Even though telecommuting and other flexible work arrangements are growing more common, cooperation and trust issues remain for companies that offer these opportunities. So says a recent survey conducted by Utah-based VitalSmarts.

You saunter down the hall in your pajamas, nibbling on a piece of toast, and slide into your home office.

As your computer boots up, you let your mind wander, staring out the window at what appears to be another beautiful day. But once your machine is running and you've logged in, you start reading email and attacking the work of the day.

You may be comfortable, but you also feel productive.

The question is, how do your colleagues in Cubeville feel about you right now?

Some of them probably think you're falling short when it comes to working hard and meeting deadlines. In fact, they may wonder whether you're as trustworthy and reliable as the guy in the next cubicle.

Even though telecommuting and other flexible work arrangements are growing more common, cooperation and trust issues remain for companies that offer these opportunities.

So says a recent survey of more than 2,000 employees conducted by Utah-based VitalSmarts in partnership with Training Magazine.

David Maxfield, vice president of research at VitalSmarts and co-author of "Influencer," "Crucial Accountability" and "Change Anything," said in an email interview with me that the survey was designed to compare the kinds of problems people encounter with co-workers in both virtual and physical workplaces.

Some of the results were surprising. For example, survey respondents believed that remote workers were three times more likely than people in the office to miss deadlines, not follow through on commitments or mislead co-workers.

And those weren't the most drastic results. Respondents also said that remote workers were four times more likely to give a half-hearted effort, make changes without notice or not fight for priorities.

Wow. I'm sure some remote workers have problems, but I find it hard to believe they're that bad. These are exactly the kinds of perceptions that might make companies hesitant to offer remote work opportunities.

In my email interview with Maxfield, I asked him why these feelings seem to be so strong. He cited a few different possibilities.

First, he wrote, our physical presence is a reminder to our co-workers. When we're not around, they might not be cued to think about us and our priorities.

Maxfield wrote that we also fail to give remote co-workers much "benefit of the doubt."

"When we are physically collocated, we get to know each other, we grow to like each other, we observe each other’s challenges and we cut each other more slack," he wrote in his email response. "When we don’t know a colleague, we often assume the worst. Social psychologists call this The Fundamental Attribution Error — we attribute blame to people’s motives, rather than giving them the benefit of the doubt."

A third problem is caused by communication challenges. Office staff may fail to follow up and troubleshoot with remote workers, Maxfield wrote, and remote workers may fail to keep the office up to date on their progress.

"When we are collocated, this updating happens in informal conversations without us even noticing," he wrote. "When we aren’t collocated, it takes effort, and we slip up."

So what can companies and managers do to overcome these problems? Maxfield wrote that VitalSmarts collected 600 examples of what the best managers of virtual teams do, and he offered six ideas based on what they learned.

"Meet in person when you can." While this is obvious, Maxfield wrote, it can be difficult. Survey respondents suggested that managers bring teams together when they are first formed, when they are starting new projects and annually.

"Regardless of whether you can bring the team together, go visit your remote team members," Maxfield wrote. "Quarterly visits were widely recommended, and it was suggested that leaders meet with team members, not just the leaders of remote locations."

"Connect every day." Remote team members won't bump into each other in the hallways, Maxfield wrote, so leaders need to initiate contacts.

"The recommendations included 20-minute phone calls with every direct report every morning; touch points throughout the day, using phone calls, instant messaging and videoconferencing; and a reminder to be sensitive to time zones and business day schedules globally."

"Use high-bandwidth technologies." Maxfield suggested using technology that allows the greatest personal contact, like videoconferencing, Facebook groups, Google Hangouts, Twitter, WeChat and others.

"Mix social into the business." In order to build trust among team members, they need to build relationships. Leaders should remember, Maxfield wrote, that having a "best friend at work" is a good predictor of employee engagement.

"Make sure every team member feels valued," he wrote. "Use Facebook Groups, and friend the people on your team; make sure you talk about weekend activities, family events, birthdays, hobbies, etc. Take special care when a team member is facing a personal challenge — family illness, divorce, relocation, etc. — and use these occasions to show genuine caring and concern. Find ways to demonstrate your support for the team member."

"Add structure." Overcome gaps in information by over-communicating, Maxfield wrote. Respondents suggested that leaders be clear about expectations and document them; explain the reasons behind decisions and requests, following up in writing; use organized project plans; document decisions; and create visuals that show plans and progress.

"Be a true resource." A leader is the team’s access point to information and resources, Maxfield wrote. "Make sure you are available, responsive and that you know who can help. Don’t wait to be asked. Routinely suggest sources of information and assistance."

I think this is outstanding advice. But if companies and managers do these things, will they be able to overcome the potential problems of remote work and take advantage of its many benefits?

Maxfield wrote that flexible remote work is already essential for success in today's "complex, global, connected workplace." And he seems confident that the situation will improve.

"I think individuals, organizations and society (are) learning how to connect across distance," he wrote. "We are still fairly low on the learning curve. Technologies are improving. ... I think we are building best practices as well — like the six I outline above.

"I think the flexibility will allow for more people to contribute in more ways to the betterment of us all."

I completely agree, and I'm grateful to Maxfield and VitalSmarts for sharing this information with me. I plan to use some of these ideas when my team members are working remotely, and I hope you will, too.

If we do, we should be able to build better relationships among all co-workers, whether they're sitting in neighboring cubicles or in homes and offices around the world.

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