You're New, and Your Job Is 1,000 Miles Away. Now What?
AlamyBy Laura McMullen
It's hard enough being "that new person" for the first few days of a job, because no one can remember your name. Imagine being only a name and otherwise invisible. Oh yeah, Margie. I've seen that name on email threads, and I'm pretty sure we've been on conference calls together. I think she works remotely from Ohio – or was it Iowa?
For many telecommuting employees, being out of sight can often mean they're out of mind among their in-office colleagues – a setup that's not exactly conducive to building team camaraderie. Fortunately, with a little effort and creativity, a new telecommuting employee can become more than just a name in an email address. Here's how these employees can thrive in their new jobs and teams – even from a thousand miles away:1. Find a go-to guide. If you were in the office with everyone else, you could quickly gauge which cubicle-mate is most receptive to typical newbie questions about procedures and office culture. But people-reading is a little tougher from afar. Here's a suggestion from Brie Reynolds, career advisor and director of online content at the professional job website FlexJobs, which offers telecommuting opportunities: Speak up to your manager. "When you onboard, ask: 'Who can I go to for random questions about the company, the teams and the way things work?'" she says. With this insight, she adds, "you get a better sense of what you're walking into."
2. Establish a communication strategy with your manager. Does your new boss want you to check in on a daily or weekly basis? Does she prefer update emails, instant messages, texts, video calls or phone chats? And how quickly do you need to return phone calls and emails? Proactively ask about these specifics, says Debra Dinnocenzo, author of "Working From a Distance: Being Your Best When You're Not With The Rest" and president of VirtualWorks!, a company that helps employees and organizations work well in the virtual workplace.
She points out that your boss might be new to managing telecommuters – or new to managing anyone. With that in mind, you may need to be flexible as you try different communication methods to find what works for both sides.
3. Reach out to your new team members. Just like you'd likely make the rounds in the office to meet everyone, Dinnocenzo advises scheduling phone calls or – even better – video chats with your new team members. "Video is so powerful, because you get a face and a human connection," she says. "It allows you to get to know people as people, not just as names, voices and email addresses out there."
4. Replicate and simulate. These are Dinnocenzo's key words for telecommuters. Think: How would you interact with your boss and team members if you were in the office, and how can you mirror that experience in a virtual environment? For example, in-office co-workers casually chat with each other in the hallways, take coffee breaks together and kibitz before a meeting. "Without being conscious of it, they're doing these touch-base 'how-goes-it' kinds of conversations," Dinnocenzo says. And it's that kind of chitchat – How was apple picking with the kids this weekend? Did you see "The Martian" yet? – that helps build familiarity and, ultimately, trust among team members, Dinnocenzo says.
Telecommuters can build these bonds, too, if they're willing to get creative. "There are lots of ways to be present without physically being there," Dinnocenzo says. She gives this real-life example of replicating and simulating: Dinnocenzo's former team was throwing an in-office baby shower for a co-worker, so she sent her gift to the office early and jumped on a video call at the baby shower. While her in-office team members snacked, played games and oohed and aahed at each gift, so did Dinnocenzo – on a screen.
Similarly, Reynolds schedules coffee meetings with her virtual team members. "It's really just a quick phone chat where you get to know each other a little better," she says. "You can even outline ahead of time that you don't want to talk about work." She adds to keep track of co-workers' big days, too, such as birthdays, much-anticipated vacations, kids' first days of school – "anything that takes you outside of the day-to-day stuff." For those events, message or call co-workers. "Being the proactive person in those situations can help you stay connected and top of mind," she says.
This familiarity you build with co-workers is not just for social reasons – "I can't wait to Gchat Larry about that Steelers game last night!" – it's also a key component of building team trust. "People can communicate their butts off, but if trust doesn't develop in this, all is lost," Dinnocenzo says. "You can't have work relationships – or any other kind of relationship – without trust."
5. Perform. The other major way to inspire trust among your co-workers? Produce quality work. As Dinnocenzo puts it: "Of course, the most important thing is to do a good job and be reliable."