TechTip: How to Telecommute and Still Be Part of the Team

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One of the most common complaints from telecommuters is that they feel isolated from the rest of their team and that people are reluctant to communicate with them virtually. Team members and managers wait until the telecommuter is in the office to ask questions or communicate important information that could easily have been communicated using available tools such as the phone, email, or instant messaging.

While it is the responsibility of a team's manager to ensure that team processes, procedures, and tools are appropriate for both local and remote workers, in practice many virtual managers are struggling to adapt to this new management paradigm. The transition from traditional to virtual management is not an easy one, and the majority of virtual managers have received no training to prepare them for managing virtual employees. Consequently, managers and team members are uncertain how to adapt to working with telecommuters, and they tend to sometimes "forget" about them.

It may be the responsibility of the manager to ensure that all team members are getting what they need, but the person who knows most about what the telecommuter needs is the telecommuter. You have a responsibility to communicate with your manager and your team members to let them know how and when they can communicate with you and what you need to be successful. If your team members are waiting until you are in the office to ask you questions and make statements like "I wish you had been in the office on Tuesday; we could really have used your help with a problem," you need to be proactive in letting them know that they should have contacted you on Tuesday to ask for your help. If your manager or team members are worried about bothering you or distracting you, you must make yourself more approachable.

The most important thing to remember is that if you want your colleagues to communicate with you via virtual tools, you should start using those tools first so they get comfortable using them. Send an instant message on a daily basis to your boss to ask a question. Send instant messages to your co-workers every day or two to ask a work question or to just say "hi." It won't take more a than a couple of weeks for those people to start to feel much more comfortable sending you an instant message to ask a question, to ask for help, or to just say "hi." Let your co-workers know that if they need to speak to you, they can telephone you, IM you, or send you an email. If you want them to telephone you, then you must also telephone them so they don't feel uncomfortable doing so. The more you become part of their daily work lives, the less likely they will forget you're there or forget to include you in meetings or events.

One of the biggest challenges with managing a virtual team is knowing who is available, where everyone is, and what everyone is doing. If a team member is not answering the phone or responding to email, is it because he's busy working on something, or is he intentionally being evasive? Your manager has no way of knowing what is going on with you if you are not communicating. If you were down the hall, your manager could walk into your office and find out what you're up to. If you are a telecommuter, your manager has to rely on you to be responsive and responsible. Your manager may feel more uncomfortable managing remotely than you realize. She may be wary about contacting you too much in case you think you are being checked up on, or she many contact you way too often due to concern that you may not be doing what you should be doing. Either way, the manager is uncomfortable and uncertain about how to manage the relationship with you, the telecommuter. You can make this a lot easier on both of you by sending your manager a status report at the end of each week in addition to proactively maintaining contact with your manager throughout the week. Even if you haven't been asked for a weekly written status report, creating one will give your manager confidence that you are working hard, being productive, and accomplishing your goals. This is a great foundation for a high-quality employee/manager relationship.

Colleen Garton is the author of Managing Without Walls, published by MC Press. She is also the President of the Garton Consulting Group, a company that offers management consulting and training specializing in virtual, global, and cross-cultural teams.