Remote Management
April 20, 2012 8:33 AM   Subscribe

How do I win friends and influence people when I don't know what they look like? My new job requires me to manage client projects remotely. Most of my time with clients is spent either in conference calls, one-on-one phone calls, or communicating through email and Basecamp. I usually have no idea what these people look like. As a project manager I need to keep the client moving towards the finish line by making decisions quickly and getting things done on time. My question is two fold: 1) How do I motivate and influence a team that works for another organization?, and 2) How do I best do this being remote? I am looking for techniques and tools that will help me be an effective, remote, 3rd party project manager. If it matters I work for a Software as a Service company. My clients are implementing our software on their websites. The client may or may not have a dedicated project manager. Help me drive things forward!
posted by jasondigitized to Work & Money (13 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I just finished a book last night about this very topic: How To Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age by the Dale Carnegie Group. I will be returning it to the Faulk Central Library downtown today. It will answer all your questions.

By the way, welcome to Austin and congrats on the new job!
posted by xenophile at 8:40 AM on April 20, 2012

I understand the "what they look like" comment. It is hard to develop a rapport with people you have never met face to face. And, in the context of a business, managing people who do not report to you is made doubly hard when you have not established that rapport. To the OP: can you set up video chats via Skype or some other software with these people? It may not be the same as meeting in the flesh but it's better than nothing. Failing that, establish regular phone conversations with these people.
posted by dfriedman at 8:40 AM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm confused. Do you actually care what they look like, or is that just a throwaway? I'm a lawyer, and I spend much of my time coordinating other lawyers, staff at client companies, accountants, etc. In all the time I've been a lawyer, I've met, I think fewer than ten individuals in person, and the vast majority (hundreds of people over the years) I have no idea what they even look like/sound like. Virtually everything I do is over email, with some phone calls periodically.

You get respect by doing your job well, giving clear instructions, establishing defined expectations, providing adequate advance notice, and being contrite if you have to spring something on someone unexpectedly. Don't bad mouth anyone, and be very judicious with jokes, as people can easily take things the wrong way when you're communicating on email/by phone, and body language/expression/tone is not conveyed.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:40 AM on April 20, 2012

There are lots of books and other resources that can help you. The search term you want is "Virtual Teams". Here's a good start.
posted by batmonkey at 8:51 AM on April 20, 2012

OP, if we removed the first and fourth sentences of your question, would you say your question still accurately conveys the areas in which you need help? I'm also having trouble understanding how your clients' appearances matters.
posted by Specklet at 9:32 AM on April 20, 2012

Response by poster: Please don't get hung up on the 'What they look like'. All I was implying is that I have never met them face-to-face and therefore aren't getting any of the visual clues that usually helps me read people. I think it is fair to say that meeting someone face-to-face is clearly the best form of interpersonal communication there is. It's does not matter to me what they look like.
posted by jasondigitized at 9:38 AM on April 20, 2012

Best answer: I work with clients remotely and I totally get where you're coming from with the "don't even know what they look like" comment. It's hard to build a rapport and a relationship with a faceless entity, even harder to get them to go out of their way for you when they don't know what you look like.

THe main principles I've found to make remote working relationships work are twofold: give them some personality, and over-communicate to avoid misunderstandings. Here are some things that I've found help:

1. Take extra time to make sure that ever written communication you send is very clear. Use short sentences, frequent paragraph breaks, and numbered lists or bullet points wherever possible. Try also to avoid sending long emails with many different to-dos, and for heavens' sake, those horrible nested email trails with comments on comments in the text in different colors...everybody looks for reasons to avoid reading those.

2. Check your spelling! Also, use standard grammar and punctuation, and avoid text-message abbreviations. I may be an old fuddy-duddy, but I think that taking the time to type the extra 2 letters in a proper "you" communicates a certain level of respect and consideration for your recipient.

3. Despite the above, I am actually a big fan of emoticons and exclamation points to add a bit of warmth to written communications. I think always writing a proper salutation and closing helps with this, as well as wishing people a good weekend, happy holiday, whatever appropriate personal flourish.

4. On conference calls, always send an agenda beforehand, and a list of agreed-to next steps afterwards. People are probably multi-tasking through the call, so assume they will remember nothing. Also, does the call really have to be longer than a half hour?

5. Do, definitely, take the time to pick up the phone and talk to your most important contacts one-on-one at least 2-3 times a week. Try to make these calls more personal - if nothing else, you can always start a conversation by asking about the weather, the local sports team, plans for an upcoming weekend or holiday, etc. Joe is anonymous, Joe with two kids who likes to go fishing and roots for the Phillies is starting to become a real person.

6. This goes both ways. Try to share a few personal details about yourself - kids, hobbies, favorite food - anything that can help your recipients develop a good mental picture of you.

7. Instant message is great for very brief exchanges, but for anything longer, pick up the phone! It's just more personal and less likely to be misunderstood.

8. It's not creepy to look for your contacts on LinkedIn or Google them online to learn a bit more about who they are and where they come from. Make sure as well that your LinkedIn profile is reasonably detailed and contains a clear, recognizable picture.

Hope these help!
posted by psycheslamp at 9:41 AM on April 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Let me be as clear as possible: "How do I manage a remote team that works for another organization".
posted by jasondigitized at 9:42 AM on April 20, 2012

Most virtual team materials and coaches cover that very scenario.

In fact, most of the tactics suggested by psycheslamp (great name!) are core VT practices.
posted by batmonkey at 9:50 AM on April 20, 2012

Best answer: In the past ten years or so I've worked almost exclusively with people I've never met face to face.

I think it is fair to say that meeting someone face-to-face is clearly the best form of interpersonal communication there is.

It probably goes without saying that I pretty much entirely disagree with this, at least in work situations; lots of people (especially software developers) are vastly better at communicating clearly and effectively in text than in person. (But then I'm the sort of person who whether in person or not would usually prefer skip past the chitchat about the weather and get on with the reason we set up the meeting in the first place.) The best form of "rapport" is someone who answers my questions promptly and whose questions and instructions to me make clear that they are paying attention to what I'm doing. This is true for me as a remote worker, and was just as true for me when I worked in a cubicle.

Videochats are annoying to set up and kind of pointless; I've rarely had one that didn't boil down to "hey wow we're having a video chat oh wait the audio has cut out or gone out of synch or there is some other technical problem we can spend the whole call fiddling with instead of getting anything useful done". Even when they work properly there is not much advantage over a plain old conference call.

Be clear and responsive in email; that will get you 90% of the way there. If the remote-worker relationships you need to deal with are primarily one-on-one, that plus a regularly-scheduled (and brief!) voice call should be enough. If you're working with larger groups some or all of whom are remote, having an open IRC or IM channel or dedicated message board or the like to facilitate group conversation can sometimes be helpful, but only if the parts of the team that are physically located together actually use it. (Too often they end up doing all their intrateam communication the way they're used to doing it, which leaves the remote workers out of the loop.)
posted by ook at 9:59 AM on April 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

Me-mail me and I'll give you some ideas; I'm working on a book right now about this stuff.
posted by yellowcandy at 10:52 AM on April 20, 2012

Best answer: Welcome to the wonderful world of Matrix Management, all of the responsibility none of the authority.

I did this for years and I built rapport with everyone I interacted with by:

1. Being very respectful of each person's processes and procedures. If they like to receive things in a certain format, do it.

2. Understanding what their workload is like. Chances are you're not their only flaming bag of poo, you should know what each person's workload is, and if they are over-burdened, find out if there's someone else who can substitute, or if you can get an extension on your milestone.

3. Joking around. Most people don't want to deal with someone who has no sense of humor. Once you get to know people, you'll find out what gets them laughing. If they laugh with you, it's much easier to work with each other.

4. If your email is more than a few lines, CALL! It is more expeditious to speak with someone directly than it is to send emails back and forth. Same with IM.

4. Appriciation. Everyone has a job description, sometimes we need people to go above and beyond. If anyone does this for you, even in the smallest way possible, you can't praise them enough, both directly and to their manager.

5. Everyone is a person, with more than just the job on his or her mind. Respond to your co-workers, customers and customer contacts as people, not just cubicle dwellers.

6. Fall on your Sword. Somewhere, somehow, someone will screw the pooch. If it's you, own up and beg for help. It's refreshing when someone actually fesses up to screwing up. If someone on your team screws up, the best phrase I can offer is: "Hey, that's why pencils have erasers. What do we need to do to get this on track?" Don't be the person who thinks everything will go perfectly. It won't.

7. Acknowledge to you whomever you're answering to that it's a Rube Goldberg kind of world, and that their Deadline, Design, Test Date, whatever, relies on every, single thing going just right. If it comes off without a hitch, you look like a genius, if it doesn't, hey, we knew there might be a hiccough.

I have a bazillion friends and contacts that I've never met face-to-face.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:55 PM on April 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

When I engage a new client, I always look them up on LinkedIn and grab a photo to associate with their contact info. This may help.
posted by 4midori at 9:03 AM on April 22, 2012

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