Communicating to Connect, Inform, and Lead in Virtual Work Environments


Carole Deerin, a manager with Hewlett Packard who works virtually with colleagues around the world, is our guest blogger this week.  Please join us in welcoming Carole and picking up proven communication how-tos on leading and managing a widely distributed workforce.  

Out of sight, out of mind –This is something you definitely don’t want when you work in a company where many people are working virtually.

While not an expert, I pride myself on managing through an extensive career in a corporate environment, being part of an acquired organization and quickly establishing myself as a manager who can lead through change.  I want my manager to know that I’m here contributing every day.   It is just as important that my employees know I hear them and am available for them so they can perform their jobs successfully.   A good communications plan that I follow consistently enables me to engage up, down, and across with colleagues.

CommunicateHere are some key business communications practices that work well for me and help me meet my goals year after year.

First:  Listen

When I start working with someone new (an employee, a peer, a new boss), I really want to listen.   It’s so important to understand the individual, their priorities, and how they best need to/want to communicate.  When you’re communicating virtually (by phone or email or instant messaging), it’s especially important to pay close attention and use good listening tools, such as paraphrasing or by asking clarifying questions, to make sure you understand what you’re hearing.

Second:  In a remote environment where you don’t see your counterparts, employees or boss everyday – Over-communicate

Because you don’t have water cooler encounters and can’t stop by your co-worker’s desk to chat, planned over-communication is important.   I plan routine 1×1 conversations with each of my staff and my boss regularly –to make sure we have dedicated time to share information and work on current open actions.  And adding group meetings or conversations helps the group or team work more effectively as we/they share ideas.  Keeping everyone informed of updates and changes to our work or the company helps them feel included and perform better.

One last tip relative to over-communication is to nurture non-mandatory relationships.  As a virtual employee, it’s natural to communicate with those that you work with daily and from whom you need something or vice versa.  But it’s also vital to maintain regular contact with peers or mentors via planned networking, whether it’s by phone or email.   I find this helps me tap into information that may not come to me formally – and which helps me be a better employee and manager.

A Third good practice:  Vary Communications

Mix-it-up.  Group and individual conversations—unlike face-to-face (f2f) discussions where you can benefit from reading body language—are harder to do by phone.  In a group forum, make sure you invite everyone to speak, provide input, or meet individually as some may speak more easily in what feels like a less threatening environment.

Another mix-it-up tip is to vary written and verbal communications.  While emails can convey information quickly to a broad audience, they don’t guarantee that the recipients read or understand the message.  A follow up verbal conversation might be wise in some situations.

Also, when dealing with a sensitive topic or potential conflict, a phone call versus an email might be the best approach to make sure all parties can connect, hear and understand—thus best working to a solution.   You definitely want to avoid an “email battle” that could slow  things down and harden positions; getting clarity via a simple phone call often leads to a faster, better outcome.

It’s also best practice to consider different communication tools.  Sometimes when I want to make a point to my manager, presenting the information in a PowerPoint helps get the story—a picture is worth a thousand words—across more quickly.   And if the communication needs to be right now—maybe use an Instant Communicator tool for a quick/easy response.  And tools such as Skype that allow you to see each other are great to connect more fully during conversations.

The Fourth tip:  Understand that people have different communication needs

Communication styles and needs vary from individual to individual.  Some people like to hear/provide updates as the information is available.  Others prefer to work alone and then summarize collective information at a later time.

And just like learning styles, some people benefit from reading or studying information, while others better understand a message when it’s explained verbally to them.  Some of us think quickly on our feet while others need to absorb and analyze before understanding and/or responding.   Circling back to my initial point about listening, this is where you can start to understand individual styles so you can adjust your messages for each person so they might best understand.

Ultimately all of us working virtually want to avoid this outcome—If it can’t be seen, it’s easier to forget.   But if you plan for communication, mix it up as appropriate, and make yourself accessible, your “door will always be open” to your employees, to your customers, and to your management.  That way you have a forum, whether it’s to share positive information or have a more difficult conversation.  In any business environment (and actually in your personal life), conscious planning of how you want to communicate with and to/from others makes the connection work more effectively.

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CaroleCarole Deerin is a Manager within Americas Sales Operations with Hewlett Packard.  Her 30 year career started with Digital Equipment Corporation, which later was acquired by Compaq, which ultimately merged with Hewlett Packard.  Her experience in managing and leading employees through these acquisitions while working for a global organization with daily contacts with counterparts around the world has enabled her to build best practice communication and leadership skills. Additionally, she and her husband John raised two sons (now adults).  Carole can be reached via LinkedIn.


1 reply
  1. Lyn Boyer
    Lyn Boyer says:

    Thank you very much for sharing your expertise on leading from a distance. As more of us work this way, it is important to think how that is different from other kinds of leadership. I appreciate that you focused on communication. That is essential. I believe leading in virtual environments also involves trust, a clear understanding of vision and mission and staying organized so that the “out of sight” issue does not get “out of hand.” I hope you will return to Women’s Learning Studio and post often.

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