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How to Help Remote Colleagues Feel Less Lonely and More Connected

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Some people just light right up when the holidays come around. They love hunting for that perfect gift, the wrapping, decorating, baking, holiday parties, music, and all of the other traditions that come with the holidays. But for those who feel socially isolated, the holidays can be an especially difficult and lonely time.

That’s why at this time of year, perhaps more than any other, it’s worth making a special effort to reach out to remote colleagues to check in and find ways to remind them that they’re connected to the whole team. The number of people working remotely at least part of the time is growing exponentially in the U.S. A recent Harvard Business Review article about the loneliness and burnout of remote workers cited a recent study of 18,000 employees around the world that found that 70% of employees are working remotely once a week, and 53% are spending at least half the week away from the office.

Despite the many advantages of working from a distance, working remotely can exact a high price. Many say they often feel forgotten about, especially if the majority of other team members work in close proximity to each other. Remote workers often feel left out of things, including inside jokes, social outings, juicy gossip, the chance to build meaningful relationships, professional development opportunities, or the ability to cultivate new skills.

According to the 2018 State of Remote Work, loneliness tops the list of struggles for remote workers. Even those who thrive working independently can feel disconnected and socially isolated from their co-workers. And it’s worth noting that just because someone has an active social life outside of work, the remote worker may still feel alienated from co-workers. In this edition of Communique, I offer tips for those who want to find ways to help their remote colleagues feel more connected, valued and needed all year ’round.

  • Stop by to chat. Just because her desk may be miles (or continents) away, you can still drop in to say hello via Slack, Trello, an IM, text, or even an email. (And if you’re in overlapping time zones, you can actually call!) Make your greeting authentic, caring and personal, whether work-related or not.  I might say something like: “Hey, you mentioned that you’re having a hard time finding the information that was holding up your project. I’d love to help. Do you have time to brainstorm ideas?” Or, “I wanted to find out if your daughter’s graduation was everything you were hoping it might be. When can we catch up?”
  • Keep a virtual water cooler going at all times where people can stop by at any time, from any place. Maybe your team has a portal where people share information, or perhaps your team uses an app like Slack or Trello. The key is to make the ongoing conversation easy and inviting to join. Create a space where people can ask work-related questions, brag about a personal accomplishment, suggest a cool new resource, or simply say hello. One of my clients has created two HipChat rooms, one for social conversations and the other for work-related conversations. (See my article Who Moved My Virtual Water Cooler? for more tips)
  • Turn on the video cameras. Ask everyone to join team meetings via video, at least for the first few minutes (yes, even if it’s a bad hair day!) Seeing each other’s faces, gestures, desks, walls, etc., conveys vital information that’s otherwise missing when connections are made only via voice.
  • Set up “office hours” at a predictable time and day each week or so. Some may come by for a quick hello, while others will want to stay and chat. There’s no set agenda, and people can talk about whatever they want, or nothing at all. The use of videoconferencing can help to create a tangible sense of presence. Many clients I know say that these unstructured, informal get-togethers are the only meetings their team members actually look forward to.
  • Be a connector. Introduce your remote colleague to colleagues who live and work nearby, even if they’re not in the same organization. Search your own network for people who might enjoy each other’s company, learn from each other or have something in common. Offer to make a mutual introduction and encourage them to meet for breakfast, coffee, lunch or a walk-and-talk and see where that takes them. Even the most independent workers I know crave at least some human contact at some point through the day.
  • Invite your remote colleagues inside. Even if you can’t convene the entire team due to budget or scheduling issues, you can invite your remote colleague to the home office to help forge his connection to the greater team. Create a manageable schedule, enabling him to make personal connections with key people, while giving him the flexibility to design some of his own agenda. Arrange for at least one or two social gatherings outside of work, where some of the best relationships are often built, rather than leaving him alone when the workday ends.
  • Meet your remote colleagues where they are. Take a road trip to see the world through their eyes and walk a mile in their shoes, so to speak. (If travel budgets are constrained, consider adding an extra stop on a planned trip.) Host a team meeting from her office or a nearby co-working space. Treat him to lunch or dinner at his favorite place, or take a walk or run on his favorite routes. Express interest in meeting people who are important to her, if that’s something you think she’d appreciate. Share images and impressions of your road trip at the next team meeting, so everyone can catch a glimpse of their remote colleague’s lives.
  • Ensure that remote employees have access to perks that others enjoy. For example, if your HQ folks have access to a gym, fun social outings, or all the food they can eat, consider how you can extend similar benefits to remote workers, within reason. Remote workers are usually quite aware of the advantages their HQ colleagues enjoy, and for a variety of reasons, it may be impossible to extend the same benefits to everyone. But even a small gesture, like a gift certificate to a local restaurant or hotel, can help remote workers feel remembered and valued.
  • Send something tangible. Warm and welcoming emails, IMs and calls are fine as far as they go. But there’s nothing like actually receiving something that can be touched, opened, read, and savored. Handwritten cards are easy and cheap to send, and can go a long way to let someone know you’re on their mind. (I like to print my photos through an online service and make them into cards for a personalized and inexpensive option.) Choose a book, pen, mug, gift card, or something else that shows you care. If you have access to company SWAG that remote workers may appreciate, all the better.

People who work remotely may be just as valued and appreciated as everyone else on the team. But to them, it may not always feel that way. Challenge yourself to think of ways you can demonstrate to your remote colleagues that out of sight most certainly does not mean out of mind.

Links

My article in Meeting Planners International magazineRemote Meeting Participation 

Related articles:

Helping Remote Workers Avoid Loneliness and Burnout by Jennifer Moss, Harvard Business Review