Staying Close When You’re Far Away

November 4, 2010

Chapter 6 – Staying Close When You’re Far Away

Being successful as a remote engineer requires being a good team member and being a good team member is about more than doing your job well. It is about creating an emotional bond with your coworkers. You need them to think of you as a human being rather than just a screen name. The emotional bond starts with good communication, but it needs to go beyond that.

The first step to creating this emotional bond is to understand what you are missing by being remote. Technology will connect you with people from around the world, but it doesn’t create the same close connection as meeting in person.

You want to get a feel for who your coworkers are as individuals. Get to know something about them. Begin to predict how they will react, what they will like and what they won’t. They key is learning enough about someone to know them emotionally. And teaching them enough so they can understand you.

When you meet with someone face-to-face you are exchanging an enormous amount of visual information. Faces tell you a great deal about what someone is feeling and thinking at that moment, as well as a lot of information about that person’s background. Most of this information comes on a subconscious level. We are all experts, even if we don’t know it.

Being remote means missing out on all of this information. A person can send you an IM about what they are feeling or talk to you on the phone about what they are thinking, but they are only giving you a recreation after the fact and not the whole story.

Psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman states that, “…all facial expressions of emotions are involuntary; they are never voluntary or deliberately made.”1 He also states that, “Even if we asked the person [to explain their emotional state when making the expression,] we would not find out. For she could only tell us what she thinks happened. While that is interesting to know, it is likely to be a retrospective construction, not what actually happened.”2

Unlike facial expressions, all remote communication is voluntary. People think about what to say (we hope) before they say something over the phone or write an email. The inherent inability of people to recognize their own emotional state makes them incapable of conveying that emotional state to you. It also makes you unable to convey your emotional state to them. This is a serious impediment to human interaction and you will not be successful in a distributed team unless you overcome it.

You can replace a lot of that information through good communication, but you can’t replace all of it. Compensate for this loss of information by getting to know the people you work with. Knowing someone well will help you predict behavior and replace some of the information you are missing. You are the remote engineer so you are responsible for going the extra mile to stay close with your team. Staying close with your team will help you get your work done, have your ideas heard, and be more successful.

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