Thanks to the covid-19 pandemic we have discovered that many jobs and tasks can be done remotely. Organizations, however, are not a collection of tasks, they are a network of relationships. If these are not maintained, companies risk productivity slumps, conflicts, lowered motivation, absenteeism, and high rotation of talented people.
In the research below you will find:
- Why we need good relationships at work
- Challenges of remote work
- Strategies for building relationships in remote teams
- Tips: using communication tools wisely
WHY WE NEED GOOD RELATIONSHIPS AT WORK
Organizations with higher levels of employee engagement indicated lower business costs, improved performance outcomes, lower staff turnover and absenteeism, and fewer safety incidents.
Health – When employees experience positive relationships, they increase the body’s ability to build, maintain, and repair itself.
Performance – High quality relationships have a direct impact on the psychological safety of a team necessary for innovative thinking, growth mindset and collaboration.
Studies – Organizations with higher levels of employee engagement indicated lower business costs, improved performance outcomes, lower staff turnover and absenteeism, and fewer safety incidents (Gallup, 2015).
Interpersonal relationships have a significant impact on mental health and physical health (Umberson & Montez, 2010).
Social interaction can lead to knowledge and productivity spillover from trained to untrained workers, in collaborative team settings, or between senior and junior workers: particularly in low-skilled tasks and occupations (Cornelissen, 2016)
Studies show that the sense of isolation that comes from low quality relationships at work is associated with a host of negative health consequences, including a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, compromised immunity, increased risk of depression, and shortened lifespan (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015; Cacioppo et al., 2011; Mushtaq et al., 2014).
Strong ‘within-group’ ties with co-workers (characterized by frequent social interactions) provide opportunities to facilitate innovative thinking. According to Wang, Fang, Qureshi, & Janssen (2015), and ensure that everyone is „on the same page.”
Repeated positive social interactions cultivate greater shared experiences and the gradual development of more trusting relationships (Oh, Chung, & Labianca, 2004). When trust exists between team members, they are more likely to engage in positive, cooperative behavior, which in turn increases employee access to valuable resources.
The information collated through social interaction can help a team collectively improve its performance and the precision of its estimates (Jayles et al., 2017).
CHALLENGES OF REMOTE WORK
You should feel some personal connection to the people that you work with. You don’t need to be best friends, but learning a bit more about each other will help you become a better person and improve your productivity. Remote work poses unique challenges to both creating and maintaining this valuable rapport. Below are the most common red flags that require particular awareness and care with a remote work team.
- Remote work can be lonely – mental health of singles and extroverts suffers
- Home office is full of distractions – connecting can help refocus ppl
- Relationships build trust/psychological safety which is essential to good collaboration and feedback loops
- Career advancement is based only partially on merit, and mostly on relationships. Building a rapport with coworkers as well as management is important to showing who you are, how you behave and relate to others as a demonstration of your ability and readiness to advance.
- Tribal knowledge – Over time, many organizations establish unspoken norms and rules of behavior that can be difficult to make sense of when working remotely. In fact, oftentimes the only way to learn this information is through observation & trial and error. If remote teams aren’t proactive about establishing and documenting communication norms and tribal knowledge, it will be difficult for others to figure this out in the future.
- Learning and mentorship – As a remote worker, it takes more work to initiate a conversation, which is critical if you are blocked or don’t understand something. Being in the same room provides an easier environment to initiate conversation. If you are trying to learn, you shouldn’t feel bad about asking someone for help.
- Conflict can go unaddressed longer – It can be difficult to address conflict when working remotely. Once again, this is not necessarily because someone hates you, but it could be caused by something basic, like a lack of data and body language. If someone storms out of a meeting when you all work in the office, it’s pretty obvious that there’s an issue. Working remotely requires a level of candor that an office environment may not require. If someone is upset about something, they may need to be proactive and tell you.
- Who is responsible for what? – While this is true in an office environment too, it can be much more difficult to understand key roles and responsibilities. When you are in an office, you can pick up quite a bit from passive observation, like seeing who is attending meetings. Even basic affordances like desk configuration can provide clues into what people do at work. As a remote employee, Slack can provide helpful clues, but this is implied responsibility vs. being explicit and documented in a straightforward manner. You may accidentally step on people’s toes too. Be prepared to spend more time trying to figure out who is responsible for certain tasks.
- What is going on at work? Finally, you may struggle to understand what’s going on at work. Information doesn’t flow the way it should be and it is scattered across various tools. Important company-wide initiatives may not be properly conveyed throughout the organization, causing a feeling that things are constantly shifting around.
STRATEGIES FOR BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS IN REMOTE TEAMS
Creating and maintaining relationships requires either proximity or dedicated space and time, or both. Some strategies that are working in companies around the world.
- Meet up in person
- Share hobbies & fun facts
- Create a ongoing feedback loop – the best way to do this is by holding regular 1-1 meetingswith each person on your team. If you aren’t holding regular 1-1s with your team, you will probably have trouble leading a remote team. It’s like you are flying blind – at some point you will crash. Alternatively, you can run a daily scrum or share weekly status update.
- Intentionallystart meetings with small-talk.
- Create a dedicated space for informal conversation – example, you could have a lunch time discussion, a book club, or a Friday afternoon “happy hour” call. (should be optional or held on an infrequent basis. )
- Say “thank-you” more than you do now – Another strategy to build better relationships as a remote team is to create habits around saying thank-you. An unfortunate reality is that people know they should give recognition more than they do now, but because it’s not a habit, it’s easy to forget.
- Consider “pairing“, especially with new hires, connecting them with a buddyor someone they can talk to if they have questions.
- Remember key dates and do something about it.For the people on your team or inside your company, you should remember two key dates and mark them on your calendar: the date the employee was hired, the birthday of the employee. Celebrate these dates with the person and/or as a team. Fact: birthdays and work anniversaries are when people typically quit their job, so maybe you could do something to make someone’s day.
TIPS: USING COMMUNICATION TOOLS WISELY
- WRITE emails whenever you want, but SEND them only during working hours. Use scheduling tool if necessary.
- Use chat for quick asks, err on the side of more, not less politeness.
- Use phone conversations or video chat to explain complex issues, solve misunderstandings, make plans, brain storm and problem solve.
- Phone conversations or video need to be followed by notes to make sure ppl didn’t miss anything important when/if their attention strayed.