In the movie “Cast Away” Tom Hanks becomes so lonely he starts talking to a volleyball.  Many remote workers relate to that feeling of isolation. They face challenges communicating effectively with headquarters, maintaining a tie to company culture, and getting feedback on ideas.

While working remotely in San Luis Obispo for several years I’ve faced similar obstacles and managed to keep myself from chatting with inanimate objects.  Here are three tips I’ve come up with for becoming a successful remote employee:

1. Dial up your phone skills:  One reality of working remotely is being “the guy on the phone.” People forget you are present unless you assert yourself.  Without the benefit of reading people’s body language it’s hard to know the best time to interject.  Here are a few lessons learned:

  • Listen First: An unintended benefit of attending most meetings over the phone; I’m way more inclined to listen to what people are saying, make notes, and follow up with them 1:1.   
  • Chose your spots: Don’t try to break into the flow of conversation whenever you have something meaningful to contribute.  An interrupting voice on the phone annoys the live attendees in the room.  Instead, write down your best thoughts and wait for a natural break in the flow of the conversation.  When you break in, lay out all your feedback in a single thread and solicit questions.  As a rule of thumb you can only “own” one or two moments in any call, so make them count!
  • Identify yourself: when you do break in, always identify yourself as the speaker.  It’s hard for people in the room to identify your voice.
  • Lead by Example: If you are running the meeting, encourage people to dial in rather than grab a conference room.  People don’t realize that meeting live is a major productivity drain.  Think about all the time wasted walking to/from the conference room, waiting for squatters, indulging in small talk, etc.  Show co-workers that a well-run conference call can be a productivity gain when done correctly.  Meetings that I run start and end on time, have a clear agenda, and allocate time for participants to give feedback and ask questions (without letting them monologue).  I end by recounting deliverables and follow up on email so everyone clearly understands what actions they own.

2. Leverage an enterprise social network: Many great ideas and innovations happen in the “seams” of the work day; side conversations before and after meetings, chats in the kitchen, lunches, drinks, and any other time you bump into colleagues.  When you work remotely you lose that interaction and you need a way to make up for the loss.  Enterprise social networks like Salesforce Chatter give you the opportunity to re-create that collaboration.  With Chatter, I can participate in an ongoing company dialogue taking place every day in the company feed.  For example, I get feedback on ideas, post interesting articles and comment on co-workers posts.  I make an effort to contribute at least one good post daily on Chatter injecting me into the daily consciousness of my co-workers without being physically present.

3. Visit HQ often and get your “face in the place”: You can be a social networking guru with the best phone skills in the world but nothing can replace a smile, handshake and eye contact.  I travel to San Francisco once a month minimum.  You need to re-enforce your virtual presence with your actual personality and humanness.  When I’m in San Francisco I work 12+ hour days.  I pack my calendar with meetings, including a lot of “grab coffee and catch up” 15 minute vignettes.  I plan drinks and dinner every night with key influencers and always meet live with my boss.  Being in the office re-enforces everything that you do virtually; you can’t be a successful remote worker without both.

Being able to work remotely has benefited me tremendously.  The hour per day I save in commute alone translates to thousands of hours gained for time with family and personal interests.  Remote working also helps modern companies accesses unlimited talent pools beyond the 50 mile radius around their corporate headquarters.  When done right, remote working is a win-win for employee and employer.