Face-to-face isn't the only way to communicate.
Scott Berkun started his career and spent nearly a decade at Microsoft. He rose to become a lead program manager, running a team that worked on Internet Explorer. But in 2010, he was offered a job at Automattic, the company behind the blogging platform WordPress.com. The job, he wrote in his book The Year Without Pants, represented a massive shift from the culture of a big corporation with stack ranking, where employees are rated on a scale and let go if they were at the bottom. At Automattic, most of the 304 employees are remote. Berkun was scared that his personal strengths as a manager wouldn’t translate.
“I was really good at talking to people one-on-one,” Berkun told Quartz. “If there was some big debate, some big issue, I felt like I could always get someone or get a coffee and sort out what was going on, I could read their body language. I was terrified, how do I manage a team effectively when I can’t do that, go face to face, pull them aside, or go in their office and close a door?”
If even managers have that fear, imagine how it’s amplified for the people they manage. As workplaces go increasingly online, much of the face-to-face communication of office life has disappeared, and it’s easy to feel isolated and worry your work isn’t getting the attention it deserves. But a mixture of recent research and lessons from companies like Automattic suggests there are ways to overcome this.
1. Talk things out in advance
“The place to start is that that fear has nothing to do with remote work,” Berkun says. “It’s really about not trusting your boss.”
There’s little about meeting in person you can’t replicate online or on the phone with an engaged manager. It just requires talking things out first, says Berkun, and not being afraid to admit you’re worried about losing influence. Try asking for an extra 10 minutes on Skype every week to pitch ideas to manage that fear.
Backing up Berkun’s insight, a paper from researchers at the University of Minnesota (paywall) found that the effective leaders of virtual teams put more effort into “transformational leadership” compared to when they managed a co-located team, meaning they spent more time working individually with employees and building an environment of trust. The researchers also found that this did more to increase the team’s performance than in it does in a traditional workplace.
2. Don’t be afraid to be a bit more aggressive
Two University of North Carolina researchers found in a study last year, which involved interviewing 23 members of virtual teams, that people are more assertive when they’re trying to influence others online, using tactics such as frequent checkups and reminders. People working remotely seem to have figured out that being demure just gets you ignored.
3. Enlist others
Another qualitative study in 2012 from Argentinian researchers looked specifically at “upward influence” in virtual environments, i.e., how people influence those above them in the hierarchy. It found that people who work remotely used a tactic of intermediation, which “consists of finding an intermediary who is well connected to the target and can help define the best approach for the agent.” So try contacting a person close—either socially or physically—to the boss, to figure out what matters most at a given moment and the best way to approach them.
4. Don’t butter up your boss
Using compliments or favors to gain influence is the most common technique in face-to-face interaction. But both the Argentinian and North Carolina studies found that this has little or no effect when working remotely.
5. Push for a real support system
This doesn’t just mean good technology, but management systems built specifically around virtual teams. Researchers at Michigan Statefound structural support was particularly important for reducing the miscommunication and sense of distance that make high performance and influence difficult in virtual teams.
That includes clear and transparent communication norms and reward systems, and a rigorous effort to make sure there isn’t an information disparity—i.e., that people particularly in smaller, remote offices aren’t out of the loop. If these structures don’t exist, they’re worth suggesting to management, or making your own efforts to put them into place.