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The Importance of Relationship-Building Moments in a Virtual World

3 min read

Think about all of the moments you get to build a relationship and get to know someone in the bricks and mortar world: the pictures in their office, what time they come and go, the car they drive, what’s in the car they drive, how they take their coffee, what they eat for lunch.

We’ve all been there.

You’re sitting in what feels like a never-ending meeting, and some brave soul calls for a bio-break. At last! As you leave the confines of the room—perhaps over a cup of coffee, powdering your nose, or reaching for a snack—you say what you really think about the presentation to one other coworker.

Or maybe you share the latest football score. Or a joke you heard in the bar the night before. The weather. The soaring price of milk.

Whatever it is, you’re finally speaking your truth, showing what you’re passionate about, sharing an unguarded moment…and building a relationship.

How can we recreate those shared moments in the virtual world? Because it is in those seemingly insignificant moments when we often unknowingly build relationships, get to know someone and most importantly, build trust.

As Tsedal Neeley says in his recent HBR article, Global Teams That Work, creating these shared moments is important, especially when the social distance is far and the emotional connection is high.

Think about all of the moments you get to build a relationship and get to know someone in the bricks and mortar world: the pictures in their office, what time they come and go, the car they drive, what’s in the car they drive, how they take their coffee, what they eat for lunch. You learn the simple truths (or untruths) about them that are shared in the break room, in the elevator, over a cigarette, standing at a shared printer. Truths that can only be known—and shared—in those “shared” spaces and moments.

Can we build trust and relationships virtually? People say it can’t be done. Certainly not in the same way, but you can come pretty darned close if you make an effort. We underestimate the amount of effort required, which is why so many virtual relationships fail or feel dissatisfying.

Here are things I do in my virtual practice to build strong relationships:

  • Make time to check in with virtual colleagues. My colleague Kate Nugent talked about this is in a blog last year. I encourage you to make it a personal check-in.
  • Really listen. Stop multi-tasking. If you’re checking-in on web chat or via email, stop and absorb the information your coworker is sending you. It’s not only your job to listen to them (within the business context of the conversation) but think what this means personally to the other person.
  • Listen to appreciate. When a person speaks, you can hear the other person’s personal values and strengths in what they are saying. Be sure to reflect back what you heard so they know you were listening and you appreciate their point of view.
  • Book a time for a virtual coffee break. How could you replicate a shared drink at the bar at the end of the conference in the virtual world? Step outside, away from your desk and computer…and then make the call. Get out of the office to have a virtual meet-up.
  • Do something un-virtual. What do you get in the mail? Bills? Do you ever get anything good? Send a handwritten note (mail will still deliver from Boston to Tokyo!), or send them a bar of their favorite 80% chocolate to a virtual coworker. Emailing a link to a relevant blog or an article will still show you were thinking about them, but mail will stand out.
  • Share office celebrations with virtual team members. Make sure remote workers know about the birthdays you’re celebrating, the engagement, baby shower, promotion, new hire or other event. Make the announcement personal and include a picture (think “Facebook”). If there is a cake, send your virtual workers a cupcake so they can share in the celebration too.

Next time someone passes you the milk before putting it back in the fridge because they know that you will want to use it too, think hard about what you need to do to recreate that moment (and all of its myriad of sub-text) in the virtual world—a “deliberate moment,” as Tsedal describes them, of building relationship.

For more tips on how to build a virtual relationship, see our infographic here.

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Virtual Presence Guide: How to Help Virtual Teams Create Authentic Connections

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