How to maintain strong relationships with remote workers

Much of the stigma about working from home has disappeared. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need to work to maintain relationships when you aren’t working side-by-side with your colleagues.

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Working from home is more than a trend. Telecommuting has become a well-respected and viable option for any job seeker looking to work full-time - or even part-time - from a home office. In fact, according to research from Global Workplace Analytics, 3.7 million employees - that's 2.5 percent of the workforce - spend at least half of their time working from home. That's a 6.5 percent increase from 2013 to 2014. To put that in context, the overall employee population grew only 1.8 percent in that time. And, according to the study, the number of work-from-home employees has grown 103 percent since 2005, and that's not counting people who identify as self-employed.

A 2015 study from the Association for Psychological Science found that telecommuting can make for happier employees. It attributes some of this to the fact that employees are grateful for the flexibility, and therefore work hard to prove they can be as responsible outside of the office as they would be in the office. Survey results show that telecommuting is associated with greater job satisfaction, less work related stress and improved job performance.

That's great news for remote workers and the businesses that employ them, but with all of these great benefits, remote workers still struggle with maintaining strong relationships with coworkers. And it makes sense, if you aren't in the office every day, it can be difficult to maintain relationships that might organically occur when you work side by side with co-workers every day.

Importance of maintaining relationships

Building a relationship with your manager and coworkers is important for any employee, and it doesn't happen overnight. Work relationships, similar to any relationship, evolve gradually over time through communication and establishing trust, says Dennis Collins, senior director of marketing of West Unified Communications Services. "Taking the time to get to know your team members is important for improving project communication and establishing trust," says Collins. "It can't always be about business, there is value in the random hallway conversations." He also notes that maintaining these relationships will help remote workers avoid feeling isolated or too self-reliant.

You also shouldn't worry that your in-office co-workers secretly think you're a slacker for working from home. That stigma has mostly all but disappeared, says Collins, "Walk down the hallway of an office today and you'll find people on Facebook or a fantasy sports site, so location is no excuse for distraction."

When the telecommuting trend began, people were wary of the idea and some assumed that if people were left to work at home, they probably wouldn't work at all. But that isn't the case, according to a survey by Gallup. The study found that 58 percent of Americans believe telecommuters are just as productive at home as in the office and 16 percent think they are even more productive; only 20 percent feel telecommuters are less productive at home.

Little things count

When it comes to building strong relationships with remote workers, you don't have to do that much, says Collins. Essentially, you want to become more than a name on an email chain, he says, and while that takes more effort if you work out of a home office, it still shouldn't be that hard. For example, Collins will do something as simple as change the avatar on his Web conferencing profile every day as one way to break the ice and let his personality show through.

It can be as simple as taking a moment to ask how everyone is doing at the start of a conference call. If you know a coworker recently went on vacation, you can make a note to ask about his or her trip, says Collins.

He also suggests jotting down coworker's birthdays in your calendar, so you can take a moment to send a personal note. You can also use messaging apps to keep up informal conversations with coworkers by sending funny links or even work related information you think they might find helpful. Think of it as a way to replicate those quick conversations you'd have while getting coffee in the break room.

Invest in tools

Just as technology has enabled more employees to work from home, it also offers countless tools to help you stay connected. Collins points out how conference calls can often be dull and participants might be distracted by Twitter or email. His solution is video, because it encourages everyone to stay focused on the meeting and become more immersed in the conversation. Using video also helps put a face to the name and build a stronger rapport over time, he says.

If your company doesn't use services like Lync, Google Hangouts, Skype or Slack, bring it up in your next meeting. See if the company is interested in paying for, or at least trying out a service that will help create stronger interpersonal relationships among remote employees. If not, you might consider investing in a service if you can swing it, or you can always rely on a free service like Skype or Google. If it's effective, then your manager will have a use case to push the company to invest in similar tools for the entire team.

Be available

Maintaining a strong delineation between work and home can become a slippery slope when your office is 10 feet from your living room, so you need to be very clear about your schedule. Make sure your manager and coworkers have a firm understanding of when you're around and when you're not. That way you stay accessible and can plan regular times to check in or collaborate with co-workers, says Collins. It also shows you are a team player and lets co-workers know they can reach out to you without fear of disturbing or bothering you in your off hours.

Just make sure you don't let work bleed into your personal time, either. "Just because your commute is down a hallway or stairway doesn't mean you are always on call. Set your 'office hours' to match those of your primary company location and work accordingly. Just like a commuter, there will be days or nights that require something different," says Collins. Establishing a schedule and sharing updates regularly will help make you seen more accessible to the other people on your team.

Maintaining relationships when you work from home does take some effort and planning, but with the right attitude and tools, just a few small gestures each day can help you create the same type of bond as if you worked in a cubicle right next to one another.

This story, "How to maintain strong relationships with remote workers" was originally published by CIO.