Virtual working, remote working, telecommuting…call it what you will. There are subtle differences between the terms but the reality is that more and more of us are working with colleagues, clients and teams that we rarely, if ever, actually meet face to face. Various sources estimate that in the US alone there will be 100 million telecommuters by the year 2010. Small wonder, there are many benefits to remote working. However, you can’t just expect things to work exactly as they would if everybody was sitting in an office together. To manage remote working and virtual business relationships successfully you need to take a thoughtful and planned approach.

1. Use your email sparingly. By this I mean that if you are emailing a colleague about a question, don’t send things out unthinkingly and then 10 minutes later send another email about something else that you’d forgotten about. Don’t use reply to all unless it’s really necessary. Ask your colleagues to do the same. Email is a huge time waster and if you don’t manage it properly it will quickly eat up your day.

2. Word your emails carefully. When we’re face to face a large part of our communication is non verbal, we can say something that sounds serious but with a smile. We can make a joke of something and it’s obvious we’re joking because of our body language. On email there are just the words on the page. So be careful how you phrase things.

3. Use an instant messaging service. And encourage your colleagues to do likewise. It’s a great way to deal with quick questions and also can add a social element to the virtual workplace. You can see who’s online, ping them over a quick question, invite someone else to join the chat, etc. You can also save the chat history and refer to it later if it’s work related.

4. Pick up the phone occasionally and have a conversation. If you’re dealing with an issue that seems to be getting confusing or perhaps overheated on email, then the best thing to do is pick up the phone and have a conversation. We can all sometimes be guilty of hiding behind email to tell people things we know will not make them happy, but it builds a far better relationship if you are willing to just speak to people when difficult issues arise.

5. Schedule virtual meetings and take them seriously. If you schedule a telephone call or a virtual meeting with a colleague, then make sure you log in on time and that you are ready and waiting as you would be for a face to face meeting. Too many people see the virtual meeting as the poor relation of the face to face. This is not the case at all. But you do need to have the right attitude. Be punctual, be prepared and have an agenda.

6. Get a webcam. If you’re attending virtual meetings, or using internet telephony with your colleagues then a webcam is a great and easy way to add to another dimension to your communication. Actually being able to see the person you are talking to makes a big difference. You can see their expression during the conversation. It also makes you concentrate on the conversation. Too many times on a conference call people are only half present because they’re also sorting out some paperwork on their desk, or filing something away, or other distracting tasks. With a webcam you pay far more attention.

Virtual working isn’t always easy, but one key element of getting it right is to communicate well. Stick to the principles above and you’ll be on the right track for successful virtual working.