10 ways to build influence as a remote employee

How do you build influence when you're not in the building? Many people are exploring this question during the pandemic. Consider these real-world tips for remote employees
299 readers like this.

Sometimes your introduction to working remotely happens on your terms – and sometimes a pandemic forces it on millions of people. When the pandemic hit, I was grateful that I had been working remotely since 2011. But I saw the changes weighing on colleagues and friends, and I understood the concerns. I’ve walked through many of them, some more successfully than others.

One frequent concern is career stability and advancement: Does out-of-sight mean out-of-mind with your boss? How do you build useful bridges with others in the organization even when you can’t bump into them in the hallway? Can you build influence across organizational groups from a distance?

In short, yes, you can: Just wrap your head around the fact that it will take a deliberate effort. For example, working in cross-functional groups via video calls requires special care. You can’t read the vibe of the room or the body language as well - which means you must bring your “A” listening game.

Building your emotional intelligence and communication skills is crucial, but it’s just the start. A recent email discussion, started on the  Red Hat remotees-list by senior principal program manager Rebecca Fernandez, posed the question: What advice would you give on building influence as a remote worker?

How remote employees can build influence

Consider which of these tips you could apply to build influence and visibility in your organization while working remotely:

1. Take chances and volunteer for work

“It boils down to Miss Frizzle’s advice: Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!“ [ Editor’s note: That’s Ms. Frizzle, the beloved children’s book character. ]

“Answer questions on internal emails and chats and jump into situations like customer problem escalations. “It’s scary to jump feet first into something you don’t consider yourself an expert on, but you’ll never be an expert without trying. You don’t always need to have an answer, or even be right all the time, but maybe some light suggestions can help someone on their way. Even if you can just point them to someone who may know, or just acknowledge the inquiry, that can go a long way.

“And finally, volunteer for work. If you always pass by opportunities, then eventually they’ll stop asking.“

–Rob Crittenden, principal software engineer, Red Hat

[ Are you onboarding new hires right now? Read also: Virtual onboarding: How to welcome new hires while fully remote ]

2. Write helpful content

“Write. Write well. Write often. Write at length. Everything you have ever said in a video meeting was permanently forgotten after more than one week, but writings can remain accessible and searchable for years.

“Make sure your writings are available in forums that are searchable and frequented by the people whom you want to influence.”

A good example of a helpful forum would be mailing lists. A bad example would be documents living on hard drives. If these forums don’t exist in your organization, can you help create them?

-Zane Bitter, principal software engineer, Red Hat

3. Be reachable on chat channels

“It must be easy for anyone to quickly reach you. And don’t hesitate to jump on a 1:1 meeting when necessary; people really do appreciate this and it’s a great chance to see people from all over the world.

“Be helpful and responsive. Build a reputation of ‘the person who always helps’ across teams. Be prepared for people to contact you often, in this case.“

– Lukas Zapletal, principal software engineer, Red Hat

4. Invest time and money for quality video calls

At minimum, here’s what you need: “A fun or respectable background, a decent camera, balanced lighting, a quality microphone, and speakers so your voice is a joy to listen to and there is no echo. Also, you need enough bandwidth that whatever you’re sharing, be it your voice, your video, a presentation, all come through fast and clear. Don’t let bad kit get in the way of your message or anybody else’s.“

-Brendan Conoboy, Linux project lead, Red Hat

[ Want more tips for your video call setup? Read also Zoom tips: 6 ways to make meetings better. ]

5. Focus on developing cross-functional relationships

“One thing I’ve found really useful is to develop cross-functional relationships. As a program manager, that’s a key part of my job, of course, but in previous jobs, that willingness to understand what another team is doing has proven really helpful: One, it means that I become a go-to person for those teams, and two, it means I can represent their interests in conversations that they don’t even know are happening. This builds both outward and inward credibility at the same time.“

–Ben Cotton, senior program manager, Fedora & CentOS Stream, Red Hat

6. Know your colleagues' goals

“Be aware of your stakeholders/colleagues’ goals (long-term), not just needs (short-term). This could be translated into knowing their year goals or what their role is about, so those become part of your own plan’s ‘building blocks.’ When a project involves your stakeholders’ goals, it becomes a shared project to which they are really committed due to this bi-directional influence.”

“Cross-share knowledge. In the past, I used to gather information with each stakeholder individually, then process and share it downstream when perfected. Now, we encourage sharing “not-so-mature” ideas in a more community manner. My role went from the sole creator to a facilitator driving conversations, where everybody can give their opinion and suggestions. Bonus: I’m not the only one doing the prioritization, so our roadmap is less prone to changes.

Follow up by providing a direct line where people can reach out (chat, scheduled calls) to avoid an ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ situation.”

-Jaime Tobar, skills management program manager, Red Hat

7. Keep your eye on the organization's big picture

“Take notes on higher management meetings, learning about why [your organization] does what it does. It’s easy to lose track of the bigger picture when you are a remotee, so those calls give you an insight into what your team and the upper organization…are concerned about. If you want to influence with an idea totally disconnected from [those] objectives, the ROE (return over energy) will be low.”

–Jaime Tobar, skills management program manager, Red Hat

8. Ask people about their roles

“The biggest thing I’ve seen that separates the really good [ sales professionals] from the rest is utilizing tools like chat or even old fashioned e-mail to foster relationships within other parts of the business. Making friends in [other parts of the organization] not only gives you personally a better understanding of the business as a whole, but it also strengthens the perspective of the people you reach out to. Get inquisitive, ask a question. Poke around. Don’t be afraid to ask someone about what their role is like.”

–Adam Pippert, senior solutions architect, Red Hat North America Commercial

9. Be a giver

“It may seem naive, but in my experience, the best way to have visibility and influence is to give to others as much as possible. That means to take advantage of any opportunity for helping your colleagues (in your team or in other teams), the people you manage (if you are a manager), or your manager. For example, if a colleague asks for feedback on a document they have written, read it, ask them questions, and give them feedback. If you ask for something to a person on another team and they take too much time to answer, ask why. Maybe you can do something to help them to answer that question next time. Maybe you have to define the question better or give them tools. Another way of giving is by participating in communities related to your position.”

- Florencio Cano, senior product security engineer, Red Hat

10. Beware of possible overload

“As you become more visible and your reputation for actually doing things grows, the more people will turn to you. At some point, you need to step back and start to make priorities and set realistic expectations.

“I have found that for most people who ask for things (either for feedback or actually work), if I let them know that I can’t get to for x number of days, they appreciate that. It lowers stress for you as well as for them.”

–Troy Dawson, senior software engineer, Red Hat

[ Want to help people be intentional about time and energy? Read also: COVID-19 leadership lessons: 5 ways to help your team recharge. ]

Laurianne McLaughlin is Editorial Director, Digital Communities for Red Hat, leading content strategy. Previously, she served as Content Director for The Enterprisers Project, Editor-in-Chief at InformationWeek.com, and Managing Editor at CIO.com.