One of the obvious consequences from the Coronavirus pandemic is the move to remote working and the need for virtual relationships. When the world went into lockdown, we didn’t have clear guidelines on when we should return. Most of us assumed a short-term timeframe. I remember locking my work pedestal on my last day in the office in March 2020 thinking that I would be back in 3 months.
I certainly wasn’t prepared for the fact that a year later, I would still be working from home and also experiencing a complete career change. As I write this over a year later, the world is gradually and tentatively going into recovery. We know however that our working patterns are unlikely to return to the way they were ‘pre-lockdown’. At least not full time.
Employees have, in the most part, enjoyed the freedom they have gained by working from home and want to continue this arrangement with their employer in some way or form.
Organisations have recognised that whilst there has been some loss in productivity, working remotely has, in the most part, been effective. They have shored up their technology to accommodate high volumes of remote working and many large corporations are taking the opportunity to lower the overhead of fixed real estate costs by implementing office space reduction strategies.
Thus, remote working is here to stay.
One of the biggest emotional and psychological consequences of this way of working is the loss or demise of relationships that naturally occur in the workplace. The ease of wandering over to someone’s desk to ask a question. The colloquially named ‘water cooler’ moments when you happen upon others making their coffee, tea or refilling their water flask. Bumping into old colleagues in the corridors or lobbies of organisations and having a quick chat or agreeing to meet for a coffee. Even a chat with those who sit next to you on your respective plans for the weekend is no more.
So how do you create the intimacy and friendship with work colleagues when you are no longer ‘face to face’ with them? Here are some ways to virtual relationship building:
1. Take full advantage of video.
Many organisations now use Skype or Zoom as a matter of course and lot of us use this technology for our personal connections as well. If you don’t, then take advantage of the technology and use it. Video calls offer more complete communication. You get to see the face of the person you are talking to and they yours. You pick up nonverbal clues such as facial expressions even if they are slightly delayed or distorted by a bad connection. It isn’t the same as physical contact and it never will be but it is the next best thing.
If you and/or your employer does have fully operating video technology, do actually turn your video on. Don’t dial in via audio and don’t be tempted to default to your workplace profile picture or a blank outline unless you really are technologically constrained. Ask others to do the same. It is a great aid to relationship building and a lost opportunity if you don’t. There is no opportunity for intimacy or genuine connection when the other person on the call is talking to your corporate photograph!
Read: How To Build A Virtual Workforce
2. Have a zoom coffee.
One of the advantages of remote working is networking is far easier. You don’t have to meet someone in a coffee shop for a catch up. You don’t have to get someone to look after the kids when you go to a networking event in the evening. You just have a 30-minute conversation over a cup of tea or coffee in the comfort of your own office/living room/spare bedroom/garden shed! You have no excuse.
Make an effort just to have a zoom coffee with people you don’t see on a regular basis and have a non-work-related conversation with those whom you do.
Every single one of us is guilty of not staying in touch and we know it. We’re super busy. We don’t prioritise it. We procrastinate over it and then we find we have been out of touch for so long we feel embarrassed to initiate contact.
Drop your contact an email, tell them you’re sorry it’s been so long and agree to meet for a zoom coffee. The chances are they will respond back pretty promptly and acknowledge that they too have been guilty of not staying in touch.
3. You must have team meetings.
If you are a leader, your team is the one group you must maintain continued conversation with. There is zero excuse for not having frequent dialogue with your team. If you are part of a team and this doesn’t happen then raise it to your boss or volunteer to set up an informal meet and greet session in the hope they will get the hint and organise it themselves in future.
Please also ensure that team meetings are not just transactional meetings with an immovable agenda. Of course, there will be agenda items that you all need to update each other on or you will need to promulgate but this cannot be the only content every time. Allow your team time in the meeting to update on what’s happening for them. Check in with them on how they all are and their news and views. Add a few non work conversations into the mix. Bring in the outside world. I used to manage a team where one of my team members cats often decided he wanted to make a regular appearance on our video calls. The cat became a subject of conversation. Another of my team members would then do a close up of her dog. Both broke down barriers.
4. Make communicate bitesize.
I think sometimes when we lose touch with people, when we do reconnect, it feels like it has to be a long dialogue to cover all of the months of each other’s updates that you might have missed. This can feel like hard work for both of you and can put you off of contacting someone in the first place. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Drop someone a quick message or email with a quick hello. It should be positioned as something along the lines of ‘saying a quick hi, hoping your well and looking forward to catching up soon’ type of message. It will be easier for you and gives them permission to be equally as concise. This means it isn’t burdensome for you both. We are all busy and a light touch approach can be very effective. Little and often rather than long winded and rarely stands a better chance of success.
5. Create some kind of group communication vehicle.
I confess I am not one for virtual coffee hours or virtual quizzes or competitions. It just isn’t my cup of tea but I admire those who join in. If you enjoy this sort of thing, volunteer to set something up. What you do doesn’t really matter, the point is you are creating, or you actively belong to, a community where you make an effort to connect with each and have fun at the same time.
If this isnt your thing, a simple WhatsApp group should be a mainstay of your ‘keeping in contact’ strategy. A couple of managers I used to work for did a decent job at this. The group shared non work-related pictures, meme’s, articles whatever it may be. To be honest the content was really irrelevant, it was more about the feeling of being part of a group and a network and that was what was most important.
6. Make it a discipline.
Catch ups, 1-1’s or relationship building tend to be things we drop when we are busy. Relationship building, be it face to face or virtual, is not something you should consider optional. Think of it as a critical part of your day job and as important as logging in each day.
You must therefore make relationship building an everyday discipline. Get organised about it. Take pride and pleasure in building your contact list. Diarise putting in virtual meetings. Spend a little time each day to review who you want to build relationships with and book them in advance. Have a schedule. This may sound excessive but it will hold you to account.
Read More: Restoring Human Connections in Virtual Teams
7. Know when to cut your losses.
In one of my other articles, ‘The 7-step guide to networking (when you don’t like networking)’, I talk about cutting your losses with a network if the relationship building isn’t working or doesn’t flow naturally. The same applies with virtual relationship building and keeping in touch.
I have relationships with colleagues and friends I have known for many many years and one or two of them are just terrible at keeping in contact. I mean really terrible! I have tried numerous times to keep the contact going but it always ends up with me making all of the effort and them cancelling at the last minute.
If a relationship feels too much like hard work, if you find yourself always being bumped or cancelled, stop trying. This isn’t about being defeatist. Its about knowing when to draw the line and to value your time and your energy to not waste it on others who aren’t interested or committed. Relationship building should have mutual interest and mutual commitment. If one person is doing everything and the other person none, that’s not a productive nor a healthy relationship. So, if this is the case, know that you tried and then cut your losses. You’ll be thankful for it in the long run.