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How to Build Strong (Virtual) Relationships

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The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted many things about work, including the way we collaborate. Face-to-face interactions have now become endless Teams and Zoom meetings. It’s no secret that building relationships and having a “togetherness” feeling remotely can be challenging. But regardless of what some people will say, it’s not impossible. You don’t need to be in the same room to build a strong working relationship.

Can it be easier to build relationships face-to-face? Sure. But is it necessary? Absolutely not. Building strong virtual bonds requires deliberate action and time but is 100% attainable. Why should you care? You have a remote job, can’t you just do your work alone and in peace?

Depending on your career, you might. But you’d be missing out on some major benefits, which we’ll discuss momentarily. Are you a manager or leader of people? Or do you want to become one? Then building relationships is non-negotiable. Team members who have caring and supportive leaders are more likely to return the sentiment. If you want a healthy, thriving team that helps you accomplish your goals, you’re going to need to put in the work.

You might think that in order to build up strong relationships, you’ll have to put in a lot of time outside of your normal working hours. Depending on what your job entails, that may or may not be true. However, I’ve had success in making it a part of my everyday routine so I can also enjoy some work-life balance. If you make it a habit, it starts to become instinctual and less of a chore. Some of the ideas discussed in this article will require you to invest time outside of your regular hours, but many of them don’t.

I probably don’t have to emphasize why many people prefer working remotely or why building relationships can be important in your quality of life at work. Having said that, here are just a couple reminders:

  • Co-workers that have strong relationships work together more easily. You can ask things of each other, provide feedback, and depend on them. You know how they work and how they like to be worked with. Who would you rather tackle that large, complex project with, someone you’re meeting for the first time? Or someone you know has your back?
  • People can’t say nice things about you unless they know you. Even if you don’t care about a promotion, think of how much easier it could be to get your initiatives and ideas approved, gain support, etc., if people already buy into you.
  • Could make your work more enjoyable. I know we don’t necessarily go to work to have fun, but I prefer this to the alternative. My satisfaction at work has been significantly higher during the times when I have at least one person to laugh with and confide in. Just think about if you actually enjoyed being around the people you worked with.
  • Helping others. Think back to a time when you were new at a company. You didn’t know who you could ask for help, etc. Reaching out to newbies at your work is a really easy way to make them feel welcome and let them hit the ground running. But you can be a good Samaritan to anyone. The more people you know, the greater the chance you’ll find something you’ll be able to assist with.
  • You might not feel the impact today, but you might in the future. You never know what opportunities will arise. There’s a reason why many companies pay referral bonuses, they prefer hiring someone that’s been vetted instead of taking a risk on a stranger. Conversely, you can benefit from this by stacking your company with people you thought were great colleagues (outside of direct solicitation clauses of course).

How to do it

There are a ton of different ways you can build relationships, but here are some ideas if you need inspiration. This isn’t all inclusive and these aren’t hard and fast rules, but you can use them as a guide.

1. Be deliberate. Do you get wrapped up in your projects and forget to reach out to people? Put 15 minutes on your calendar every day to remind you. The trick is to not make this robotic. Reach out because you care about them or want to say hi or talk about something just like if they were sitting next to you in an office. And because they can respond whenever, you don’t have to worry as much about “bothering” them or “finding the right time.” If they’re busy, they can respond when they get a chance.

2. Be choosey. As much as you might want to bond with everyone at your company, that could prove difficult. While knowing more people is generally better than less, try to focus on quality vs quantity. If the 1,000 people you spoke with once don’t remember you (or you them), that defeats the purpose. But if you have strong relationships with 50 people, that’s more ideal. You can gradually grow your network over time.

3. Be strategic. This may be the only impression you get to make, so put in the effort to make it a good one. Practice your elevator pitch if you need to. If you forget the names of people in the meeting, go through the invite list. Try to pick out someone from each meeting you attend that you want to reach out to. If it’s helpful, keep a (discreet) cheat sheet of the people you’ve met with and one or two things about them that you can discuss later. People notice when you remember things about them.

4. Be persistent. Follow up on Slack about something mentioned previously to help build up the relationship. It doesn’t have to be big. As an example, did they tell you that their kid was playing in a soccer game that evening? Ask them how it went. Alternatively, if you met them in passing, just let them know it was nice meeting them and see if you can spark up a conversation from there.

5. Be remembered. Add them on LinkedIn. This helps build your network and reminds them who you are. If you didn’t get an opportunity to really introduce yourself or talk about your experience, it gives them a chance to view it on your profile. This provides the potential for additional interaction (when they post) and helps you keep in touch if one of you leaves your current company.

6. Be consistent. Once you’ve identified who you want to build closer relationships with, see if you can get a recurring meeting on their calendar — even if it’s just 15 minutes every other week. Face time, even on Zoom calls, is important.

7. Be chatty. Find group chats of interests you have. Many companies will have them already set up. If not — suggest it! This is a great way to make connections with people you normally wouldn’t work with. Examples are channels/chats about indoor gardening, food, etc. Make sure you have a group chat with people on your team as well!

8. Be creative. Have a virtual happy hour or lunch (some companies will sponsor these). My peers in the Solution Management practice here at Bottle Rocket have success playing games like Codenames or Gartic Phone. This reduces awkward conversation and allows team members to bond over fun activities. If you live close enough to some of your co-workers and feel comfortable with it, meet them for lunch or dinner at a restaurant.

9. Be advantageous. If you make use of opportunities that present themselves, you can work relationship building into your everyday routine. Are you waiting for people to show up at a meeting? Get people talking then. Ask about their day or ask them a fun ice breaker. “Question of the day” was something quick my teams have done during standup that had a lot of success. Someone comes up with a question for the day and then everyone gets a chance to (quickly) respond. Example: What show are you currently watching or would you rather vacation on a beach or in the forest? I’ve also used this time as a sneaky way to learn what kind of adult beverage (or anything else) to reward my team members with.

New to a company? This is the easiest time for you to meet people because you can use the “I’m new” excuse to reach out! Ask your manager or onboarding buddy for a list of people you should introduce yourself to. Set up a short (15–30 minute) 1:1 with them. Ask those people for a couple team members they think you should meet. Repeat.

10. Be embedded. Make it hard for people not to know you. Volunteer to help with events. Many companies have various diversity or extra-curricular groups (like women in tech, gaming groups, etc). Get involved in one or more of these and make sure to use the time in them to build up relationships!

As you’re trying out different strategies, there are a couple things to remember.

Feeling overwhelmed?

Set small goals for yourself. Even meeting with one new person a week can help you make significant gains over time.

Don’t know what to talk about? Ask them about their job, lessons they learned in their career, or their favorite books. Ask about items in their (virtual) background — some people will have guitars, plants, paintings, etc. Ask them about what they did over the weekend or what they’re going to do in this next one. There are plenty of things to talk about, just make sure you’re paying attention and conversing with them. And remember to be professional. If you wouldn’t talk about it with your boss or CEO around, it might not be a good idea to discuss. This doesn’t mean you can’t have fun but remember that you’re in a work environment.

Does it feel clunky or forced?

Identify why. Is it because the conversation doesn’t flow well? Or does the person not seem interested? Or something else? Just like in person, not every conversation is going to be super fun and easy. But the more you practice this skill and the more you get to know each other, the easier it gets. When it becomes a habit, it will start to feel natural. Just keep at it!

Note: make sure that the reason it feels off is not because of you. This may seem obvious, but people can see through facades. Yes, you network because it may benefit you, but you’re also doing this because you care about people. Make sure you don’t make it seem transactional and that you’re being genuine in your interest in the other person.

Is there someone that’s not receptive?

At some point there might be someone that doesn’t share the same enthusiasm for building relationships as you. In this case, you can either accept that they may just not want to meet with you or you can try to build up the relationship other ways (like with your messaging systems). But whatever you decide, make sure you’re being respectful. The whole point is to build up a healthy relationship.

By investing time in your (virtual) relationships, you will not only see stronger bonds within your organization, but also see success as you progress in your career. Liked these tips? Have more to add to the list? Reach out to me at [email protected] and share some of your ideas on how to create strong workplace relationships, no matter the location.

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