Working remotely certainly has its benefits. Besides saving time and money on the commute, it also minimizes interruptions so you can concentrate on your work. Most tech geeks love to focus on solving problems — so much so that they can do it for many hours at a time without even speaking to anyone else. In fact, they may even prefer the company of computers over that of other people. Yet, one of the most important factors of remote IT consulting success is communicating effectively with our fellow human components. That's true even when you're on site, but when you're telecommuting, it becomes even more important to get it right — yet easier to neglect.
Here are five aspects of remote communication that deserve your attention:
As soon as you run into an issue that requires input or a decision, you need to let your client know. If they decide to shelve their response, that's their decision — but you don't want to introduce delays by not letting them know about it as soon as you do. Likewise, if your client requests your input, you need to respond that same day — even if it's just to say that you need more time to think about it. Leaving your client hanging is a sure way to make them wonder if you're even there at all.
Even if there are no emergencies (and the last time that happened to me was... um...), it's good to maintain regular communication (on an active project, this means daily contact). I tend to keep my head down on a problem until well after the end of the day (which is a good habit), then come back the next day and keep working on it without sending a status to my client (which is a bad habit). Meanwhile, the client is on the other end of the dial tone wondering what's going on. I have to make a conscious effort to at least send a "Here's what I got done today" e-mail just so they know I haven't been playing hooky.
As I've mentioned before, e-mail seems to work well for most of my client communication. It's delivered relatively quickly and fairly reliably, without causing an interruption. However, it's not without its drawbacks. One disadvantage of using e-mail is common to all written forms of communication: It doesn't easily indicate tone of voice, facial expressions, or other non-verbal cues. It's up to the recipient to imagine all of that subtext. Ancient Hebrew was written without vowels, and sometimes those missing vowels affected the meaning significantly. Modern written communication has overcome that problem (even modern Hebrew), but it still leaves out much of what goes on in face-to-face dialogue. So, an occasional on-site visit and regular telephone conversations can go a long way towards building your relationship with your client. Just make sure that neither one becomes the default, interrupt-driven mode of delivering information.
What does transparency mean? You often hear this word chanted around like some mantra of corporate culture until it ends up doing the exact opposite of what it promotes: obscuring rather than revealing. It means being honest — but even more than that. It means making it perfectly clear (ha) what's going on and what's planned: current status, perceived risks, mistakes made, and unknowns. It requires that you have enough faith in yourself that you don't need to hide anything from your client, or even try to color it to your advantage. If you're consistent about being transparent, your client will learn to trust you implicitly. If you're ever caught cheating though, you'll never regain that trust.
Computers will never replace humans until they learn to become human themselves, or until they have no further need for us. A remote consultant can sometimes become a less than human quantity in the eyes of their client, especially if their only communication is text-based status updates. If you talk to your client mostly by e-mail, work to become a good writer. Keep your technical content concise and to the point — you don't want to be sued for making their heads slam on their desks. Mix in some humor, so they actually look forward to reading what you have to say. Include the occasional personal detail, but don't get too graphic about that condition you had treated. In short, be the kind of person in writing that your client is glad to know as a person. It will strengthen your relationship and ease any difficulties you may face together.
I'm sure you thought of other considerations while reading this list — what are they? Please share them in the article discussion.
Related TechRepublic resources
- Can telecommuting work?
- The disconnected project
- 10 ways to convince your boss to let you work from home
- 10 signs that you aren't cut out to be a telecommuter
Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant blog, he also contributes to [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News and his two personal blogs, Chip's Quips and Chip's Tips for Developers.