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Working with remote managers is becoming more common but, although the internet and mobile technology now make this a breeze, communication between you and them can become difficult. So how do you make long distance work?

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More and more people are working with managers whom they hardly see. In fact, research from recruitment firm Reed shows that a third of employees have managers who supervise them remotely at least once a week.

While you may be glad to be left to your own devices occasionally, having your manager working in a location away from you can become a big headache when the set-up becomes more permanent, or when the lines of communication break down. A fifth of employees surveyed by Reed have said they can work for more than a month without contacting their manager and this can only spell problems.

So what should you do to make sure your remote working relationship actually works?

Agree how you will communicate day-to-day
‘This includes the media that you will use – telephone or Skype, email, online messaging or your company’s chat system,’ says Simon North, co-founder of careers consultancy Position Ignition.

When using instant messaging, avoid coming across too pally – stay professional. ‘Use the same tone and manner as when sending emails, keep your grammar and punctuation intact and don’t use over-the-top text slang,’ says Usman Tahir, careers and student welfare manager at Finance Business Training, the Birmingham division of the London School of Business and Finance.

Usman also suggests trying innovative software that enables high-level, detailed contact.

‘Lync is a great instant messaging service with extra capabilities, Trello allows projects to be worked on simultaneously by a number of people, Yuuguu is a screen sharing, web conferencing and remote desktop control application, Dropbox offers remote storage and MindMeister is a mind-mapping software where multiple users can engage in real time,’ he explains.

As for the proverbial informal water-cooler chats, any form of virtual communication that mimics them will help you feel connected, but a few words of warning about the use of social media in this context: ‘Don’t assume that Facebook or Twitter will be okay – there are currently four generations in the workplace and these new media do not suit everybody,’ says North.

Besides, there is the issue of confidentiality to consider as it’s highly likely your informal interaction turns work-related before you even notice.

Another word of warning must be said about overuse of email – one of the greatest pitfalls of virtual working and a common cause of workplace conflicts. Recognise that you actually do need to pick up the phone and call your manager from time to time, especially when the topic is complicated or potentially contentious.

‘If you have a concern, raise it! Issues are not fixed if they are not voiced,’ says Tahir.

What if your manager doesn’t make contact or respond?

‘It may be that you need to be the one to initiate contact with them and work out what type of communication and rhythm feels optimal,’ says North. ‘Don’t be afraid to take charge of this and then make sure you both stick to it.’

Clarify expectations and schedule in regular updates
And what if you don’t know what they expect of you? Clarity of targets and deadlines is doubly important when working remotely. If your manager fails to communicate and make those expectations clear, then you may need to initiate that conversation too – don’t wait.

‘Always flag up immediately when you do not understand or you are not clear about what is required of you, regardless of how big or small the issue is,’ advises North.

Then create ‘the oldie, but goodie’ – a to-do list of your workload. ‘Also, ensure your manager is aware of the timeframe you are completing it in and update them on your progress,’ says Tahir.

The media and the frequency of your updates is again for you and your manager to agree on; however, some ‘meetings’ – either via video conference or face-to-face – should still take place. Visual interaction is crucial in building rapport and trust. A study by Cisco Systems has shown that people who work together remotely take up to four times longer to build trust than those working face-to-face.

Don’t be too rigid about this, though. Sometimes a progress phone call will do just fine, whatever works best for both of you at the time. The important thing is that you report on what you have been up to regularly, says North: ‘Report on what you’ve achieved, what your plans are and mention areas where you may require some help, their input or simply things that they may need to be aware of.’

A few words on blowing your own trumpet

Regular status updates are also a great way of making sure that your manager gets appraised of your achievements (which also count towards your annual performance review). Remote managers aren’t telepathic – they rely on you to tell them exactly what you have accomplished. The harsh reality of remote working is that, in many organisations, unless you do some bragging about your results, they may miss some of the great work that you do. Also, they most probably have multiple projects and people to manage, so their ability to keep track of you is limited to what you tell them and to what they can glean from your company’s productivity reporting systems.

Stay on your manager’s radar. Remember the old saying ‘out of sight, out of mind’? You want to make sure you are not overlooked or forgotten when they assign new projects. However, beware there is a fine line between checking in with your manager regularly and pestering them.

‘It often depends on the context and the importance of the situation,’ says Tahir. ‘It may be that you and your manager are working closely on extremely important projects and they want you to keep them updated on every aspect of your work. Otherwise, blind copying them on important email conversations only should suffice and they can easily get involved if necessary.’

If you don’t want to become a pest and somebody they dread hearing from, ‘be sensitive of different time zones and out-of-office hours too,’ says North. Also, be sensitive to cultural differences when working with managers from other countries. Their work habits and communication patterns may differ from yours in unexpected ways.

Finally, always be reliable.

‘Reliability, punctuality, initiative and competency are important factors when building relationships with remote managers,’ says Tahir. When they don’t see you on a daily basis, they may feel uneasy about how you are getting on, especially initially. But if you develop a reputation for reliability by always doing what is required of you, they will soon stop worrying.

‘Achieve your targets every day, every week and every month – in other words, be a model employee,’ says North. Who knows, having your manager off-site may actually work out in your favour.

‘If you prove yourself, you could be given more responsibility than if your manager was physically there,’ says Tahir.

Last updated: 5 Jun 2014