scared remote employee
When your boss calls you unannounced.

As a leader, you know how important communication is to a highly functioning team. As a Long-Distance Leader, you know that you need to communicate even more often, and in different ways, with your remote employees than you do the people in the office.  You might also be frightening them a little.

Our research with teams shows that there are a couple of ways that leaders create (presumably) unintended stress with the people they don’t see every day. Here are just some of the ways you might be making blood pressure rise without meaning to:

The scariest phrase people can hear is: “Do you have a minute?”

Imagine you’re working away on something important, and you get a cryptic instant message from your boss: “Got a minute?” Now, the request might be perfectly innocent, but it’s the equivalent of them sneaking up on you without you looking, or your spouse saying, “We need to talk.” Employees can’t read your body language, or see the excited smile on your face that this is actually good news. They only know that whatever it is, it’s important enough to make you reach out without any notice and drop whatever you’re doing now. A dirty little secret is that many employees assume whatever you are going to tell them is bad news, unless there’s evidence to the contrary. Give them a little heads up about how important, time sensitive, or threatening the potential discussion is. Just adding “it’s not critical, just want to ask you about….” Or “let me know when you have time,” will take some of the fear away.

The words you use can set people on edge before you even start.

Through years of receiving and sending email, people have developed a culture around communication. Certain phrases have developed power. If you receive an email with the subject line “sad news,” it’s not unreasonable to assume it’s about the death of someone you know.  If the sad news you’re sending is that Bob is leaving the team, that’s a little depressing but it’s not like someone actually died. Unless the message you are going to send actually is critical, or potentially upsetting, try to use more neutral terms. “Update” is less ominous than “Announcement,” for example.

Calling out of the blue.

When I was a kid, if the phone rang after ten o’clock at night, it was bad news. You just knew it. Your heart would race, and you’d (in the pre-caller ID days) hold your breath as you picked up. Now that we use our telephones for pretty much everything EXCEPT talking, it seems odd to those of us of a (ahem) certain age, that an unexpected phone call is automatically assumed to be bad news, but it is. If you have to call (and there are plenty of good reasons to), set the person at ease immediately. If you get voicemail (which is the most likely scenario) let the person know the urgency, threat level, or expected response time right off the bat, so that you can get a more reasoned, stress-free reply.

The point here is that you probably aren’t trying to stress out your folks. It’s completely innocent. The problem is that what you intend, and what the other person experiences may not be the same thing. The reasons for this are two-fold:

First, there is an intrinsic power imbalance between you and your team. No matter how egalitarian you try to be, or how down-to-earth, you are the boss. As long as you do the performance reviews and have the power to fire someone (no matter how unlikely that is) there will always be tension in any communication between you and them. It’s important to remember that.

Secondly, unless you have a long history with people, and they know your communication style, any unexpected or cryptic message is going to be interpreted from their standpoint as suspicious. If your team has a history of conversations beginning a certain way, that’s where they’re going to start from, even if it’s not appropriate to this particular communication. I had a boss who used to fire people on Fridays. The word was, if he wanted to take you to lunch on Friday, you were toast. One Friday he asked me to lunch on Friday… I demanded to know why before I said yes. Confused, he said, “Because I’m hungry.” It took some explanation for him to figure out why I looked like I’d seen my own ghost.

Because remote messages are so much less rich, and what is inside the other person’s head takes on bigger importance, it’s important we learn to create and environment where people aren’t afraid or defensive before we even have the conversation.

What are you doing to freak out the people you work with? 



Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.

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