Building Connection While Working Remotely

Tips for nurturing your professional relationships while working from home

By Ruby Vesely - April, 2020

Wow. WTF. #kindoffreakingout. Life is really off-center right now, and we are all “going a little bananas” as we deal with unprecedented change, a gigantic spike in uncertainty, and a complete loss of control (which – as a side note – was an illusion anyway). I find myself completely distracted and dealing with an increased undercurrent of anxiety, fear, and worry for myself, my loved ones, my work, our community, our country, and our world. How do we navigate this? No one has the answer, but with hindsight this will be the greatest case study EVER in economics and human behavior, AND how we show up in this moment matters.

­We can’t do this alone.

The past couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You’ve probably run across this model at some point, but it asserts that we all have basic physiological (health, food, water, shelter) and safety (personal, emotional, financial, physical) needs that must be met as a baseline in order to just get through the day. Once these needs are met, we can then move toward building connections, self-actualization, and serving others. Every single one of us right now is feeling some pain and fear regarding these basic needs, and as leaders in organizations and in our families, we have added responsibility for other human beings. Yikes.

How can we rise above in this super stressful environment? How do we get through and lead others? The only thing I know is that we need each other now more than ever. No one knows the “right” answer, and ­we can’t do this alone. We have to get extremely intentional about building connection and relationships. If we can focus on this now, we will be better as individuals, families, teams, organizations, countries, and as a global community.

The only thing I know is that we need each other now more than ever.

With the requirement to work from home, our critical stakeholder relationships have become instantly remote. So not only do we have to get intentional about building connection and relationships, we have to learn QUICKLY how to do this virtually. Our ability to build the connection and psychological safety in relationships is absolutely critical to get through the day to day and ultimately come out better together on the other side.

The Four Yeses

As we are losing our face-to-face time, how can we create and maintain strong relationships? What are the steps and tactics to do this? According to Morag Barrett, in the book Cultivate. The Power of Winning Relationships, there are four questions we ask ourselves in every relationship:

  1. Can I count on you?
  2. Can I depend on you?
  3. Do I care about you?
  4. Do I trust you?

Our goal in an Ally relationship is to be able to say “yes” to each of these questions, and conversely, that the other person can ultimately say “yes” when thinking about us in that same relationship. Following are some ideas on how to move toward building Ally relationships in this new reality of working and interacting virtually and get a resounding “yes!” to each of these four questions with your teammates.

1. Can I count on you? 

This question is transactional and reactive in nature. Do you do what you say you are going to do when you say you are going to do it? This is the baseline for any relationship, but even more critical in a virtual one. If you do not get this right, it is difficult to move into a more complex and trusting relationship. 

How to get a “yes”:

  • Respond to requests (even if you do not have an answer). The opportunity for misinterpreting others is high, especially as we are all learning how to work in a remote environment. Over-communication (especially now) is imperative. If you cannot respond to a phone call or email within 1 day, send a response that buys you more time (i.e. renegotiate deadlines as needed or let them know you are working on it and when you will respond). This does create another step in the process, which may require a bit more time; however, it will alleviate miscommunication and mistrust going forward.
  • Flip side: Try not to judge those who do not respond in your desired time frame. We are all really distracted right now and dealing with constantly changing priorities and plans. Others may not respond to email right away – maybe they do not know the answer, miss your note among the 1,000 other COVID-19 emails, have a question before responding, or quickly see the email before getting distracted by a cat on their keyboard, etc. There are a variety of reasons why we do not get the response we are waiting for, AND it is in our nature as humans to assume the worst. Do not create a wedge in the relationship in your own head. If you do not get the response you are waiting for, it is best to assume positive intent and try again with a different mode of communication.

2. Can I depend on you? 

This question is also transactional but more proactive. Do you step up when you see a need, or do you wait for your co-workers to ask for help? Do you anticipate the needs of others? Are you proactively checking in on your team members?

How to get a “yes”:

  • Share online calendars. This simple action can quickly allow your virtual team to see what is going on for others and enable them to proactively look for opportunities to help one another. This creates a shared understanding of the workload and how urgently help may be needed. This also allows others to know when it is a good time to call, send an IM, or reach out just to check in.
  • Check in with others to see if you can help. I recently called one of my colleagues and found her in tears. She was having a “worst.week.ever” moment, and I would never have known if I hadn’t picked up the phone and called her. I was able to listen and also find out how I could help. This unexpected call changed her day, and it changed the nature of our relationship. One of the aspects of having an Ally Mindset is to show Abundance and Generosity to others. Simply offering your time (even when you don’t feel like you have it all together yourself) demonstrates that you truly believe there is enough time for everyone on the team to be successful.
  • Flip side: Ask for help! Give others the opportunity to be there for you. If you don’t ever ask for help, others will assume you don’t need it – which keeps you in a downward spiral (especially if you really do need help!). There is nothing worse than sitting in your office (now your house) alone freaking out about something and not being able to talk to anyone about it. There have been many times that I’ve worried about a problem for hours and then finally break down and “phone a friend” who helps me figure it out in a matter of minutes. Allowing others to help you is hard, but builds connection and depth in relationships in a very special way.

3. Do I care about you?

This question is more interpersonal in nature. Do you know what is important to your co-workers (e.g. family, hobbies, friends, interests, etc.)? Do you connect on a personal level? How can you create opportunities virtually to build connection?

How to get a “yes”:

  • Go “off script”. You will need to veer away from the work discussion and check in with your teammates. This doesn’t mean you have to know everything about their personal lives, but you do need to somehow show that you “see” them – especially as we are all experiencing the emotional rollercoaster of the current situation. On our team, we share our “ripples and joys” each week during staff meeting – lately, it has been our “silver linings”. These are our own stories both personal and work-related that illuminate the joys and successes of the past week. Through the sharing of these stories, we learn what is meaningful to each other and build increased understanding and empathy. Powerful stuff.
  • Call when you don’t need something. This is true in all relationships, but for a virtual team (and especially during times of high stress and anxiety) it is crucial. If you only call when you need something, your critical stakeholders may stop taking your calls! When your name pops up on your co-worker’s phone or video call, how do you think they feel? Happy or stressed? Schedule “random” calls if you need to – it will be well worth it. Do what you can to express you are not checking up on them, but instead checking in on them. Ask how you can help. What questions do they have? What do they need from you? How are they feeling?
  • Remember the small stuff. If you know your colleague’s birthday, make a note on your calendar so that you can acknowledge it. If you find out that one of your teammates is doing something fun this weekend (at home of course in groups of 10 or less), ask how it went on Monday. Take notes if you need to – there is no shame in this! When you follow up, it demonstrates that you were paying attention, really listening, and that you have an interest in and value your teammate’s life outside of work.
  • Schedule “white space” in meetings. At SkyeTeam, when asked to lead a team session, we always encourage creating time for team members to simply spend unplanned time together. This small talk will help you learn new things about each other and can turn into deeper conversations and relationships. Many teams have recently been scheduling virtual lunches, coffee breaks, or happy hours. How can you incorporate time to build connection with your team?
  • Do something unexpected. A colleague of mine at a high-tech company has team members in India. To celebrate one of their holidays, he arranged for a local delivery of traditional food. He had asked another colleague in India what he should send – so that it was something the team in India appreciated, rather than what my colleague thought they might like. This simple unexpected act demonstrated very quickly to the team in India that he cared about them. How can you reach out to your teammates in an unexpected way in the next week?

4. Do I trust you?

This is what truly differentiates your relationships from acquaintance to trusted coworker, friend, and Ally. Do you allow yourself to be seen at your best and your worst? Can you have candid conversations with others?

How to get a “yes”:

  • Emails are not going to cut it. You cannot build trust in a relationship based only on email interactions. You can move to an “email only” exchange, but only after you have done the work, built the trust, and earned the right to communicate in this way. At SkyeTeam, we talk a lot about communication and especially email messages. No matter how carefully you craft a message, the receiver always gets to interpret it. This interpretation could depend on how well (or not well) you have written the message, the receiver’s mood when reading the message, other things that are going on that day for the person, etc. You will have to do something more than email to build a deep trusting relationship.
  • Turn on your camera. As much as we don’t want to be on camera, this is CRITICAL. Seeing another person’s body language and facial expressions is key to understanding the intent of their words and actions. In almost every workshop we deliver, we talk about minimizing the intent vs. impact gap in our communications. We judge ourselves on the intent of our communication. We know what we mean, and it makes perfect sense to us based on our own communication styles and preferences. On the other hand, we judge others on the impact of their communication – how that lands for us (i.e. how we interpret the message based on our own styles and preferences). There is MUCH greater opportunity for misinterpretation of messages in email/text/IM. Turn on your camera! Set the expectation that for internal team meetings you do not have to look a certain way to be on camera – yes, appropriately dressed of course (ha ha), but sweats, messy hair, and no makeup are okay. This is hard to get used to, especially if you are usually in the office every day. As a leader, you may have to go first with bed head and wearing your super obnoxious, thick glasses on a call. It will demonstrate to others that we don’t have to be perfect to be on camera – come as you are.
  • Allow yourself to be vulnerable. The only way to build trust on the team is to assume you can trust your team members until you are proven otherwise. I know – it’s scary, right? The fastest route to trust is to give it. We do not have time to waste right now, and we do not have years to build trust – we have hours, maybe days to ramp up the connection with others. Share with others about your own life. Be open. Remember that no one knows what is going on with you – especially in a virtual environment. You could sit at home all day completely falling apart, but no one would ever know. It’s okay to be vulnerable and let others in. This is the key to building trust in relationships and in high performing teams.
We do not have time to waste right now, and we do not have years to build trust – we have hours, maybe days to ramp up the connection with others.

What tactics are you using to build Ally relationships and get to four “yeses” with your remote team members?


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