We hosted our March 2020 Networkplaceless event on a regular schedule prior to the surge in remote work and school closures due to social distancing recommendations to stem the spread of COVID-19. These are the results of those conversations, however, elements are applicable to many more professionals as they enter virtual working relationships for the first time.
Humans are social beings. While this may manifest itself differently in every individual, it's important to recognize that interacting with colleagues is essential to building and maintaining trust in any team. And that trust is a critical element in any team’s success.
Continuous interpersonal interactions aid in achieving business objectives, reaching personal development goals and frankly keeping our sanity. These interactions become more important, yet more challenging, when team members are distributed. By not being physically located next to one another, employees miss out on the impromptu conversations in shared spaces or office drop-ins. When personal connections go ignored for too long, it can result in isolation and loneliness, two of the most common concerns among remote workers.
We wanted to drill down to specifically understand the challenges to building relationships in virtual environments. Our Networkplaceless community brainstormed a variety of challenges that affect their remote relationships:
At its foundation, remote work means individuals accomplishing work goals from independent and separate locations. Being physically separate from one another means casual or unplanned interactions are infrequent and interactions that previously happened randomly now need to happen with intent. You no longer have those opportunities of passing one another in the hallway just to get a feel for the particulars to an individual’s personality or how everyone is feeling on a particular day.
Many teams are implementing valuable tools to help address the lack of organic moments, such as Donut and Shuffl. However, there's a balance needed between forced channels to foster informal relationships and opportunities where individuals can relax and truly be themselves. Does a preset schedule of virtual coffee chats truly translate to the same experience as swinging by someone’s office and inviting them to lunch on a random Thursday? Logic would likely say no. However, it might prompt opportunities to connect with team members who you previously wouldn’t have reached out to.
We also want to stress that outreach without a specific goal in mind can prove unbeneficial especially when it comes to professional networking. However, remember here there actually is a goal even if it isn’t formally expressed—to recreate social opportunities that have been minimized due to structural change. Knowing how to balance formal and informal communication goals is key for building meaningful and successful remote work relationships.
Dynamics within teams can become even more complex when some of the team is virtual, missing out on casual interactions, and everyone one else is co-located in an office, frequently engaged in casual interactions. For these types of hybrid-remote scenarios, Trent Kocurek, CEO and Co-Founder of Airship, during our February event where he shared his perspective that "If one person is remote, everyone is remote." Read the recap: Expert Advice for Solving Hybrid Team Challenges.
Asynchronous communication can be a true benefit of good remote work as it optimizes for individual productivity time and it streamlines the use of those “meetings that could’ve been an email.” But, there can be a downside when you're interacting with teammates less frequently.
Further compounded by every synchronous meeting having a predefined agenda and everyone but the current speaker on mute, the infrequent times you’re all together as a team become highly transactional. You’re not learning about the sense of humor that your teammate has nor the moods they are in that also affect their work productivity.
Many remote workers love the flexibility of schedule and lack of physical commute; however, they also express that the lack of the requirement to get out of the house to be somewhere makes it easier to “just stay home.” This can be exacerbated over time as professionals start to feel “out of touch” or unskilled at networking when they’ve spent most of their time isolated from others. Normal social interactions now take planning and initiative to get started.
Not all employees will desire or need the same level of personal relationships to accomplish their work or feel an integral part of the team. Our attendees highlighted differences between introverted and extroverted personalities and particularly how they each prefer to engage differently. Especially for introverts, the intentionality required for virtual relation building can be challenging.
Additionally, Stephanie Stewart, HR Generalist at Reconciled shared specific challenges her employees face:
“I think employees who struggle the most, are often those in rural areas. To even leave the house and go to a Starbucks or Paneara is a 30 to 40 minute drive. Our company pays for coworking membership, but sometimes there's a lack of options for rural employees.”
It’s not lack of want but lack of physical opportunities to stay socially connected.
Our goal is of course to help solve some of these challenges. We’ll be chatting during our April Networkplaceless specifically about solutions. Laurel Farrer, CEO and Founder of Distribute Consulting and international remote work strategist, will be sharing tips and advice on different relationships in remote environments. Register here.
Additionally, building these relationships is critical for driving a successful remote career. We’ll soon be launching Growplaceless, a self paced course to help provide a personalized framework for remote career development. Sign-up here.