The number of US employees working remotely rose from 17 percent pre-COVID-19 to 44 percent after the pandemic hit. Working remotely has led to a number of challenges for individuals, leaders, and even middle-managers, such as juggling work-life balance, technical issues (“You’re on mute” is at least one of the catchphrases of 2020), and a host of human resources and privacy concerns. Anyone who works on a team knows team connectivity and communication has also taken a hit for many.
For this Q&A, I sat down with Wayne Turmel and Kevin Eikenberry, two remote-working experts, to discuss their new book, The Long Distance Teammate: Stay Engaged and Connected While Working Anywhere, and what we can all do to help keep a flourishing relationship and connection with our remote teammates.
In your latest book, you discuss a model to follow for how to stay a valuable member of a team during this remote-prevalent time. Can you lay it out for us here?Wayne: We investigated what makes the difference between somebody who’s just on the team and someone who’s a teammate. We found three areas: productivity, proactivity, and potential.
- Productivity: When people think of productivity, they think are you getting the right work done at the right time. And for a lot of team members, that’s where it stops. I get my work done. I focus on my metrics, and that’s what matters. But when you think about expanding to being a real teammate, you need to build connections. You need to support the team. You need to be visible. And so productivity is certainly part of it. You’ve got to get your work done, but also, productivity is balancing your individual work and the work that benefits the members of your team.
- Proactivity: This overwhelmingly, and a little surprisingly, came up constantly. We think of proactivity as something that needs to be done. You do it without being asked, and if you’re engaged and if you care, you’re giving discretionary effort. But proactivity is also something like, are you the one reaching out when you have a question or when somebody needs help? Are you being proactive in connecting over the phone versus over email. Being proactive in thinking about what needs to be done, taking part in meetings—all those things elevate your visibility to your teammates and to your manager and help you add value to the relationship.
- Potential: It’s easy when you work remotely to get tunnel vision on your work and what’s in front of you right now. But over time, if you’re just doing the same thing over and over, and everything is transactional, and you’re not seeing a future in what you’re doing, and the company doesn’t seem to care about you, it’s really easy to then disengage and burn out. To see a future for yourself, you need to think about the long-term impact. I can send a snarky email to Kevin and get something done, but what’s going to be the impact on my relationship with him over time if that’s the way we communicate?
It sounds like vulnerability is coming into play here as well. So how do mindsets come into play when discussing being a remote team member?Kevin: We often say there’s a big difference between working from home and being an effective remote teammate. Wayne's already talked about the difference between team member and teammate, but just realizing the mindset of my work versus my job. My job is my work plus the team’s work. And how do I see all of that?
That’s a mindset shift that a lot of people haven’t quite figured out. And it’s hard sometimes to think about this because not everyone who’s now working from home is in the same situation. Some people are by themselves; there’s nobody else. They’re single or isolated, so issues of loneliness are playing in. And there’s mindset stuff there as well—that if we believe that others on our team are isolated or feeling isolated, then being proactive can help them and actually help us as well.
So, from our perspective, mindset matters a whole lot here. And a lot of what Wayne has said around the 3P model dives into those pieces.
Do remote workers and leaders have a harder time developing soft skills like communication over more technical skills?Kevin: Yes, absolutely. When you worked in the office, if you were an introvert and you didn’t like to talk to other people, you had talking to other people thrust upon you. You couldn’t really avoid it. They were always there. If I’m in a meeting, Kevin might not say anything, but I can tell from his face he’s not happy or he has a question. A lot of our challenges communicating clearly were overcome by the fact that we were in physical proximity. And we got a lot of visual and nonverbal cues that helped even the most obtuse of us figure stuff out.
Now we are working in a vacuum where every cue that we get has to be intentional, either intentionally sent or intentionally sought. And so in The Long Distance Leader, which was the first book in this series, we talked about think leadership first, location second. You still need to think about, as a remote teammate, what are the communication skills you need to have. But we’re not getting any help unintentionally. We have to be really mindful and intentional about it.
Working remotely can be a challenge for anybody. Leaning in to your teammates and staying vulnerable yet productive, proactive, and mindful about your long-term potential can turn a feeling of disconnect into better bonding with your team and organization.