The Telecommuter’s Lament

Yeah, yeah, we live in a virtual world, blah, blah, we’ve talked about it before. Like yesterday.

But now I’ve come up against a new problem. How to make friends with coworkers you’ve never actually met?

Here’s the situation: I recently took on a part-time gig doing some editing for a website. I’m covering for a friend who is on maternity leave. The office is in New York, I am in Chicago. Which means the only way I speak to my new colleagues is via Skype and email.

Perhaps this is no biggie in regular life, but in work life it makes things pretty tough. In office scenarios, I’m a big believer in face-to-face contact. Facial expressions and tones of voice relay so much. Getting to know someone on a personal level, makes it easier to work with them, or at least understand their professional style. For example, when you ask someone to do somethingย  via email, it’s hard to subtly express that you know the task is a total bore but you really appreciate her doing it anyway. Via email, a directive can feel rude or presumptuous, especially from the new girl who hasn’t entirely learned the lay of the land. I get that.

Sometimes it seems that in the work environment, employees are looking for reasons to not like someone, as opposed to the other way around. Conversations about duties or tasks can feel like mini-battles, with each person passive-aggressively pushing back. An in-person office drive-by would be so much easier. I could pop my head in when I had questions. I could get a sense of a person’s reaction when I asked her to do something, and she could understand mine when she gives me a directive, too. I could figure out my place in the office food chain, and get a sense of who might want to joke with me about the VMAs and who doesn’t own a TV.

As we know, work friends are vital to an employee’s happiness and productivity. But how do I make those friends when my only contact is twice-weekly conference calls and a few daily emails? It’s hard to have that water-cooler banter with no water cooler. Yesterday I tried to slip in a joke on a conference call–about the Octomom! Everyone loves laughing at her antics!–and it was met with complete silence. So I’ll go about my business, getting my work done, accepting assignments as they come with as best cheer as I know how. But I just hate that I haven’t mastered how to turn these remote coworkers into buddies. Book two?

Help! Any advice for how to buddy up to my new long-distance coworkers? Have you ever found yourself in this situation? It really goes to show that despite Facebook, Twitter, etc., face-to-face contact is invaluable. We should give it some more credit.


Filed under The Search

6 responses to “The Telecommuter’s Lament

  1. I’ve worked as a writer for a website since November. But, I have still never met or talked on the phone with my boss or any of the other writers. They keep giving me assignments and bigger tasks to do so I assume they like me. But to never have spoken to anyone? To me, that’s insane. With my fellow writers on the site – through twitter and facebook and resharing and retweeting – we’ve actually started getting to know one another. And that’s been nice. Promoting the work of others often gets them to promote you as well. And it brings about conversation, even if it’s just in 140 character blurbs.

    I’m a pretty straight to business girl in emails. However, when someone I work with throws in a joke or a smiley face, I know that I can loosen up a bit with them. I’m normally not the first person to throw out a ๐Ÿ™‚ but I’ll definitely reciprocate. That can often start longer more easy going conversations.

    • When I started with my current company I worked a lot with a person in New York while I was in Utah. She was 30 years older than me, had been with the company for 10 years and was an incredibly diligent worker. When email and phone calls weren’t cutting it for asking each other quick questions we started to use MSN messenger to chat and our world changed. Using that less formal setting to communicate allowed us to form a true friendship. We found out how much we had in common, books, beliefs, struggles and she quickly became my closest friend at work. We didn’t meet in person for five years and when we finally did, it was more like seeing an old friend again than meeting her for the first time. I love messenger for that, it’s quicker and easier than email and thus less formal, easier to make the jokes than email or ask if she’s seen that latest episode of Biggest Loser.

  2. This actually feels good, in a non-mean way. For the first time I can give you some experience-based input ๐Ÿ™‚ I worked for more than a year with a team that was split between two continents and learn’t quite a bit.
    First, you are absolutely right, nothing beats face-to-face, however, we need to work with what we have. So here’s my two-pence.
    In place of building a work relationship through getting a coffee together or sharing lunch, you can do stuff like:
    1. Offer to time a call based on their schedule (if you have time-zone difference)
    2. If the person is junior and new to the job, send across previous examples of work (within confidentiality constraints) to help them out, so they have a place to start
    3. Send across a card or token present (if appropriate) when they share some good news
    4. Even share pictures that your colleagues would normally find on your desk in the course of a non-official conversation
    These are just suggestions, but they worked for me.
    I doubt these colleagues can ever become true office buddies, but you can definitely create a warm working relationship.

    On a different note, you have once again given me the courage to break my boundaries and I have made a successful; attempt at using the online world to grow my social circle. Check it out and tell me you are proud of your protege (I mean me ๐Ÿ™‚ ).

  3. Karen A.

    Ah, this one is the topic of extensive research and investment. Much as we all acknowledge that face to face works best on so many levels, the economics of our world define face to face work as a “luxury” in many cases. The instant message option is really important.

    Don’t feel badly about the joke during the conference call. I find two things are happening during the calls: 1. People mute their lines and 2. People don’t really listen, Business content is repeated and fed back to ensure clarity of receipt, the one liner’s slip by and then they can’t ask for a “replay”.

  4. I’d like to weigh in here as my husband has made some his most dear friends through work, over the internet. As a game developer based in Australia he exclusively telecommuted for work from 2000-2009. He managed to develop some amazing friendships though never having met the people he worked with and for. But now we live in the USA and he hit the ground running friendship wise because he knew so many people online. If you stop viewing online life as a separate thing from real life then it becomes easier to build friendships and rapport. Yeah it’s a little clunky but I think that you end up corresponding more as a telecommuter. It may take a little longer and it may be a little different but it certainly has it’s benefits, particularly for those who would usually be excluded from particular lines of work just because of where they live.
    I’d try online chatting on FB or Skypeing on lunch break if you feel like you’d get along with a particular person or want to build rapport with them outside a worky-work. Or better yet, start a work group irc channel ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. I missed the octo-mom joke and I sympathize. I feel like that happens to me all the time. But since I can’t see them, I assume they are laughing…on the inside.

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