How to Connect with Virtual Colleagues

Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute is headquartered in San Francisco, but we have teachers and program coordinators all over the world and also work with telecommuting colleagues. We’ve found that collaboration in the digital era has logistical challenges, but “distributed work” (when team members are not in the same physical location) includes another level of complexity: How do we establish a feeling of connection with coworkers who aren’t around for an impromptu cup of coffee or a quick deskside chat?

With 20 to 25 percent of the U.S. workforce telecommuting at least some of the time and the prevalence of multiple office locations, we're not the only ones facing the benefits and challenges of distributed work. In fact, Google’s People Innovation Lab (PiLab), which researches making work better in and outside of Google, recently released their findings and best practices for distributed work in a set of playbooks to share with Googlers and other companies.

In their findings, Google reports “no difference in the effectiveness, performance ratings, or promotions for individuals and teams whose work requires collaboration with colleagues around the world versus Googlers who spend most of their day to day working with colleagues in the same office.” Other research also finds that productivity doesn’t suffer when employees work remotely. We have found the same to be true at SIYLI.

In fact, remote workers can lead to greater employee engagement, higher productivity and efficiency, lower stress and a boost in morale. Google also found that well-being standards were uniform across the board with employees able to create a healthy work-life balance by getting a good night’s sleep and exercising. 

We’ve discovered, however, that it’s more difficult to establish a connection with faraway team members. The logistical efforts required to coordinate across time zones or book a video chat are greater and more distancing than in-person connections. These elements, as well as the actual lack of face-to-face time, can create barriers that inhibit the bonds we make more easily with coworkers in closer proximity. Google experienced the same problem. To help teams feel more connected, Google highlights three recommendations:

  • Get to know each other as people. Instead of jumping right into an agenda, allow some time at the top of the meeting for an open-ended question, like “What did you do this weekend?” It’s an easy way to build remote connections and establish a rapport.
  • Set boundaries. Instead of making assumptions about preferred working hours, ask your coworkers when they like to have meetings; some may opt for a certain time of day if given a choice or like to disconnect completely from their computers at other times.
  • Forge in-person and virtual connections. Sometimes it’s just easier to be face to face. Managers should provide clear guidelines and opportunities for team members to travel for in-person meetings. On a video call, express reactions to coworkers ideas noticeably to indicate they’re being heard. When you do have the opportunity to meet for face-to-face interactions, be mindful about reinforcing the connections forged virtually.

In addition to Google’s recommendations, we’ve discovered a few other practices that help us connect with remote colleagues at SIYLI:

  • Communication is key. A misunderstandings about deadlines or deliverables erodes trust quickly. We maintain a shared online space with clear responsibilities and deadlines to avoid confusion.
  • Respect everyone’s time. Of course this is also true for face-to-face meetings, but it’s especially critical with distributed work. Be prepared. Have documents ready to share in advance. If you have regular meetings on the calendar, stick to them. It that’s impossible, request changes well in advance. Even if everyone is in the same time zone, disorganization, canceled meetings or last-minute changes can be interpreted as a lack of respect for other people and their time.
  • Encourage participation. As with any meeting, one or two people can sometimes dominate the conversation. With remote meetings, it’s especially important to draw everyone into the discussion.
  • Don't rely on non-verbal communication. Even with video calls, the nuances of facial expressions are easily lost. Help describe the scene by saying something like, “I see a lot of smiling faces” or “I see some puzzled looks. You lost us.”
  • Be present: Close your email. Silence your phone. Make eye contact and listen actively.
  • Be generous with gratitude and praise. It requires extra effort to collaborate over vast distances and through different time zones. Some of the team might end up on a call well after (or before) business hours. Recognize the efforts and inconveniences. And when praise is earned, give it.