Technology has impacted the way businesses retain, hire, and staff. The AEC industry is no exception. At Cosential, almost half of our staff work remote with only a few in-office visits per year. Like most companies in this situation we rely on social tools such as Slack or HipChat to have productive, real time dialogue with peers on work matters. What can easily be overlooked is that this channel makes or breaks the value of long distance peer to peer relationships. The magic sauce is ensuring to follow a few basic guidelines that is not likely found within your orientation manual.
1. The Golden Rule Applies to Social
Ask yourself, what are you doing to ensure every interaction is positive and productive? Look at your chats and emails with the eye of knowing the tone you give is mostly what they get of you. When there is no interpersonal context to relay your personality, ask yourself, what percentage of them is either barking off orders and/or lists of deliverables? What are you doing to ensure that when someone receives a chat from you they genuinely want to respond, or work with you? Are you delivering bi-directional value or is it one sided? The golden rule applies to social!
2. Don't Forget Pleasantries, Like the weather
No one wants to just jump into a conversation without a slight warm up. Treat every new interaction as if it were face to face, while keeping in mind that written text lacks the subtle cues of in-person conversation. We all begin our face to face conversations with pleasantries, chat should be similar, however be cautious about how text might be interpreted and possibly misunderstood. There's an abundance of emoticons and GIFs in our everyday chats that are useful in conveying the right nuances. Plus, they help boost camaraderie, and are downright fun as long as they are not saturated.
If the conversations with those who you communicate with (and rely upon) are mostly done through internal chat or email, you have a ton of rapport to make up against what you accomplish around the watercooler. That does not mean hours of typing small talk, but can be made up with simple "good morning", "how is the weather", and the quintessential ask of weekend plans. Get to know those on the other end as best you can, build rapport with small steps. Share pictures, appropriate humor, funny GIFS or drive appropriate small talk that opens the door to getting to know each other. Inflection exists, but it's an entirely different breed against face to face. Being aware / cognizant of that the step that matters.
4. Integrate your CRM with Social
Alluded to in the above point, there are numerous tools with web hooks and integrations that in today's tech stack are easy to integrate with your social tools. CRM systems, including Cosential, are leaders in understanding this given its your CRM that holds the data, the lifeblood of your firm. This is where your business wins are made, deals won and contracts signed. As the central database to your business, let your CRM speak to any general channels that employees monitor both far and near. Workflows between your CRM and social tool of choice should automate happy, positive messages that celebrate company wins. The same can be done with things such as contact us forms, requests for proposals, award announcements, and so on. While most CRMs integrate with most social tools, don't forget to ask this when evaluating tools and foresee the value to remote staff when they work together.
5. Utilize Plugins
Why be just a string of words when you can hop on a video chat, screen share, drawing board, CRM, or document collaboration tools? Today's social tools are filled with add-ons that ensure you enjoy the platform. If you can make video meetings the norm do screen sharing often. A good rule of thumb to ask yourself is if you can't relay something in a few sentences, it's probably best to hop on an audio or video call. These are extremely effective when working on projects together, and visuals help to ensure you are on the same page while also making it feel as if they are sitting at your desk working beside you.
6. Know Their Place in Time & Space
Taking the time to be cognizant of your partner's place and time, especially when the distance is high is not easy for all, and it really matters. For example, if you need to deliver an actionable to someone who is behind you, don't dump a list of to-do's for them to walk into. Wait for their business hours before you break the day's ice. Same for lunch and end of the day. It's equally important to know if your peer's city is experiencing climate weather. Show that you pay attention to their time, geography, news, and overall environment. See something interesting in their background while on video chat? It's fair game to discuss.
7. Know What Makes Them Tick
It's very natural with interpersonal relationships to quickly learn what hobbies and interests your peers have, but it takes work to learn those things about those you solely interact with from afar. Everyone has a hobby, favorite sports team, pets or family they love to talk about so latch on to a few things your remote partners care about in effort to check in on them. Use them for ice breakers or even pass links to content you find that reminds you of them. If you can genuinely demonstrate to your remote peers that despite the distance, you saw something and thought of them enough to share, the miles between you soon become inches and the result is having such a solid relationship that they want to work with you as best possible.
8. Deliver the Office
The dynamic of working remote has its benefits, but comes with challenges. Top of the list of challenges is that remote employees do not witness the little things that add up to create your culture. Interoffice activities such as birthday celebrations, spontaneous meetings, or head turning occurrences can, and should be shared easily given today's technology. There is not a better way to make a remote employee feel more isolated than for them to hear of a major announcement or event that occurred in the office via hearsay after the fact. Best practice is to have a person designated to pre-prep the technology for scheduled events, take and share pictures, but also be skilled at relaying the negative when necessary. To keep it real if an employee departs, once it becomes common knowledge to those in the office there is no reason it should not be shared with those working remote. But be careful, this does not mean social tools are the place to promote gossip or discuss rumors. The right formula of communication will prevent gossip, and encourage the transparency that helps avoid it in the first place.
From my experience of managing remote teams and members for years that at times resided on multiple continents, time zones and cultures, I hope you enjoyed these tips and reminders for making social collaboration work at work. We would love to hear from you on this topic. What best practices do you follow when working with remote staff?