Communicating online: how to maintain a long-distance relationship?

Communicating online: how to maintain a long-distance relationship?

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Jason Ward explains how to make clients fall in love with you
Every freelancer will eventually find themselves talking to someone who’s enduring a difficult work relationship.
 
A colleague is a curmudgeon, or insists on fielding personal calls in an open plan workspace, or is so incompetent they might conceivably be an industrial saboteur.
 
While listening to forlorn descriptions of office politics and flagrant milk robbery, a thought will occur: “I’m so glad I’m selfemployed”.
 
Even non-dysfunctional offices can soon grate. In an enclosed space, the small becomes enormous: I once worked with a woman who was infuriating chiefly because she had the temerity to wear a lanyard that jangled.
 
It baffles me now, but back then it seemed completely reasonable for my nemesis to be a noisy ID card.
 
The proximity of an office isn’t wholly negative, however; one of the biggest difficulties when you leave behind company environments is the struggle to maintain working relationships with people you don’t see regularly.
 
As a freelance writer, I work with many people I have never met before. I remember chatting to a stranger at a press junket and quietly realising that they’d been commissioning me to write articles for two years, including the interview I had come there to do.
 
When the person you’re reporting to is a name at the bottom of an email instead of someone down the hall, your interactions narrow to the task at hand. There’s little opportunity for small talk, let alone the release valve of a post-work drink.
 
You’re a contractor, not a colleague, and the explicitly limited nature of this exchange has repercussions not just for how you interact with each other, but also how likely you are to do so again.
 
It was worrying to learn that my career partially depended on someone I couldn’t identify on sight, but there are actually certain steps you can take to remotely reinforce working relationships.
 
If your only ongoing interactions take the form of written communications to each other, those messages hold greater significance. You’re not going to lose a gig because you once wrote “Dear Karen” to a client instead of “Dear Carol”, but it certainly doesn’t reflect well on you.
 
Attention to detail is key, not just to avoid embarrassment but to provide necessary information: in replies, asked questions should be answered and raised issues should be dealt with.
 
To achieve good communication, the best practice is to operate as considerately as possible.
 
We’ve been conditioned to think of an informal written style as the default form of interaction in daily life, but this is often inappropriate when getting in touch with clients.
 
You don’t need a starched collar to send a letter, but an email is, after all, an electronic letter – and it should at least partly reflect that. It should be addressed to a person, signed off by another person (you), and contain punctuation, proper sentences, paragraphs and hopefully even upper-case letters. This is both a mark of respect and makes a message easier to read and understand.
 
There are obviously degrees of formality here – an urgent exchange over iPhones is not the same as a scheduled reply to a brief – but whatever the situation, the formatting should be clear and the tone of voice should be warm without being linguistically dishevelled. You’re not writing to your best friend but you are writing to a human being.
 
You should be just as attentive elsewhere. Email signatures shouldn’t be confusingly out of date. If an attachment’s size would be unreasonable, the materials should be sent through a file transfer service or uploaded online instead.
 
Emails should follow the lead of Labour’s current Brexit policy: as short as possible but as long as necessary. No-one wants to receive a message that could technically be classed as a novella, but equally it’s not alright to send message after message because you’re trigger-happy and keep forgetting to mention points.
 
You also shouldn’t send an email at 17:20 on a Friday and follow it up with a chase immediately on Monday morning when you inevitably haven’t received a reply yet.
 
It helps to be clear with a client about when you need to hear from them, but choosing when to send a polite – and genuinely not passiveaggressive – reminder requires intuition.
 
Are you being ignored or have they just not amassed the information they need to be able to reply yet? In every situation there is a correct and useful amount of pestering you should do, and being able to find the right level is a precious skill that develops over time.
 
One of the best ways to maintain a healthy working relationship from a distance is, of course, also one of the most obvious ways – do everything as well as you can.
 
You should deliver the commissioned service by the agreed deadline and it should fulfil the brief. If there are issues, you should be able to respond within a reasonable time.
 
If you know you can’t provide what has been asked, you shouldn’t take the job in the first place, and if you find you’re going to be late, you should be open about it instead of indulging in magical thinking.
 
It’s not enough for the work to be excellent: the experience must be as straightforward and hasslefree as possible.
 
Sometimes you’ll need to choose your battles and just remember you’re being contracted to do a task, which might mean deferring to someone else’s vision.
 
Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stand behind your professional opinions, but try not to be a pain while doing so. Remind yourself that the people you’re corresponding with often won’t have the advantages of being self-employed.
 
Their colleague has undone half a week’s work, their lunch keeps disappearing from the fridge and they’re being driven slowly mad by the sound of an errant lanyard. An email from you should be a constructive addition to their day, not another frustration to add to the pile.
 
If you don’t work in claustrophobic adjacency to someone, many of the factors that will lead to further collaboration are beyond your control, but the one thing you can do is to present yourself as someone a client will want to work with again.
 
A quick Google image search might also be a good idea.
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