Remote relationships: Building affinity though redefining rules of engagement

A recent poll by Gartner showed that in the post-Covid-19 world, 48% of people will now work remotely at least some part of their time, versus 30 percent before the pandemic. As a lot of us have been thrown into an unfamiliar world of remote working, we need to be adept at collaborating digitally, in order to build and sustain our network to be able to make a meaningful contribution. Collaborating with people virtually is not the easiest thing to do as all of us have realised by now as it does require us and the others to bring their best game to the fore. Remote teams demand new skills for collaboration.

Let us think about what is missing – we do communicate through texts, conference calls, emails and other forms of digital communication. What is missing is we are unable to understand the other persons’ body language, sometimes even their tone of voice. This can create misinterpretations in communication, creating an anxiety that can affect morale, be costly for an organization, negatively impact engagement, innovation and productivity. Remote working has the ability to distort our normal pace of conversation. Often, it can lack an immediate response, making us distracted, or second guessing ourselves and causing frustration to grow in teams. We also struggle to build and manage relationships with people we don’t meet at the coffee station day after day.

However, if remote teams are able to communicate well and leverage their strengths, they can have distinct advantages over teams that are co-located. To make this happen, it is important to talk openly about the challenges as all parties see them. Once expectations are clarified upfront, remote working can become happier and more productive. Without having peers to informally guide us in an office space, we will make a number of basic mistakes, despite all good intentions. Therefore, it is crucial to be candid – by helping them course-correct before some early, innocent errors become a problematic pattern of behaviour. It is better to lean towards over-communication. It becomes more important to set up regular meetings for a catch up. There can be formal and informal check-ins with remote colleagues.

If we pay attention, there is still a great deal of meta-communication and virtual leakage of body language that happens in digital environments. It means paying greater attention to what is being said and to read between the lines. It is important to stress the need for structure, agendas and deeper questioning. It eliminates the burden of guesswork from all the people in the teams. It may be a good idea to keep a running list of items to share with remote partners or colleagues. It is better to provide regular updates without the assumption that they may have read or followed each and every email or organizational announcement during the course of their busy days. It is also important to remember time zones and reliable time overlaps. It is critical to respect after-hours time of remote colleagues. If they can skip joining certain after work meetings and can be briefed the next day, people will be more open to that occasional call at 11.00 pm. It is also often an advantage if someone works in an earlier time zone than us – more often than not, if expectations are clear, we can have that important plan or concept note in our inbox before our day begins.

Keeping on top of our schedules when no one is around to remind us of important meetings is crucial. We have to be self-starters and make it clear to others that we are present, physically and intellectually; and willing to pack a lot in our day. It is important to make a thoughtful contribution while participating in a brainstorming session, a conversation or even while responding to an email query. Also getting to know individual styles better of our key colleagues increases affinity. For example, some people favour detailed and lengthy responses, while some prefer quick and short messages – keep in mind that people also differ in their tolerance and preferences for humour and informality.

Sharing information that we know can help another person or team is also a thoughtful gesture – an article on their area of work that you may have read, or a piece of news about a new tool that can support their domain, can go a long way in establishing trust and positive relationships. People like those who are invested in their success. We can also volunteer to help with projects if we have the relevant expertise or even ideas. Show people what you bring to the table, think of yourself as a member of a team, not an individual contributor. Bring in empathy for a difficult situation that a colleague may be facing, find time for a quick conversation to know what is going on in their lives and if we can support in any way possible.

I do believe that while we have the option of talking to blank screens on a video call, being seen makes that critical difference. Being visible also makes us accountable and ensures we are fully present, bringing in our A game. Managers should also look to celebrating occasions and for teams to have a fun time together. Creating virtual rituals and occasions for socializing and celebrating people and successes can strengthen relationships, laying a foundation for future collaboration. It is important to make people come together and find a social connection.

It is possible to make remote and off-site relationships both powerful and productive – over time, remote colleagues can become sounding boards and great allies. The key to success, on both sides, however, is the commitment to utter transparency and forward thinking about what our colleagues need from us most. Of course, as digital interactions continue to increase, we will experience new misunderstandings and miscommunication. While new technologies can try and bridge that gap, it is not the place to look for solutions. The solution is in understanding the new rules of engagement and in building communication skills that reflect the demands of our Covid induced isolation and digitally driven age.

Vasudha Jha
Vasudha is Head of Corporate Affairs at Mars Pet Nutrition. She has more than two decades of experience in Corporate Affairs & Communications with Reliance Jio and Monsanto Holdings India Limited. She led Corporate Communications for Star India Pvt. Ltd. and Glenmark Pharmaceuticals Limited, besides having worked with leading PR firms like Clea PR, Genesis Burson Marsteller and her entrepreneurial venture, 24th June Public Relations.

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