One of the phrases we use a lot around here is, “When working remotely, communication can become transactional.” Seriously, I was on our site and searched for “transactional,” and found over 20 references. And it’s not just a catch phrase. This is a real phenomenon. What’s also true is that a significant number of people follow up with a reasonable question: “Huh? What does that mean?”

Maybe it’s time to define the problem

Much of our day consists of transactions. We do something for, with, or to someone for a specific purpose. Someone asks a question, we answer it. I need information, you tell me where to find it. You owe me a report, there it is, now I’m off to my next task. There’s nothing wrong with all of this; it’s literally what our work requires.

Real communication, though, involves more than simply data transfer. Often it serves multiple purposes. Yes, we are giving someone an answer to a question. But the way we do it can build the relationship, inspire trust, make someone smile, or add value to the interaction.

Why working remotely makes it harder to add value with communication

When we work in the same location as others, and our work is primarily face-to-face, we indulge in richer, more nuanced communication unconsciously. We smile, apologize for an interruption, compliment the picture of the kids that sits on their desk, or get what we need, but stay and chat about other work topics as well.

Compare that to working remotely, where we often don’t get to see the face of the person we’re talking to. We aren’t even talking, since over 2/3 of our work takes place in writing. Sometimes the goal with email or chat is to take as little of the other person’s time as possible, and not indulge in anything that isn’t absolutely useful or productive. While this gets the transaction completed, it doesn’t build the relationship, enhance trust, or make work any more pleasant. You don’t have those “oh by the way” moments that inspire collaboration or save us a followup conversation.

Here are some typical behaviors that suggest you might be ignoring some important conversation for the sake of expediency:

  • You start every conversation with, “I know you’re busy so let’s just get to it…”
  • Your emails or texts are one line long
  • You interact with people all the time but can’t remember the last time you actually heard their voice
  • You just heard their kid turned 7 but the last time you talked about her she was only 5
  • You have been working like a dog but can’t remember the last time you laughed

Investing in other people pays off

None of this means you should waste people’s time or be a hindrance to getting the team’s work done. But it is important to remember that investing in relationships can actually increase the speed at which work gets done.

Whose email gets answered first? The person with a request, or the person you like interacting and want to help? If you have to return phone calls, do you ever start with the people you know you’ll enjoy talking to before going to the person you hardly know?

Work is transactional. That’s why they call it work. But it can be more pleasant while being efficient, if we take the time to connect on a human basis as well as just to get those tasks checked off our lists.

This is part and parcel of being a great remote teammate. Start that journey yourself with this great learning program.


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. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammateoffers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.

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