I learned the art of staying connected in West Africa.
While serving in the Peace Corps, I lived in a remote village in the West African country of Togo – a bumpy, 14-hour bush taxi ride away from the capital city of Lomé.
The village where I stayed had no electricity or running water, no high school or hospital, no post office or public transportation.
However, more than half of the people in the village owned a cellphone.
I’m not talking smartphones here – I’m talking about the old school Nokia phones that could be thrown across a room, hit the wall, crash to the floor and still take a call.
The process of making a call wasn’t simple. You had to buy phone credit, which looked like a lottery ticket, complete with a scratch-off section where a code was hidden; enter the phone credit code into your cellphone; wait for a text message, stating the credit was loaded on your phone; and then find a place that had reception so you could place a call. In some instances, this was under the mango tree out front or on top of the pigpen beside the outhouse.
So why, in a place where water and electricity were scarce, would having a cellphone be so important?
Well, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, relationships and connections are vital to our existence – no matter who you are or where you call home.
Five years after returning from my adventure in Africa, I am learning more than ever how important staying connected is in the work environment. I recently moved to the Midwest from Washington, D.C., and most of my team is still located back East. Being 1000 miles away from most of my coworkers is both a challenge and an adventure as we explore new ways to keep connected and share those practices with others.
Let me share some tips, that I find to be helpful for maintaining engagement with others while working effectively from afar.
Make the most of your technology.
Whether you only have a Nokia phone on hand or wield multiple devices, learn how to use the tools and resources you have to their highest capacity. Have too many phone calls in too many places? Forward your desk phone to your cellphone when you’re on the go. Can’t figure out how to use your organization’s collaborative platform? Take a class or ask a subject matter expert for a quick tutorial. Take advantage of the resources at hand – you’ll be amazed at what they can help you accomplish.
During the two years I lived in Togo, my parents and I had a scheduled phone date. This ensured that I had credit on my phone, was in a place that had reception and that they were home to receive my call. Even though we had a five hour time difference, we were able to connect on a regular basis. You might not be dealing with the same extremes, but don’t assume that your coworker or supervisor can talk with you at the drop of a hat. You never know what they might have written (or unwritten) on their calendar so make sure to check. Schedule a regular meeting time using Google Calendar or another scheduling application so you can connect and communicate with your coworker frequently.
Listen, speak clearly and pause.
When I made phone calls from Africa, I often heard my voice echoing in my ear. I found it necessary to listen carefully to the other person on the line, speak clearly in response and then wait. This allowed space for my words to transfer to the other person and made sure they heard what I said before I plowed through to my next thought and left them in the dust. Communication is a two-way street – make sure to yield.
Don’t give up trying to connect.
You got disconnected when talking to your supervisor on the phone? Your organization’s virtual meeting solution is giving you technical difficulties at the beginning of a staff meeting? Connecting virtually is not easy – it takes practice and commitment. While it can be discouraging and frustrating to deal with these technical difficulties, I urge you – try again. Take a deep breath, and re-dial your boss. Email, call or chat a teammate to take notes while you continue to reconnect to the virtual staff meeting. Don’t give up when things aren’t working perfectly. Even technology has a bad day every once and awhile. So deep breath, and press on.
Lacey Scully is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.