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Remote relationships 101: Coasting will only get you so far

I can’t count the number of times my dad’s car ran out of gas when I was a kid. Every single time, it was the same sputtering, then a period of coasting, followed by a full stop (and generally a few disapproving words from my mother.)

While remote workers may not need to worry about a full gas tank these days, this idea of coasting to a stop is becoming painfully familiar in the workplace as employees are stepping back and asking themselves:

Are my remote relationships running out of gas?

For many, the answer is "yes." Over the past several months, as millions of people quickly transitioned to working virtually, they naturally relied upon the strength of established relationships to maintain momentum and get the job done.

But now, without the daily face-to-face tending and organic opportunities to connect, these relationships may be showing signs of stress or are simply fading away.

Relationshipss in your personal life and on the job require attention, intention and investment. Even more so from afar. So, here are two non-negotiable strategies to ensure that your important connections don’t coast to a stop.

Consider your communication cadence

Physical presence. Nonverbal cues. Office jokes. Watercooler gabbing. The cubicle drop-in or drive-by. The significance of these features of a co-located workplace has become clear by their absence. And yet, it’s possible to compensate for what’s missing if you’re intentional around communication.

Healthy virtual relationships tend to require more touchpoints than you might expect. "Out of sight" (or touch) really does leave others feeling that they’re "out of mind." So, evaluate your own situation to determine the frequency of communication that will build energy, engagement and collaboration with each remote colleague.

Then, consider the tools available to you. It’s not just phone calls, video conferences and email. Small moments can yield significant results. So, include texting, IM, and the range of internal vehicles at your disposal.

Create a schedule and even set alerts to remind you to reach out. (Despite it sounding contrite and mechanical, this is a technique used by some of the most effective and authentic people I know.) You’ll likely find that you’ve already beaten the alert on many days. Other days, the alert might be just what you need to remind you of something you’d like to pass along or ask. Or, if there’s not a pressing business need when the alert appears, you could use the opportunity to connect on a human level and check in on someone’s day.

The key is be intentional as you craft interactions that fuel your remote relationships.

Prioritize the person (as well as the project)

Relying on technology -- even the best and most visceral forms -- can have a dehumanizing effect. Witness how email exchanges escalate in ways that would rarely play out face to face. But even when emotions aren’t running high, how frequently do you get wrapped up the project or priorities and find yourself diving right into the business at hand and forgetting that there’s a person there?

Remote relationships require special care and feeding on the human side of the equation – beyond just asking about someone’s weekend (although that’s a fine start). They require watching and listening for cues about what’s going on with others and what’s important to them -- and then remembering, following up and acting upon that information.

Incredibly small gestures like remembering the name of a child or a pet send a powerful message that the other person matters; and this miniscule investment of time and energy strengthens relationships.

While it’s not possible to replicate the countless opportunities for connection that exist in real life within the workplace, with a little creativity, we can create virtual variations on some old favorites.

  • After-hours team building has already found a virtual home in Zoom happy hour events. But there’s more that can be done. Online painting, dance and even mozzarella making parties offer fun ways to share common experiences with remote colleagues that strengthen the human connection.
  • Replace the group birthday-cake ritual with a greeting card in electronic or paper form. (And be honest: Getting physical birthday cards is still exciting, no matter one’s age.) Small gifts and mementos are easy to send along to remote colleagues. And I like to keep a party hat and blower in my desk to surprise and punctuate special occasions that fall on videoconferencing days.
  • While laughter is a great connector, the casual humor and inside jokes of day-to-day work life are harder to cultivate virtually. Even so, funny stories that relate to something of interest to a colleague or a shared experience make for a welcome break in the day and send a message that the other person matters and remains on your mind despite the distance. Be aware though that some humor simply works better in person than remotely, so use care. If there’s even a remote possibility that it might be offensive or misinterpreted, refrain from sending it along.

Sustainable remote relationships also demand that you bring your whole self to the party. Your authenticity, vulnerability and willingness to share more of yourself makes it easier for others to connect with you.

Don’t get me wrong; you don’t want to become less professional. Just more human. Turn on the camera – even if it’s a bad hair day. Share experiences as you would or did while co-located. And, what about engaging in videoconference from different parts of your home, space permitting? This offers remote coworkers a more expansive understanding of you, your style and how you live. I know from personal experience that technique sparks a different conversation and opens the possibility of finding new areas of commonality -- or at least interest -- with others.

Given the current landscape and future business trends, more relationships are going to operate in the virtual domain. As a result, establishing and cultivating remote relationships is quickly becoming a critical competency. Intentionality, a deliberate communication cadence, and a clear human focus will ensure that rather than running out of gas, your relationships will have you speeding toward success.

 

Julie Winkle Giulioni works with organizations worldwide to improve performance through leadership and learning.  Named one of Inc. Magazine's top 100 leadership speakers, Giulioni is the co-author of the Amazon and Washington Post bestseller "Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Organizations Need and Employees Want," You can learn more about her speaking, training and blog at JulieWinkleGiulioni.com.

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