How to Make Professional Connections When You Work Remotely and Don’t Have Colleagues

Photo by Helena Lopes from Pexels

A little while ago I wrote an article to help remote workers network inside their places of employment. I stand by that advice (it’s what I do in my own work life) but that advice comes with a set of assumptions.

First, it assumes that you have coworkers. If you write, freelance or consult, you may only have clients. Second, I focus on connecting within your company. If you plan to work remotely for any length of time, it makes sense to connect to the greater remote community.

This article discusses resources to do just that. The remote community is large and growing. This is not an exhaustive list–these are the places I frequent because they fit my personality. We’ll also discuss some ways to find communities that fit your particular style.

Remote Communities I Think Are Great

These aren’t affiliate links. I’m not compensated in any way for mentioning these groups. I just like them a lot.

Workplaceless

Workplaceless offers training for remote workers, leaders, and companies. They also run a free monthly networking event. I found out about them in June. They’re well put together, last 60 minutes, and run in Zoom. The Workplaceless folks do a great job of organizing the event so strangers can get together and discuss a remote-centric topic without a lot of awkward silence.

June’s topic touched on the physical and mental health issues of remote workers. We spent 30-40 minutes talking about the topic in small groups of 4-6 people. Then we broke into different groups and had an informal networking session for roughly 20 minutes. In July we followed the same format. Only this time, we brainstormed solutions to the issues we discussed in June. The next event is in September and I am definitely going.

#RemoteChat

This is a discussion that Scott Dawson (@workingrem on Twitter) leads on Twitter on Wednesdays. I really enjoy these chats though you would never know it by how often I manage to answer the questions during the actual session. I’m usually the person who starts writing five minutes before the whole thing ends and forgets to add the #remotechat label to my answers half the time. It’s good fun though. I love reading everyone else’s comments. Someday I’ll get my act together and ask Scott to add me to the reminder list. He also wrote a book that just came out called ‘The Art of Working Remotely.’

Virtual Team Talk

Lisette Sutherland runs this Slack group. The link above leads you to a form where you can apply to join. Lisette describes this as a ‘friction-free’ community to discuss topics related to virtual teams. It’s a good place to find out what other folks are doing in the flexible work space. I’ve helped people with their research and they’ve helped me with mine. The group discussion cadence is pretty relaxed. If you hit a busy period and forget to check in for a week or two it doesn’t take long to get caught up again. We all need those drama-free zones. This one is mine.

Remote AfterWorks

I haven’t actually attended one of these yet, but Laurel Farrer described them to me and it’s my intent to attend one. It’s an in-person meet up of remote workers and thought leaders to discuss the future of location-flexible work. If you go to the link above you can see what the folks in San Francisco will be talking about. It all sounds terribly interesting. If you’re in the SF area, go and then tell me how you liked it.

Ways to Find Remote Work Communities

Everyone is different, and you might decide that the groups I’ve listed above aren’t for you. Each group has it’s own personality and you’ll know when you find your tribe. I thought it might be useful to describe how I found mine so you can find yours.

Cast Your Net Wide

There’s an expression that says ‘the harder I work, the luckier I get.’ I find most of my connections by leading with curiosity. Most of us have a preferred way to learn. I like to read things, so I spent a lot of time reading books and articles about remote work.

If you like to listen to learn, do a search for remote work podcasts. I took a look on my iPhone’s podcast app and on Spotify, and the search term ‘remote work’ gave me lots of results. My favorite is 21st Century Work Life, but you do you.

If you want to add face to face interactions into your remote work life, search for meet ups near you. You can use sites like meetup.com, or join a local coworking space. Many of them have mixers or happy hours for their members.

Engage Often

Once you find people whose work you like, find them on social media. And then start commenting on their posts. Those of us who create content and source articles would love to hear what you think of them. Speaking for myself, I love it when people share their thoughts if they’re phrased politely. Just remember to keep the comments relevant to the content. I wish it went without saying, but responding to someone’s work with ‘hey I think you’re cute and would love to get to know you better’ isn’t a compliment. It’s creepy. And ‘good job!’ is patronizing.

Instead, find a specific piece of the creative work that you liked, and tell the person why it resonated with you. If the work makes you think of something else that’s relevant, share that. If you learned something new, say so. If you have additional questions after reading/listening/ watching, ask them. If someone just won an award, congratulate them.

Social media gives you many ways to meet people and build professional connections if you’re a reasonable human being. The big name celebrities may never respond to your comments. Plenty of other folks will. The remote work community is full of smart, generous people. I feel very lucky to know some of them.

Making connections outside your office of one can seem intimidating. It doesn’t have to be. Take the time to engage in the remote work conversation. You will find your tribe. All it takes is a little curiosity mixed with persistence. And if you find a great place to meet other remote workers, let me know. I’d love to share in the fun.

Are In Person Retreats Necessary for Remote Workers?

In person retreats aren’t magic bullets. But they do give you a chance to see the personal dynamics that play out within and across teams.

Photo by Rebrand Cities

I finally got around to unpacking my suitcase from my last business trip. The presents for the kids came out right away. The rest of the stuff sat in the suitcase for a week while I picked up the pieces of my work/home life and tried to catch up.

I’m convinced that Newton came up with his first law of motion (objects at rest tend to stay at rest) because he was procrastinating about unpacking his suitcase. The inertia on that suitcase was high, let me tell you. However, I managed to break out of it on Saturday after breakfast. In the quiet that comes from the gentle tedium of putting things away, I couldn’t help but wonder if my work retreat was really necessary.

I loved it, I enjoyed it, and as an employee I want to go every year, forever. But was it necessary? At Kaplan, I decide when it makes sense to run a class or cancel it. This isn’t a straightforward task with check boxes. Instead I use a framework to make decisions. Deciding to hold a company retreat is also complicated, and it makes sense to develop a framework for deciding when to hold an in person retreat and when to design a remote retreat. Here are some non financial factors to consider.

Is Your Company New to Remote?

In the Fall of 2010 Kaplan transformed from a company with full time staff working in centers into a company whose staff worked from home. While we were motivated to succeed, most of us lacked prior experience working remotely. We really needed the annual retreat we went to that summer. Over the course of 3 days we built relationships with our colleagues in the way we were used to. Those face to face meetings built goodwill. That goodwill carried us while we learned the skills we needed to succeed in our new working medium.

If your company recently went remote, or employs people new to remote work, consider bringing your people together. Your employees are likely hungry for face to face human interaction with their colleagues. Hosting an in person event is the relationship equivalent of feeding cheese to a starving person. It’s a stimulus rich experience and will leave your employees more satisfied with both the company and their colleagues. Veteran remote workers like retreats too, but just as babies need to eat more often, remote newbies need to meet more often.

Does Work Get Done Efficiently?

You can look at this question in multiple ways. Does information flow freely within and between departments? Are colleagues willing to lend a hand to meet company goals? Are people getting promoted from a variety of departments, or is it always the same half dozen players? How high is your employee churn rate?

It is nearly impossible to build an innovative, disruptive company if teams silo information. It’s hard to stay agile if the next generation of thought leaders feels invisible, because you’ll spend a significant amount of time training their replacements when they leave.

Use Retreats to Resolve Interpersonal Issues

In person retreats aren’t magic bullets. But they do give you a chance to audit the personal dynamics that play out within and across teams. It’s just as important to notice the teams that sit together and ignore everyone else as it is to notice which teams never sit together. If you already know that there’s a problem between certain departments or people, use the event as the first step in an intervention.

Some interpersonal problems can be resolved simply by making people spend time with each other. It’s hard to continue thinking that Joe from sales is an idiot, for example, if you have a conversation about his four step process for overcoming customer resistance.

Realistically, not all interpersonal issues will go away just because you bring colleagues together. You may, in fact, decide that Joe is still an idiot. But if people know they have to talk to each other face to face on a regular basis, it does tend to keep things more civil.

I’ve seen this affect both inside and outside of work. I live in a neighborhood where people attend the same community barques, where children go to the same schools, and where you are very likely to see your neighbor at the community laundromat. We have occasional blowups on the neighborhood Facebook group, but we don’t have internet trolls. It’s hard to behave too badly when you know you’ll have to deal with the person you’re yelling at later.

Use Retreats to Assess Your Future Leaders

If you think your company lacks a deep well of talent to draw from, spend time with your line staff. You may discover that you have plenty of talent–the problem is that your all-stars lack visibility.

There are a couple of ways to use an in-person event to assess your bench. You could hold a couple of round table discussions with people your management team label high-potential. If you can’t meet with everyone, you can also do this more organically by sitting with different groups of people during mealtime, and engaging in conversation.

Incidentally, most employees know they should say something intelligent to impress the boss. Not everyone can come up with something witty before the first coffee of the day. If you’re a leader and you choose to sit with people who are lower in the power structure than you, it’s your job to set the tone and put them at ease. You’ll get a more accurate impression of someone if you don’t spook them.

In-person retreats are a great way to get a feel for your remote employees, and to course correct where needed. That’s not to say that in-person retreats are only for companies that need an intervention. High-performing remote teams benefit from getting together. Incidental conversations at dinner can lead to an innovative product down the line. But if you’re on the fence about whether the benefits of a retreat are worth the expense, you might use the state of your interpersonal dynamics to make your decision.

How Much Time Do You Have to Rededicate People to the Company Mission?

Think of company retreats through the metaphor of food. Remote events are like fruits and vegetables. With planning and skill, you can turn them into tasty interludes that feed your employees’ need for human interaction. Like fruits and vegetables, you need a steady stream of them on a regular basis to keep the company juices flowing.

In-person events are like steak and cheese (or peanut butter for my vegan friends)–you need fewer steaks than carrots to hit your calories for the day. Was it a rough year? Are you pivoting? Did you empty the company well of goodwill? An in-person event can fill the well up again very quickly. If the prevailing company culture is competitive and demanding, then in-person retreats can be one way to keep things on the right side of the functional/dysfunctional line.

Does Everyone Need to Go?

I work for a large company. So large, that we stopped holding company-wide gatherings around 2014. Instead, different groups gather together on an as-needed basis. If you can’t swing an all-hands retreat, maybe certain departments should get together. If you’re worried about creating hard feelings, plan a separate remote program for the employees who don’t get to go. In some instances it may make sense to hold an annual meet up and rotate who meets up.

It didn’t take very long to unpack my suitcase from my business trip. I like to travel lightly (with plenty of room for presents for the kids). But I’ll feel the benefits of this work trip for months to come. While I am a veteran employee, I am new to this particular team. Meeting together with my new-to-me colleagues has already made my remote day to day duties easier and more pleasant.

Do remote employees need in person retreats? This one did. Yours may too. Keep this framework in mind as you decide whether the benefits are worth the expense. By thinking through your answers to these questions you can come up with a meeting cadence–in person and remote–that makes sense for your particular situation.

On the Road Again

On my last flight I started catching up on all the super hero movies leading up to End Game. At this rate I’ll be able to watch End Game by 2053.

I’m flying out early Thursday morning to speak at the University of North Carolina about remote work. The two talks use some material from my book, mixed with my personal experience as a remote manager and employee. I’m honored to speak about how to survive and thrive as a remote manager and employee. I’m also looking forward to networking with colleagues I met during my MBA program. I’ll be jet lagged but it’s going to be totally worth it. Chapel Hill is a lovely place.

Not Everyone Wants to be a Digital Nomad

Even though I can work from anywhere with wifi, I usually work inside my home. I like my home office. As someone said on Twitter the other day, when people say they want to travel and work, they usually mean a few trips a year. I am definitely in that category. The last time I had to travel for work was 2014. Flying out of country twice in the space of two weeks is a refreshing change of pace–but I’m glad it isn’t my lifestyle.

The Kids Don’t Like my Work Trips

My son informed me that I ‘have too many trips,’ and the comment made me feel both guilty and grateful. Guilty because I am really looking forward to mixing and mingling without having to worry about cooking dinner or getting people off to school. Grateful because my son has no idea how much more of me he sees because I work from home. I like that my children can take my presence for granted.

Sometimes I take a break from work so my kids can stage a ‘spy kids’ photo shoot. My son says he looks ‘like that guy from Mission Impossible.’

I also like that while I can work while traveling, I don’t have to. I could complete my analyst duties while waiting in the airport, or late at night after the UNC event, but I won’t. It’s unplug time. In between my talks and the seminars I’ll attend, I plan to catch up on my New York Times subscription, knit, and perhaps write the start of the next book that is churning in my back brain. All these things are possible because I work for a company with a great vacation policy.

Or maybe I won’t do any of that. Maybe I’ll be too busy connecting in person with the people and the place I haven’t seen since 2014. I’m going to keep the next few days wide open for serendipity. I’m sure there will be plenty to tell you when I get back.

How to Get Ready for an In-Person Work Conference When You Work Remotely

When you work from home, getting ready for an in-person event can seem like a hassle. Keep these 3 things in mind as you get ready.

Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

I’m headed to New York in a few short weeks to attend a work event. Throughout the years, I’ve discovered that there are some remote-specific things to keep in mind if you rarely attend in-person events.

Go Into the Meeting With a Good Attitude

There are two primary schools of thought out there about in-person meetings. The first says that in-person meetings are mandatory if you want your remote employees to work well together. The second school of thought is that in-person meetings are unnecessary. Everything you could do in an in-person meeting you can do online. Like most things, these points of view are probably true for some people. Neither is 100% true for me.

Most days I love working from home. There is something so delightfully self-indulgent about getting to work in the quiet of my office of one. As I write this, I can hear the rushing of the wind outside, the hum of the occasional car as it goes by, and the clicking of the keyboard as I type. I need this silence regularly if I want my brain to produce stories.

I also really like seeing people in person. I can (and do) make time to connect with my colleagues throughout my work week. I have several coworkers that I consider friends even though we work in different time zones. And yet it’s often easier and quicker for me to forge those initial human connections in person.

I will suggest (with no data to back this one up) that most successful remote workers do best when they have the occasional out-of-computer work interaction. You may not feel the need to see people in person, but your coworkers may need to see you in person in order to get along with you. If you have a chance to meet your colleagues for a coffee or a workshop in person, see it for the opportunity it is. Personally, I’ve made a mental list of people I want to talk to during the conference, and I’m excited to chat with them.

Check Your Work Clothes

Very shortly after getting excited about my trip, I realized that I have no idea what people wear to work these days. The dress code at Douglas HQ is a button down shirt with a pair of old jeans and knitted socks. And while my knitted sock game is truly righteous, I suspect that I’m going to need foot ware that covers up the awesome.

I asked the internet ‘what is business casual,’ and Wikipedia said “Business casual is an ambiguously defined dress code…it entails neat yet casual attire and is generally more casual than informal (sic) attire but more formal than casual or smart casual attire,” which didn’t really help.

Other sites confirmed that a button down shirt and slacks are still fine, but how much can you trust sites that say silly things like ‘you must wear a belt’ or ‘no knitted tops?’ Does anyone else find it funny that we can get a robot to Mars but we can’t define a work style that has been around for a generation?

As far as I can see, business casual means whatever your company says it is. If you’re going to an in-person work event, you might want to check your employee handbook to see if it has any guidelines. You may also want to take a moment and think about how conservative your company culture is. And finally, take an honest look at how worn out your work clothes are. I already knew I needed to buy slacks. A search through my work tops revealed that I needed some help there, too.

Put a Face to the Name

There is nothing more awkward than showing up at a work event where people excitedly greet you…and you have no idea who they are. Ask me how I know. When you work remotely, most conversations take place via email and instant messenger. While some of these platforms give you an option to upload a picture, not all of them do. Add jet lag into the mix, and it can be very hard to remember what some of your favorite colleagues look like.

On behalf of remote employees everywhere, I ask that you please take a moment to upload a picture of yourself into your email and instant messaging platform. And please make it a recent one. My own personal rule is that I need to change my photo every 2 years. You can take a flattering picture of yourself using your smart phone. Put on a work top, stand against a wall, raise the camera slightly above eye level, and take your shot. Adding a photo gives you the moral high ground to suggest that everyone on your team do the same thing.

If you are planning a work event, ask the participants to provide a photo of themselves, and share them with the group. I work for an educational company, and the event organizer created a set of flashcards–one side has the picture, the other has the name. I absolutely love them. A quick internet search yielded several sites like this one, that lets you make your own custom flash cards if you love this idea too.

I’ll be using my flashcards every day in the two weeks leading up to the event. I might still blank out if someone greets me from across the room, but at least now I have a fighting chance.

In person events can seem like a hassle if you only work from home. For instance, you might have to buy work clothes and put on shoes. However, approach the event as an opportunity to strengthen your working relationships for years to come. If you look at it that way, it’s easier to see how the benefits in such a trip can outweigh the inconvenience. Plus you might get some nice work shirts out of the deal.