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Building Remote Work Relationships

Building Remote Work Relationships

By Sonya Arora

Sonya Arora is a Scientist with nearly two decades of experience in Clinical Research, leading global teams.  She is a mentor and champion for future talent both professionally and in the local community.

More and more people are working remotely, with Marketwatch predicting that this will account for 50 percent of employees by 2020. While this has significant benefits for business growth and productivity, it can be challenging when trying to build relationships with people you work with, but never meet face to face.  

Positive work relationships are critical to business success. They help increase motivation, productivity and revenue – and they are often key to successful career progression. A Gallup study found disengaged employees cost companies $300bn in lost productivity each year, highlighting the importance of a happy and effective workforce. This is just as true away from the traditional office setting.


So much of our communication is non-verbal, with facial expressions and body language both playing important roles in conveying the right message. For instance, when working from home, simply relying on a phone call can result in many missed nuances, with text and email reducing this information stream to a trickle.

It’s great to meet up with remote colleagues if there’s an opportunity to do so. But in a world where work culture is becoming increasingly virtual, how can you build positive relationships without ever being face to face?  

Having worked remotely with global teams for most of my career, here are 6 key insights I have learned.

Start Smiling

Your state of mind really does make a difference.  

Colleagues will get a vibe from your virtual interactions, whether it’s your tone of voice or the words you choose. Listen to your favourite song, think of what you are grateful for, meditate – do what works for you to get into a positive state of mind before communicating. This will help you stay open, engaged and approachable.

People like people when they are in a good mood.  So smile when you answer the phone – it really works!

Shut Down

Turn off all distractions and give your undivided attention.

Leave your personal mobile in another room while working.  If you are on a call you can set ‘Do Not Disturb’ on instant messenger and turn off email alerts. If you are easily tempted, shut off your computer screen altogether. Be present in the conversation – your colleague will sense if you are doing something else.  

Now you are ready to listen and contribute fully, showing your audience they matter.

Forget Work

We all have a life outside work (hopefully!), so share yours and show a genuine interest in others.

Have a virtual coffee with colleagues to help you connect authentically and often. Put in some diary time to catch up about non-work stuff, and make it a regular thing. Have a chat before or after meetings if appropriate, and use video as much as possible to help build rapport and cut through the non-verbals.

People enjoy talking about themselves. Make sure you listen without interrupting, ask questions, and take an interest in what is being discussed. As well as forming a genuine bond this will help you understand what makes them tick.  Share as much of your personal life as you are comfortable with. A new baby or a vacation could present opportunities to connect – be cognizant of maintaining a balance between your sharing and theirs.

Connect to Communicate

Be clear, concise, and strike the right tone.

You have the luxury of reviewing and editing written messages before you send them. You may be working with other cultures across different time zones so put in the extra effort to be understood. Emoticons can be useful to inject personality and set the right tone where appropriate. Stay open-minded when receiving communications and don’t jump to conclusions. If you need to, reach out for clarification to avoid the misunderstandings that not being face to face can sometimes lead to.  

Using the phone might seem like hard work, but it’s very easy to fall into the trap of overusing email, which can lack the tone and nuance of a call.  Research has found even a two minute phone conversation makes email negotiations easier. Make a list of points you want to cover before the call to avoid losing sight of what you want to achieve. Speak confidently, clearly, and at the right pace.

Make yourself available. Use instant messenger to communicate in real time and be sure to have a profile picture – this creates context and connection. Not being physically present often requires over-communication, such as sending regular updates to your team who cannot ‘see’ you at your desk.

Be aware of the tools available and use those most appropriate for the situation – from video conferencing to online project management systems; from embracing the latest technology to sending a simple instant message.

Don’t be a Robot

Remember you’re human. Be empathetic, supportive, and give back.

It’s easy to feel isolated and detached when you work remotely, making it even more important to take the initiative in getting to know others.

Is there something you can do to make a colleague’s life easier? Why not reach out and welcome a new team member, or help a colleague on a task or initiative they are working on.

Similarly, working remotely doesn’t prevent you from mentoring if you are comfortable doing so. It’s a great way to pay it forward, it’s fulfilling and it’s an opportunity for you to learn as well. Adding value and going the extra mile over and above your day-to-day tasks will benefit everyone, including you.

Honest appreciation goes a long way. Acknowledging colleagues’ efforts and showing gratitude is a key part of building any work relationship, and working remotely is no different. Send a note of appreciation directly to your colleague or their superior. Give a public award if your company allows it.  

Remember, gratitude and encouragement is not only for peers and direct reports. Acknowledging superiors when they are inspirational or go out of their way for you is just as important and will also give you visibility at a higher level.  

Water your network

What you pay attention to grows.

When you don’t have the luxury of running into someone regularly – or have never met – it can be difficult to maintain a long-term relationship. How do you keep relationships strong when you are out of sight, out of mind?

Remembering personal dates ensures valuable connections stay alive. Send a card for birthdays or weddings and set an alert for important personal events. A well-maintained LinkedIn network should include colleagues and will keep you in the loop. Once your careers take you in different directions, nurture the relationship. Even if you haven’t been in touch for some time, an annual occasion is the perfect opportunity to reconnect.

You never know where you will be next, and where you will end up. It’s a small world and you could meet again!

Working remotely comes with its own set of challenges. These are not insurmountable and I have found by using the steps above that it need not lead to isolation. On the contrary, it can create fulfilling and long-lasting relationships for years to come – connections just as effective as those formed around the water cooler.


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