Setting aside the joys of working from home and not having to commute, workers collaborating remotely have to deal with a lot of extra pain. The added pressure it places on their shoulders comes from the difficulty of creating immediate, visible value from afar. They struggle to be more "present" to their colleagues via the communication channels available to them — sometimes unsuccessfully.
It's important to realize the extra pressure remote workers feel when you converse with them, and why remote work is important in the first place. Sometimes, jokes about "laziness" or how many hours they "actually" work can hit a nerve, and careless statements regarding work may cause a lot more harm than you think.
For optimal remote collaboration, here are five specific sentences to stay away from:
1. "I tried to contact you, but I couldn't wait for you to get back to me."
Possibly the biggest fear of your remote colleague is missing out on urgent tasks and direction-changing meetings that impact the work already being done. Saying something like the above hits home for an insecure remote worker already trying to compensate for not seeing people face-to-face. Especially if he is in a different time zone! It's tantamount to saying, "I Skyped you and emailed you (at midnight in your time zone) but since you never got back to me (because you were sleeping), I had to go ahead without you." This might be inevitable in a fast-paced business, but don't make a habit of leaving your remote workers out — especially on tasks they might want to be involved with.
2. "Oh sorry, that decision was already made last week."
While there may be decisions made quickly at the home office, make sure you keep everyone in the loop. If you've been working on a project together and the project direction changes drastically, be kind enough to inform all stakeholders and collaborators properly so they're not left high and dry wondering what happened. Include them in decisions and give them enough lead time to give their feedback on important issues.
3. "Stop asking me questions, read the project brief."
Remote workers don't always have all the context and will probably ask more questions than someone who sits one desk away from you. If their questions disturb your workflow, don't shut down communication with harsh words. Gently push back by saying you will get back to them when you're free. By saying something like "Stop asking me questions!" you're effectively telling your teammate you don't want to help and that their requests for information are annoyances. If your work culture is based on bureaucracy and selfish fiefdoms of knowledge, then you have more problems to solve. But if your culture is one of sharing and company-wide collaboration, you've just created a roadblock that might prevent your team from asking for help in the future. Don't burn those bridges.
4. "Let's cancel this morning's meeting since X and Y aren't here."
While it might be morning where you are, it could be 10PM in your remote colleague's time zone. Which means she had to wait up for this scheduled call, or perhaps even cancelled a night on the town. Canceling last minute presupposes that your time is more important than your remote colleague's time, hence you can do things on a whim and she has to accept it. At the very least, cancel meetings early — minimum 24 hours notice is ideal — so that remote workers can plan in advance. For pointers, here's a great article about the polite way to cancel an appointment.
5. "Aw man, you had to be there to see it!"
Remote workers don't just feel like they sometimes miss crucial information and context to do their work, they also often feel like they're missing out on the camaraderie in the office. By saying this, you're effectively isolating them from the team even more. Instead, why not try capturing and sharing a video of that awesome dance move that the CEO did during Friday cocktails? Or set up some sort of video wall/always-on video conference (a la Shutterstock) so remote workers can drop in and join the fun.
Remote Workers Have Feelings Too
In the end, collaborating with remote colleagues is a matter of being sensitive to the needs of all concerned. People need timely information, and they need to be made to feel part of the team. And it's your job as project manager to ensure communication goes smoothly and team morale is high.