Working smoothly with a virtual boss

By Keith Ferrazzi, CEO, Ferrazzi Greenlight

When you’re not co-located with your boss, you have to change your approach to work with and adapt to the realities of having a virtual boss.

As long as you and your virtual boss can develop trust, keep communication channels open, and establish clear lines of accountability, there’s a good chance that you can work smoothly together. According to research from our Greenlight Research Institute, the following best practices will help you successfully manage the relationship with your virtual boss:

1. Create a virtual contract. Acknowledge that making your interactions with each other as productive and efficient as possible is going to require a proactive approach. Establish the ground rules. Start with an email to your boss. Try something like this: ‘I’ve attached an article that describes how virtual teams can work best together. Can we discuss it in our upcoming call to see if it’s how we want to work together?’

2. Establish rules for communication. People on virtual teams misguidedly assume that connecting more often is the answer to the problems of distance. But the result is usually information overload. The real key to managing the relationship with your boss is setting an appropriate tempo of communications. Is it a daily call, or a weekly call? Set the frequency that works best for you and your boss, keeping these two rules in mind:

  • specify how quickly you both need to respond to emails and calls
  • determine what follow-up steps should be taken so you never let important issues slip through the cracks.

3. Set clear goals and expectations. Have frequent discussions with your boss to make sure you’re both checking your progress regularly. Establish clear lines of accountability from the start. This means holding yourself accountable to what you said you’re going to do by when, and getting your boss’s confirmation from the beginning.

4. Get personal. Next, build interpersonal trust. What binds virtual teams together are the personal details — the similarities that lead us to trust the people around us — even when they’re far away.

Have regular, personal-professional check-ins at the start of meetings. Take 30 seconds to share what’s going on personally and professionally in your life.

Research conducted by Northeastern University  found that many employees working from home felt isolated or disconnected, making it difficult for them to develop personal relationships and trust. The study recommended informal social interactions to increase trust and build stronger connections.

5. Be generous. Go overboard to be of service to your boss. Generosity accelerates emotional bonding because it enables you to focus on your boss’ success, which strengthens the relationship.

Start with acts of generosity that are about doing your job extraordinarily well, and then focus on those that go beyond your job. Concentrate on your boss’ personal and professional goals to deliver against his or her legacy.

6. Agree to be candid. Don’t be conflict-avoidant — it’s one of the most destructive attributes of many company cultures. This is especially true for virtual workers, since you’re missing the regular face-to-face interactions that make it easier to develop strong relationships. Transparency and candour build trust. Always attack conflicts head-on. Ask for candid feedback from your boss, and give feedback when appropriate. Nip any problem in the bud.

Distance is not the death knell to collaborating and forming strong relationships. Physical distance may be irrelevant, because in many organizations where workers are co-located, relationships are still strained. What’s lacking is not physical closeness, but emotional closeness, clarity and alignment. That’s why those who work virtually must take a proactive approach to overcome strategic and emotional distance. If you truly take these tips to heart, and put clear process and rigor around them, you can have a better, stronger relationship with your boss than the average face-to-face one, regardless of how far apart you work.

A longer version of this article first appeared in Harvard Business Review.