Influencing Across Distance: 3 Strategies for Impact

This article was contributed by Sacha Connor, Founder of Virtual Work Insider

Three thousand miles and three time zones away. That’s how I spent eight years of my career as a leader in Brand Management at The Clorox Company. I signed up for that. In 2010 I asked to pioneer a remote work experiment for Clorox so that I didn’t have to choose between living near the people I loved (in Philadelphia, PA) or living near the headquarters of the company I loved (Oakland, CA). That experiment changed me—as a leader, as a people manager, and as a communicator. It forced me to relearn how to work effectively to account for the stumbling blocks and unconscious biases that distance brings with it.

One of the biggest adjustments I had to make was reinventing how I influenced. Influence is so important because to bring your vision and ideas to life you need buy-in from many stakeholders—internally and externally—from co-workers and decision makers to external partners and clients. Having influence means you are able to engage those stakeholders, motivate them toward action, inspire them to make change happen, and overall have a larger impact on your organization and the world.

The power of water cooler moments

In a co-located office setting we rely on those seemingly innocuous intersections that happen when we bump into each other at the watercooler, at the coffee machine, in the elevator, or on the way to the bathroom. That’s when pleasantries are usually exchanged, but it’s also where influence happens. It’s when someone might say “I’ve been working on this business challenge, what do you think of my approach?” or “I have an idea, can I run it past you?”

Organizations are now more geographically distributed than ever. It’s more and more common to see teams spread across different offices or fully remote. With many organizations enacting work-from-home policies in response to the coronavirus, millions of people have been thrust into a remote work situation with little notice.

Our brain’s natural tendency is to put more importance on the people and things that are closer to us than those that are further away—something the NeuroLeadership Institute calls Distance Bias. So, even if you have a great idea, if you aren’t co-located with the approvers of the resources to execute the idea, you are already at a disadvantage versus people pitching ideas that are in the same office as the decision makers.

Now that many of us are operating at a distance, how do we continue to have impact from afar? You can’t rely on organic intersections to exchange ideas and influence. You must create a deliberate and intentional plan. Use these three strategies to overcome Distance Bias by creating your own Personal Virtual Influence Plan.

1. Visualize your Sphere of Influence

Make an Influence Map: Draw a map to identify the key stakeholders you need influence up, down, and across the organization (both internally and externally). These are people who will need to sign off on new projects, provide support to your team, or are critical in getting others on board. You’ll be surprised at how big your sphere of influence actually is. You may also be surprised by patterns: Do all roads lead to one or two people that are most critical to your success? Do you need to reach others first to get to those stakeholders?

Prioritize the top three people on the map that you need to influence that work remotely or are not located in the same office as you. Take note of their individual communication styles since the next step is to create a deliberate plan to influence from a distance.

2. Plant seeds and create triggers to recreate virtual water cooler moments

The “Good Morning” IM/text: This is simple, yet effective. Ask an open-ended question in the morning via instant message or text. The morning aperture is important. It will plant a seed for people to remember you later in the day if something comes up that would be important for you to know. It also is a trigger to remind people to tell you something that might have come up in a hallway conversation a day or two prior.

This tactic in action: The R&D department of a large company attended my Influencing Across Distance workshop. One of the participants later told me that she had “averted disaster” by sending a “Good Morning” instant message to a woman in another department. This person sits in a different office and she doesn’t usually communicate directly with her. The instant message triggered a discussion that would not have otherwise happened, and they realized that urgent action needed to be taken to avoid an issue on their project.

Physical leave behinds: This is a great way to create a daily trigger. Plant something in the physical space where the majority of your team sits that will remind them of you. I did this with my team when I first moved to Philadelphia. I printed out a photo of myself with my phone number on it and had them pin it up in their cubicles. It triggered them to call me when they were talking about something that required my input or would aid in my work. For fully remote teams, you could mail something small, like a gift or card, to each of their homes or ask them to print and display something in their space.

3. Use the power of video

Make the message sticky: Using video can make your message more memorable than the written word. Just think about the video content that is flooding your social media channels. The next time you are about to send an email about a creative idea you have, instead create a “Video Mail.” This could be as simple as using your smartphone to record a quick selfie video or you can use an easy tool like Loom that allows you to share your screen and record yourself at the same time.

Build trust through video: Trust enables influence. The other person needs to have context about who you are beyond just transactional interactions in order to trust you. This is more difficult when you are not co-located. I’m a huge proponent of creating a video-first culture. Video is the next best thing to being together in person to provide the context that you need to build relationships and enhance communication. For your next conversation with a key stakeholder, make sure you are doing it via video conferencing.

Finalize your Virtual Influence Plan

Take these tactics for remote influence and consider which ones will be most effective for reaching your top three stakeholders. Do they have certain times of day they prefer to be online or schedule meetings? Do they favor certain communications channels, like email or text? Make them feel like their time with you is valuable and worthwhile by considering their priorities, goals, and challenges and how you might be able to help.

Once you’ve completed your plan for your top three people, ask your manager for some input to strengthen your plan. Start practicing your plan with these three people so that you create a habit—a new way of influencing across distance. Later, you can revisit your large stakeholder map and start to build a plan to strengthen relationships with more people who are important to your success at work.


Learn more from Sacha about effective remote collaboration in our free webcast with her this Thursday, March 26th at 10am PT / 1p ET. RSVP here. We'll send you the recap and podcast episode even if you can't make the live event.

Sacha Connor is the Founder of Virtual Work Insider, a consultancy that coaches organizations to work seamlessly across any distance. Sacha specializes in training geographically distributed and remote teams within companies and agencies, and Virtual Workforce Employee Resource Group creation. For more information on how to create your Personal Virtual Influence Plan or to bring Sacha’s Influencing Across Distance workshop to your team, you can reach her at sacha@virtualworkinsider.com.

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