Managing People

Like a Boss: “I need a better long-distance relationship with my remote employee.”

October 14, 2019
November 7, 2023
Jennifer Romolini
Lattice Team

Welcome to Lattice’s advice column for new managers, “Like a Boss.” I’m your host, Jennifer Romolini. I’m an editor, an author (of the career guide “Weird In a World That’s Not”), and, yes, a boss who’s been managing other humans for the past dozen or so years at companies both giant and tiny, at quick and dirty startups and multi-layered corporations, with remote and in-office teams ranging from five to 45. I’m also a speaker who talks about succeeding at work even when you feel like a freak. And, sometimes, I give advice, like right now.  

Dear Boss,

I have a remote worker on my team, and I find myself  being not so close to them (and, honestly, favoring other employees who are in the office) mainly because we spend most of our time “together” talking via video conference or phone. Any advice on how I can improve that relationship?

Hanging on the Video Conference Line

Dear Hanging,

If we learned nothing else from the 2010 Drew Barrymore/Justin Long film Going the Distance, we know that long-distance relationships require more, or at the very least, different, effort than the ones you have with people you see every day. This is true for romantic relationships but it also applies to remote employees who often get lost in the day-to-day work shuffle in a way that happens rarely to those we pass on our 129th trip to the office kitchen for stale Jelly Bellys and an extra serving of SunChips.

Among the reasons for this — beyond just the cliché effect of out of sight, out of mind — is IRL presence actually changes our physical chemistry and impacts how we talk to and think about one another. In fact, a recent study published in the Harvard Business Review found that face-to-face meetings are up to 34 times more successful than trying to convey the same information over email or the phone. And new research out of UCLA suggests that up to 93% of effective communication is determined by nonverbal cues and how we read each other’s faces. That’s a lot of ground to make up for in poor-sound-quality conference calls and a few dashed-off lols over Slack.

So how do you counteract this imbalance? Start by doing the two most important things in any successful employee-employer relationship: 

1. Set clear, realistic expectations and goals that you can keep track of together (perchance using Lattice’s handy goals tool) and 

2. Be reliable, available, and consistent in your communication. Ambiguity is almost always an obstacle to success, but add a lack of clarity around responsibilities plus absentee management and you may as well set employee performance and job satisfaction on fire. 

Now, you haven’t said anything about this team member’s actual work — if they’re doing it or, you know, not doing it. Only that you don’t feel close to them, which may honestly be a “you” problem and not a “them” problem? In any case, here are some foolproof tools for managing remote employees. And remember none of this going to be perfect; you’ll forget to do the following half of the time. It’s OK to mess it all up on occasion and reset — the most important thing is to manage with a spirit of openness and generosity and keep trying.

Implement multiple check-ins and checkpoints. 

Yes, you should have your weekly 1:1 and you should have it over video (more visual cues!) and set it for a time when you can be completely focused on the employee, their goals, and needs. Show up on time; don’t simultaneously check your email, glance at Twitter, or read your LinkedIn notifications. Have an ongoing list of topics you and the employee are working on (which should include a mix of ongoing projects, company updates, and goals that are more personal to the employee). Then, make sure to keep track of what you discuss in note form via something like a shared Google Doc or a tool like Lattice's 1:1 software.

In addition to the 1:1 meeting, if this is a full-time staff member, have some sort of daily check-in system — which could be as simple as a “what I’m working on today” list sent over Slack. If the remote worker is collaborating with other team members, make sure there’s a system of communication in place (more video calls! I know!) so they are kept in the loop and nothing falls through the cracks. Whenever possible, include the remote person in conversations about the projects they’re working on. If you can’t, give them updates as soon as you can. FOMO — a silly construct in social life — is actually pertinent and critical to avoid here. 

Build meaningful relationship bridges.

Talk about things other than work. Ask about their pets or their weekends or their trips. Call on them first in the big team meeting. Ask their opinion on things other than the assignments in their purview. Create a jokey Slack channel where everyone can post silly things and connect. Make an effort to minimize the remote employee’s isolation and bring them into the day-to-day work culture fold as often as possible. Be human, decent, kind, and create a psychologically safe space where your remote employee feels connected to something bigger than you, their boss. 

Meet in-person on an agreed-upon schedule

Depending on distance and travel costs, create a realistic schedule for the entire team to be together — once a month, once a quarter, even a twice-a-year offsite will go a long way to staff bonding and to productivity and will make working together feel easier even when you’re apart.