I remember a course in business school where we students, mostly unknown to each other, went for an “offsite” learning event for two days. At the end of day one, we were given the opportunity to have some dinner and (a few) drinks with each other. During the evening we got to know each other more on a personal level and had a fun evening together. Not surprisingly but even though very tired the team assignments we were doing on day two were much more productive and creative. Later the professor revealed that this had been done intentionally for us to realise the power of relationships in business and teamwork. After this experience, I have been very interested in relationship building and team dynamics.
Value of relationship: openness and trust
Obviously, during this special time of COVID-19, it is not as easy to build and maintain better workplace relationships as it is normally in face-to-face communication. While working in isolation, it is very easy to focus on the content of work and distancing ourselves instead (guilty as charged..) rather than on the process of relationship building. After all, these times call out for openness and trust more than ever. Organizations and teams need to see the value of this.
Is it even possible to build these better relationships only virtually? I think yes, it is done all the time over the internet in contexts where people share common interests and goals. A good example of this is some online gaming communities where people develop very close relationships with people around the world without ever meeting each other in person. A multitude of other examples exists as well. While online gaming is somewhat different from a strictly professional setting, similar dynamics of teamwork still apply, like a well functioning team has a very high level of trust.
Build and maintain your (business) relationships in a virtual setting
Here are some thoughts and tips which might help you build and maintain your (business) relationships in a virtual setting. I build this experience especially from some of the virtual teams I have worked with lately.
- In meetings, using the camera is necessary. It goes without saying that much of our communication is non-verbal so we need to get used to putting the camera on. Looking into a person’s eyes will tell you instantly if you are on the same page and a thumb-up reinforces that message. And no, it doesn’t matter if you have a bad hair day because most other people have them too.
- While everyone is working from home, it opens the possibility to share some personal things with your colleagues, for instance, an easy way of introducing some family members to the people you work with or sharing something interesting about your hobbies. Sharing some favorite photographs is a fantastic icebreaker or you can “accidentally” place something interesting in the space behind you. Being open will usually have the effect of other people opening up as well.
- Keep the team sizing small rather than big. Most of us people are psychologically more comfortable in “family-sized” groups ranging from 3-7 people. If this is not possible, try to split the group into smaller sub-groups to work on specific problems or questions (at least it’s quite easy to find a room for it now in the digital realm). Then synthesise the findings with the larger group.
- Make some time for chit-chat by putting it on the agenda of the meeting. At the office, stronger relationships are built by the coffee machine and during the time when people are getting to the meeting room. In a virtual context, put the meeting to start 10-15 minutes before intended to do some catching up with your colleagues. This allows the attendees to arrive on time and share for instance a cup of coffee or a sandwich together while exchanging the latest news and checking in for the meeting. If we are not too busy for this at the office, how can we be while working remotely?
- One of the most effective ways of building better relationships is learning something new together with your teammates. This can be achieved by setting some learning and improvement goals. One good way of doing is to dedicate a regular meeting only for these type improvements (many times also called a retrospective). Other ways are also working in pairs around problems and by just ”thinking out loud” in the meetings.
- Add transparency by communicating more on your progress, it only can take a few minutes to update your system, sending a message, or making a short call to your stakeholders. Ask actively feedback so that you can improve on the things you are doing. Ask for help e.g. review something you’ve done as you would at the office, don’t batter your head to the wall alone.
- Overall, be genuinely curious about the people you are working with and acknowledge how important they are. Try to understand their story and let them understand yours. Increase the number of one-on-one meetings with your co-workers and the casual “how are you doing” instant messages just like you would while passing them in the hallway at the office. Even though being remote, people still have the need to be visible and seen by others.
Investing in better relationships takes time and effort especially now in this special time. Especially if you are a leader, you need to see the value of the process of relationship building. Please take this topic and discuss it with your team on how they want to improve the situation.