Missed communication

Q: I work for a large employer with a very generous work-at-home program. Some employees don’t have assigned office space, and we have flexible scheduling, so people aren’t always available during predictable hours. That leaves phone calls, instant messaging and email.

As a subject matter expert and occasional team lead (though not a manager), I receive deadlines from my supervisor that may differ from the rest of the team’s priorities. I try to make the team want to make time for me, sometimes apologizing to ingratiate myself. Constant reorganizations mean I often have to repeat this process.

Unfortunately, no one seems to answer phones. They either don’t launch their instant messaging app or get kicked offline by software updates. They wait days to respond to emails, if they respond at all. Even on-site employees attend meetings remotely so they can multitask.

In sum, I can’t “pop by” colleagues’ offices, see them at meetings, ping them on IM or get them on the phone when I need their input. This week I had to report someone for ignoring calls and emails on a rush project.

How can I engage nonresponsive remote co-workers?

A: Some might see your question as a prime argument for reeling in telecommuting and flextime policies, as Yahoo, Aetna and IBM have done.

But I’m not sure your employer’s remote workplace is entirely to blame. Engaged workers who have a stake in project success manage to be productive even from remote locations and time zones.

Perhaps your nonresponsive collaborators need more rigid limits. Or maybe they’re overwhelmed, or disheartened by the constant reorganizations.

But since you’re not in a position to resolve systemic issues, let’s focus on how to elbow your way onto people’s agendas, and make responding as easy as possible.

Schedule spontaneity. Instead of emails and calls that languish unanswered, send calendar invitations for a 15-minute phone call or drop-in, with the option to reschedule. Although invitations can also be ignored, they’re more likely to generate a commitment.

When you score a slot on someone’s calendar, have a tight agenda and clear goal for the conversation: answers, ideas or a follow-up date.

Make emails easy to process. The subject line should trumpet what you need and when. Trim the fluff; keep “pleases” and “thank yous.”

Start seeing colleagues as clients. That may mean—hear me out—meeting them near their homes, in geographically efficient clusters.

Finally, when up against someone who’s creating a bottleneck, lateral pressure is less damaging than tattling. Provide updates and tag the parties involved: “The project will be ready for [CC’d Colleague 1]’s review after sign-off from [CC’d Colleague 2].” And keep your boss in the loop throughout—not just when the ship is about to run aground.