How to be a Great Long-Distance Teammate
If you don’t realize that remote work is growing, you must have fallen asleep for a few years. Covid-19 accelerated the trend exponentially.
But learning to work remotely, and do it well, is not as easy as you may think. How do you build relationships? How do you position yourself for a promotion? What rules have changed?
Enter Kevin Eikenberry and Wayne Turmel and their new book, The Long-Distance Teammate. Kevin is the founder of the Kevin Eikenberry Group (good thing, too, because if someone else founded it, well…that would be strange!) and Wayne is the cofounder of the Remote Leadership Institute. Together they share their wisdom in their new book and also with us here.
What are the attributes of an exceptional long-distance teammate?
Great teammates, whether they are long-distance or not, share certain attributes. First of all, they are concerned about the team’s work, not just their own tasks. Secondly, they help and support their teammates, often without being asked. Finally, they are easy to work with, which means they understand the team processes and expectations and work within those systems. If something needs to change, they are proactive but professional in helping move the team forward. Being remote requires two important distinctions. First, all work, interactions and communication happen through technology, so teammates must be comfortable, and confident in using those tools. Second, they must be more mindful and proactive in building relationships and communicating our ideas since they aren’t sitting in the same room or seeing each other in the hallways.
What are some of the unique challenges of those working from a distance?
If we think about remote work, what we do—the tasks and expected outputs—haven’t changed all that much from when we were in the office. What’s profoundly different is how we get the work done.
First of all, we need to be more self-guided in our approach. Nobody is staring daggers at us if we’re not working hard enough at any given moment, and we’re missing the social energy of a team that often keeps us energized and on task.
More importantly, the relationships that help us achieve our work are built and maintained through technology. While it’s easy to default to the tool that lets us get a task accomplished the fastest (sending an email or a quick chat message) it’s richer communication and taking the time to really get to know each other and engage in conversation that helps us get to know, like, and trust each other. In the office, we have constant opportunities to cross paths with people by accident or proximity that lead to all kinds of productive conversations.
When working remotely, very little happens by accident, and we need to be proactive in reaching out, and mindful of how transactional our communication is when we are working together. Everyone will benefit if they regularly ask themselves these questions Am I taking/investing the time to get to know others, compliment their work or ask for help? Or am I just transacting the business with no time or concern for the relationships?
Talk a little about your 3P Model and what success looks like.
In doing our research writing The Long-Distance Teammate, we asked what makes a great teammate. Overwhelmingly, the people mentioned three factors that distinguish a member of the team from a true teammate:
- Productivity. This isn’t just getting your work done. It’s getting the right work done, in the right way, in the right amount of time. This isn’t about working more hours, or just focusing on your own work. It means being efficient, and helping the team accomplish its work as well as those tasks assigned to you.
- Proactivity. The most commonly cited trait of a great teammate is being proactive. This is more than just the traditional, “If a job needs to be done, just do it without asking.” It’s so much more. If you have questions, do you ask them, or just try to guess the right answer? If a colleague needs help, do you volunteer or wait to be asked? Do you raise points in meetings that need to be raised, or simply show up and keep your head down? And if you are interested in that promotion or learning opportunity, do you volunteer or wait until the manager comes to you? This level of proactivity does more than anything else to determine how your teammates, manager and colleagues view and value you.
- Being an engaged, productive teammate is internally driven. We choose whether to put in the extra effort or sign up for a learning opportunity. It is easy to become burned out and lose focus if we aren’t focused on the future. Why bother taking the time to have a friendly chat with the guy in accounting? Because you might need to work with him on something in the future, and if you have a good relationship, it will go better. If you want to get that promotion, you need to let your manager know, because she might not consider you for that assignment if you aren’t in the office and right under her nose. Working on tasks now, without considering the big picture and long-term effect can lead to feeling frustrated and like your job is a dead-end.
- If we are productive, proactive, and have one eye on the potential impact of our work, relationship building and career, we will have more fun, be a better collaborator and teammate, and have greater success today and far into the future.
Routines are a focus in your book. How do the most successful use routines to fuel their success? Anything to watch about routines (do they ever limit our success or put us in a rut)?
There are two major challenges to working remote from your team. The first is that not everyone who works from home can manage their time effectively. This can lead to working too many hours and skewing our work-life balance. The other challenge is to create a mindset where you can focus and put effort where it’s most needed. Creating routines help us do that.
When we work in the office, our routines are set and our brains know when it’s “work time,” and when it’s not. When where we work, play with the kids, and relax is in the same location or on the same device, it’s hard to switch gears and our ability to focus on only one thing (whether work or personal) suffers.
Steve Jobs famously wore the same thing every day so that he didn’t waste precious time figuring out what to wear in the morning. This is probably excessive, but when we do things automatically, our brains are free to daydream, imagine, and solve problems. If you know the dishwasher always gets emptied before you sit down at your desk, you won’t be on a conference call worrying about the dishes.
Conversely, it’s easy sometimes to put important tasks off because we have too many little things to do. If you create a routine where you schedule time for administration at the same time every day, you can add bandwidth for the tasks that matter. Sometimes, as the saying goes, you have to eat the frog first. If you just do it as part of a routine, you’ll dread it less.
What are some ways to be a great remote communicator?
Whether in a shared workspace, or through technology, communication is a two-way process. Making a great speech is useful, and crafting a well-thought-out email necessary, but ultimately a great communicator understands that sending the message is only part of the process.
Great communication needs to be thought out, sent in the proper manner, received by the intended audience, understood, and finally accepted. This means, whether you’re speaking or writing, you must transmit the right message, to the right person, for the right reason, to get the right response.
When we work remotely, we can’t rely on our natural, hard-wired ability to read body language, facial expressions and tone. We must maximize the tools available to us, consciously select the best medium for a given message, and do the best we can to overcome limitations of these technologies.
Relationships just seem infinitely easier in person. If you cannot do this, what are some ways to build authentic, genuine relationships?
How do we learn to know, like, and trust someone?
In person we do this through interaction. Both in the subtle unconscious things we notice (the way someone dresses, the way they carry themselves, the way they smile or laugh at the same jokes) and in very conscious ways—do they do what they say they’ll do? Does their work give you confidence that they’ll help the team?
The same is true when we work remotely, except we need to intentionally seek out opportunities to learn about our teammates. The more frequently we interact, the easier it is to build up a database of information, feelings, and opinions about that person. We must take the time to indulge in non-task conversation. And if at all possible, make it rich communication: phone and voice are better than email, webcam is better than the phone, in-person contact will be most valuable of all.
Wish people a happy birthday, congratulate them on good feedback, ask about the kids or bust their chops about their favorite sports team. These things happen naturally when we’re co-located, we just need to make sure they happen when we are apart.
Are there any unique considerations for career planning and development that stem from remote work?
When it comes to your career planning and personal development, there are two things you need to know.
- The biggest factor in whether you stay at a job or are engaged is: are you getting something out of it? If you enjoy the people you work with, love the work you do and what it means to you and the world, and see it “going somewhere” (which means different things to different people) you are more likely to stay motivated and put out the effort. In the end, engagement is internal, not driven by the company’s HR policies or the manager. When we work in the same location, though, we receive constant reinforcement that we’re doing good work, that our colleagues appreciate us, and you’re in the right place. When you work remotely, you must own this.
- Nobody cares about your future more than you do. When you aren’t in the office, your manager might not mention that learning opportunity, or offer you that plum assignment. Not because she doesn’t think you’re up to it, but because you are literally out of sight and out of mind. If you want to be considered for a project, be proactive in asking. If your manager isn’t mentioning your career goals in one-on-one conversations, it’s up to you to raise the issue. Be bold when it comes to asking questions, networking inside (and outside) your company because you won’t just bump into people in the lunchroom. The opportunities are there, but you have to be intentional in uncovering and maximizing them.
Any other advice for those who want to get promoted and grow while working remotely?
Don’t be shy about talking to your manager or others (like HR) in your company who know how things work. Before Covid many companies assumed that if you chose to work from home, you had decided lifestyle is more important than your career track. Often this is an unconscious bias. Let the people who matter know you are interested in learning and growing. Volunteer, and come to them with ideas for your growth. More than anything, you need to be visible to your teammates, your manager, and the organization. This “ethical visibility” isn’t crying for attention or being a diva. It’s done in the context of the work while ensuring your teammates know you’re there and care. Despite what your father told you, your work will not speak for itself, especially when you are not in close proximity to the decision makers and seats of power.
For more information, see The Long-Distance Teammate.
Image Credit: Chris Montgomery