How to Communicate Better with People at a Distance

Remote management

The saying goes; absence makes the heart grow fonder.

While that may be true in some cases, another old saying is also true:

Out of sight, out of mind.

Both hold shades of truth for any of us wanting to communicate more effectively with people when we are separated by space. More often though, the second holds more truth at work than does the first.

If you are in business today, you likely deal with this situation at least occasionally. But most of us deal with it every day. This situation is; Communicating with customers or prospects, Communicating with vendors, Communicating with colleagues on projects, or, Communicating with people we lead who don’t live nearby.

In a simpler time, the communication options at our disposal were few, and the number of these situations relatively rare.

Not true today – and more tools haven’t exactly made it easier. I can’t “solve” this challenge for you in one short article; but what I can do is give you five things to think about that will help when you apply them, and as you will see tools are only part of the solution.

Talk About It

While it might not seem necessary to talk about how we will talk with someone, we know that communicating at a distance creates challenges. That means we might need to do things differently. Talk to people about how they best like to communicate, what is helpful to them, what times of the day work best for them and more. When you create some understanding and agreements about your communication, you have taken a big step towards improving it for a long time to come.

Pick Your Tools Wisely

It’s harder than it used to be because there are so many choices. Are you going to call or email? Are you going to Skype, Facetime or Hangout? Or maybe you will Text, IM, Yammer, or Slack? You might use the conference line or WebEx or GotoMeeting? Are you going to use video or not? Is a voice mail helpful or not? How about a business line or cell phone?


Think about the tools you have at your disposal and talk about which ones you are going to use. And then, whichever ones you select, make sure that both parties (or all parties) are comfortable with using these tools. This is a level of complexity we never had to consider when we would just walk down the hall and all we had was a landline. Make sure whatever tools you use will be successful.

Pick Your Tools Situationally

And it isn’t just about the tools themselves, it is about using them at the right times for the right purposes. There are times when a text message may meet the communication need. And yet, it can’t be the only tool in your bag. Emails are great for many things, but aren’t good for a conversation – after two or three emails in a thread, pick up the phone. Since we aren’t able to be face to face, video can be the next best thing – use it when talking about complex or challenging issues. Own several different hammers. Pick the right one for the task, and that is what you need to do as a communicator as well.

Make Time

If you want your remote communication to be more effective, you must invest the time for it. Because it is more complex, you can’t just take it for granted or just let it happen. If you want to have effective communication with people you must communicate with them, and when you don’t see people in the parking lot, at the coffee pot or in the hallway, you have to make the time for those conversations. This leads to the fifth point.

Plan Time

As a leader, you might see this idea as putting some time on the calendar for “one-on-ones” with your remote folks. This is a good idea, but I mean more than that. First, it doesn’t just apply to leaders – if you are a co-worker at a distance, put time on the calendar with folks. When you do that you make the conversation intentional, you make sure it happens, and you fundamentally change your relationship with the other person. They know you care enough to put the time on your calendar. Don’t underestimate the emotional value of that.

Looping back to the first point above, make sure that the times you set make sense on your agreements about frequency and time of day. It is one thing to just get on someone’s calendar; it is another when you force it to work on your schedule and timeline.

About the Author

Kevin Eikenberry is a leadership expert and the Chief Potential Officer of The Kevin Eikenberry Group, a learning consulting company that helps clients reach their potential through a variety of training, consulting and speaking services.

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