Running A Business

How to Build Work Relationships Remotely

Aug 17, 2020 • 6 min read
Coworkers having conversation remotely
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      In 2017, a standard BBC interview went awry for Professor Robert Kelly, an expert on South Korean politics. While discussing the impeachment of South Korea’s president live on camera from his home office, his five-year-old bounded in—and a viral star was born.

      “I thought I’d blown it in front of the whole world,” Kelly told The Guardian afterward. “I assumed that was the end of my career as a talking head.”

      Today, it’s laughable that this was even a big deal. With COVID-19 turning every home into a school, daycare, and workplace, it’s inevitable that different pieces of our lives—once kept delicately separate from one another—crash together. 

      Nearly 50% of American workers left offices and went home due to the pandemic. What now?

      Remote Work Is Here to Stay

      “Not everyone likes to blend their private and work lives,” writes Gianpiero Petriglieri, a professor at INSEAD, for Harvard Business Review. “Some love the office…for giving us respite from our private selves and a chance to be someone different, in some ways better, that ends up enriching who we are at home.”

      The office, they argue, brings people together—but it doesn’t necessarily promote productivity. Experts worry that so much blending encourages burnout and collapses the lines we place on ourselves. But with the pandemic, that isn’t a choice.

      While it’s easy to miss the office, more often, employers are reaping the benefits of a remote workforce. A 2-year Stanford study proved that remote work increased productivity with work-from-home employees working the equivalent of an additional shift each week. 

      “When I speak to employees who do not have an office or don’t identify with it, such as those who work in factories, emergency rooms, kitchens, and shops, or on the road,” writes Petriglieri, “the office is a place, as a physician told me, where real work goes to die.”

      But what about the people you work with, then? If the main purpose of an office was to come together with colleagues, build relationships, and be part of something bigger, remote work makes that much more difficult.

      Can You Build New Relationships Over Zoom?

      70% of employees feel left out when they work remotely, according to Igloo’s State of the Digital Workplace. Whether that’s not being together in the same room or missing casual happy hours or lunches, it can be lonely being stuck at home.

      Making friends at work has never been a requirement, but it’s well established that having closer relationships can make you happier and more engaged at work. Over 50% of female employees and 44% of male employees said that they had a work spouse at some point in their careers. The term “work spouse” refers to a best friend and partner made in a work setting. Most work spouses never cross into “real friendship” territory.

      Engagement among remote workers graph


      So how do you find a work spouse…digitally?

      Building relationships remotely takes time and effort, like any relationship. It’s important to build relationships into the fabric of remote culture at a company, which can be difficult if you’re starting from scratch. Like any relationship, this starts with communication.

      With everything online, you can’t assume that another person knows the intention behind every text you send—so make time for more natural communication. “When the foundation of your relationship or your friendship with your coworkers is primarily work-based, it’s hard to reach out, like ‘Oh, let’s hang out,’” one tech worker told The Atlantic.

      Sending random GIFs or articles and striking up non-work conversations via Slack makes a difference. “There’s kind of an unspoken rule that when we’re working remotely, we shouldn’t waste time on relationships,” said another. 

      It’s time to break that rule.

      If you want to build a relationship, you’ll have to work at it. Turn on your camera. Get on Zoom. “We get to see people’s faces and better interpret their reactions. We can look in their eyes—even over a screen—and have a clearer understanding of the meaning behind their words. Oh, and we may get a glimpse into their personal lives that might trigger a conversation which could create a deeper relationship (‘you’re into origami too?’) based on common connections,” writes small business expert Gene Marks for Forbes.

      It starts with the camera, but there are other tricks to make your meetings get more personal:

      • Build in 2–5 minutes of small talk at the beginning and end of meetings
      • Ask for an office tour 
      • If a pet or kid walks into the frame, don’t judge—say hello!
      • Use a fun Zoom background as a conversation starter

      Then, participate in the same kind of culture-building exercises and activities you would have participated in real life—with some digital tweaks. Consider starting an impromptu office happy hour over Zoom one night next week or Slack-calling a work friend “just to say hi.” Encourage activity in fun or non-work Slack channels, send out weekly “get to know you” polls, or use tools like Coworker Coffee or Donut, which randomly assign virtual coffee dates to employees each week.

      What About Those Awkward Conversations?

      Of course, whenever we discuss remote work, there’s an assumption that you’ll be able to conduct some of your work in person, especially the most important conversations, like performance reviews, feedback, or job interviews. 

      When it comes to performance reviews, experts recommend leading with compassion and considering eliminating traditional ratings altogether. “If someone is not performing, now is not time to beat them up,” Anna Tavis, a human capital professor at NYU, told Harvard Business Review. “You need to make a conscious decision which battles to fight right now. In this environment, you may need more frequent, smaller evaluations…to pivot toward a people-focused management system, built around resilience and agility, instead of efficiency and competitiveness at any cost.”

      According to a recent Gartner survey, 74% of companies plan to keep or increase remote work in this “new normal.” It’s up to each and every one of those employees and management to help relationships work and to build a relationship-driven organization instead of a ruthless and competitive one.

      About the author
      Kayla Voigt

      Always in search of adventure, Kayla hails from Hopkinton, MA, the start of the Boston Marathon. You can find her at the summit of a mountain or digging in to a big bowl of pasta when she's not writing. Say hi on Instagram @klvoigt.

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