Sometimes, out of sight really is out of mind for flexible and remote workers, resulting in misunderstandings, unhappiness, and lower productivity.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way. As many managers and workers have found, an emphasis on good communication can ensure that flex arrangements are positive for a business and its employees.

That is clear from the results of a recent study by David Maxfield and Joseph Grenny of leadership training company VitalSmarts. The two authors of the bestsellers “Crucial Conversations” and “Crucial Accountability” based their findings on a survey of 1,400 employees.

Of those respondents, the 45 percent who said they worked remotely also reported that they felt their onsite colleagues did not treat them equally. Specifically:

  • About 67 percent of remote employees said their colleagues didn’t fight for their priorities, compared to 59 percent of onsite workers.
  • A total of 41 percent of remote workers indicated that colleagues said bad things about them behind their backs, compared to 31 percent of onsite employees.
  • When it comes to people making changes to a project without warning their coworkers, 64 percent of remote workers said that was a problem, compared to 58 percent of onsite employees.
  • About 35 percent of remote employees said colleagues lobbied against them with others, compared to 26 percent of in-office workers.

The study also showed that some remote workers struggled to address these kinds of problems when they did arise. As Maxfield noted in an interview with 1MFWF, “Building trust and cohesion virtually follows different rules than in the old days of face-to-face communication.”

However, both Grenny and Maxfield said that problem is one that can be overcome, and the solution starts with managers.

“When managers model stellar communication, the rest of the team follows suit,” Grenny said in a press release about the study. “You can’t overestimate the influence a manager has on his or her team’s ability to engage in dialogue and create a collaborative and healthy culture.”

Maxfield and Grenny asked their survey respondents to describe managers who were especially good at working with remote employees, and they received 853 responses. With that information, they created a list of the top seven things managers need in order to help remote workers.

  1. Frequent and consistent check-ins. The cadence of these checks can vary, but the best managers made sure they were completed routinely. Maxfield said this is the most important of the seven skills. “The frequency of interaction seems to say a lot about how much you value your remote employees.”
  2. Face-to-face or voice-to-voice communication. This includes using videoconferencing for meetings, visiting remote workers occasionally, and also inviting them to spend time in the main office now and then.
  3. Stellar communication skills. To be successful, managers must be “good listeners, communicate trust and respect, inquire about workload and progress without micromanaging, and err on the side of over-communicating,” the press release about the study said.
  4. Explicit expectations. When managers are direct, both onsite and remote employees know what’s happening with projects, roles, and deadlines.
  5. Availability. To be successful, managers should be available quickly and at all times of the day, using multiple means of technology. Remote workers must be able to depend on their managers for a timely response to questions.
  6. Comfort with technology. A successful manager goes beyond phone calls and emails. She also must use videoconferencing, instant messaging, and relevant online options tailored specifically to each employee.
  7. Prioritized relationships. As it says in the press release, good managers will “go out of their way to form personal bonds with remote employees. They use check-in time to ask about their personal life, families, and hobbies.”

That may seem like a lot to tackle, but Maxfield said any manager can learn these best practices if they take the time to try.

“The skills are replicable and relatively simple, but do take practice and effort to master,” he said. “Leaders have the responsibility to learn and exemplify strong communication—it’s just part of the job.”

And remote workers can help, Maxfield said, if they work on developing the same skills. That means they should check in frequently with managers and colleagues; pick up the phone now and then instead of sending email; make sure they’re available when their coworkers need them; and take the time to be a friend and not just a work colleague.

It’s vital that both employees and employers develop these skills, because the push toward more flexibility is only going to increase.

“Companies that don’t offer this type of flexibility will likely begin to lose relevance with the up and coming top talent,” Maxfield said.

“As long as the trend continues, managers will look for ways to engage their workforce to create a healthy and productive team. Those who don’t will be lost in the dust, and those who do will remain competitive. It’s not a matter of if you should learn how to better manage remote teams, it’s a matter of when, and now is the time.”

Do any of the results of this survey surprise you? What would you add to the list of seven vital things managers need to help remote workers? Please share your ideas in the comments section.