Don’t warn them when they are going to miss a deadline.

Further, problems that involve remote colleagues take significantly longer to solve, and they result in significantly more severe impacts to productivity, cost, quality, and time.

What Leaders Can Do
We began by examining whether the communication tool people used affected their problem-solving success, and the results were interesting. People who rely on low-bandwidth methods—e-mail, conference calls, and phone calls—are less effective at solving problems with people who are co-located with them. This supports the idea that stronger leaders use face-to-face problem solving when they can.

People who use high-bandwidth methods—videoconferencing, Skype/FaceTime/Google Hangouts, Facebook, Instant Messenger, etc.—are more effective at solving problems with their remote colleagues. These richer communication tools allow for more personal and revealing interactions—discussions that are closer to the face-to-face ideal. Just as in co-located offices, effective leaders use problem-solving mediums that make sensitive interactions as close to face-to-face as possible.

Next in our survey, we asked people to share examples of leaders’ successful practices. More than 600 such best practice examples poured in; we grouped these ideas into six categories:

1. Meet in person when you can. Some advice from our respondents: Bring new teams together when they are first formed; bring teams together when they are starting significant new projects; and bring teams together annually. Even if they can’t bring the team together, leaders should visit their remote team members. Quarterly visits were widely recommended, and it was suggested that leaders meet with team members, not just the leaders of remote locations.

2. Connect every day. When team members are working remotely, they won’t bump into each other in the hallways. Leaders need to initiate contact. The recommendations included 20-minute phone calls with every direct report every morning; touchpoints throughout the day, using phone calls, instant messaging, and videoconferencing; and a reminder to be sensitive to time zones and business day schedules globally.

3. Use high-bandwidth technologies. Use a wide variety of technologies, but make sure to include ones that allow the greatest personal contact. Use videoconferencing, Facebook groups, Google Hangouts, Twitter, WeChat, and other social collaboration software. Some team members may be resistant to being seen on video, but the advantages to the team outweigh their reluctance.

4. Mix social into the business. Build relationships across the team. Successful teams are social groups, not just work entities. Having a “best friend at work” is one of the best predictors of employee engagement. Make sure every team member feels valued. Tips from respondents: Use Facebook groups and friend the people on your team; make sure you talk about weekend activities, family events, birthdays, hobbies, etc. Take special care when a team member is facing a personal challenge—family illness, divorce, relocation, etc.—and use these occasions to show genuine caring and concern. Demonstrate your support for the team member.

5. Add structure. Distance creates gaps in information. Minimize these gaps by over communicating and adding structure. Respondents suggest: Be clear about expectations and document them; explain the reasons behind decisions and requests and follow up in writing; use organized workflow and project plans; document decisions and action items; create visuals that show plans and progress.

6. Be a true resource. As a leader, you are the team’s access point to information and resources. Make sure you are available, responsive, and know who can help. Don’t wait to be asked. Routinely suggest sources of information and assistance.

What All of Us Must Do
Leaders can do all they can to prevent problems, but it’s inevitable that problems will occur. When they do occur, our data suggests they are much tougher to solve when they involve remote team members. They persist longer and cause more damage than when people are co-located. We wanted to understand this difference, and offer advice on solving problems within virtual teams.

We began by looking for systematic differences in the ways people resolved problems with distant versus co-located colleagues. The most glaring difference we found was that people are significantly less direct, less forthcoming, and less timely when problems involve distant colleagues. This fact does a lot to explain why these problems last longer and are more costly.

Next, we asked participants to read and evaluate a variety of different ways of approaching these crucial conversations. The findings from this part of the study can be grouped into two broad categories: Focusing on Facts and Managing Emotions. Skilled problem solvers do both, but the virtual work environment puts their skills to the test. Here are suggestions that come from our data:

Focus on Facts: The best remote problem solvers make sure they are talking about the right issue, the one they care about most; they don’t get distracted by secondary topics; they factually and accurately describe their point of view; they go to great lengths to listen to and understand the other person’s perspective; and they make sure they clarify decisions in a way that avoids future misunderstandings.

Manage Emotions: They continually refer to mutual goals and interests of the virtual team, which helps diffuse defensiveness and tribalism. Also, they watch for early warning signs that their distant colleague is struggling, then reach out quickly to empathize with his or her frustrations or concerns. When the distant colleague seems upset, they make it clear they care about their distant colleague’s interests and respect him or her. Finally, they intentionally manage their own emotions—watching for signs that they are attributing bad motives to remote team members and working to give them the benefit of the doubt—while quickly talking directly with them to check out any creeping concerns they might have before they escalate.

The virtual work environment is here to stay. Utilizing the steps outlined above can help ensure successful virtual communication is more than just a remote possibility.

VitalSmarts’ David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and social scientist for organizational change. For 30 years, Maxfield has delivered engaging keynotes at venues including Stanford and Georgetown Universities. His work has been translated into 28 languages, is available in 36 countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500.