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With the stress of being newly remote comes a focus on logistics: How do I get my webcam to work? What does it mean if someone isn’t responding to my email? What if my internet goes out in the middle of a big presentation? But moving past all that, zero in on why you’re trying to connect remotely in the first place—and how you can accomplish that goal. 

Without the ability to read body language, have discussions without lag time and quickly catch up on the fly, the human element of work can get lost. Remember that a big reason people love (or don’t love) their jobs is their connection to their colleagues. So as we adapt to a remote world, let’s refocus on that. 

Engaging Informally

Telecommuting technology has grown by leaps and bounds over the past several years as more and more people work from home, connect during business trips and set up remote offices. Zoom, WebEx, Google Hangouts—they were all invented so that we could have meetings and collaborate effectively on work projects when we’re not face-to-face. The technology is great for that, but it can—and should—serve another central purpose: building and keeping our human connections with colleagues. 

Think about everything you’re able to do informally when you’re in an office environment that you’re unable to do now. I’ll start the list for you:

  • Stop by someone’s desk to ask a quick question

  • Catch up on personal lives in the break room or at the elevator

  • Debrief a meeting after it’s officially over on your way out the door

  • Invite nearby colleagues to join you on a trip to find some coffee

  • Hear your coworkers getting excited about something and ask what’s going on

  • Organize a standing happy hour

There’s a lot there, right? And we don’t want to lose all those opportunities to connect with people. So, the question becomes: how can we simulate them within the confines of a remote experience? Creating this type of intimate, collegial environment requires two things—culture and planning.

Ways to Build Culture Online

With quick access communication tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams and Workplace Chat, people can virtually “stop by someone’s desk” to catch up or talk about non-work things, but most need a precedent for it. Oftentimes, we think (consciously or unconsciously) that these workplace communication tools should be used exclusively for work. But building or maintaining relationships with coworkers is an important part of work, so use them for personal connections as well. 

  • Send a Slack question whenever it pops into your mind (and try to respond quickly and graciously when someone reaches out to you!)

  • Make it a habit to ask your teammates how their day is going, if they did anything fun over the weekend and whether they caught the latest episode of that TV show you both watch.

  • Reach out to a colleague or two after a meeting to share how you thought it went, anything you’re excited or unsure about or any ideas you didn’t get a chance to share.

  • Post your excitement about topics that colleagues might find relevant or interesting on a Slack channel. 

  • Encourage others to do all of the above!

Plan With Purpose

Accidentally blurring the line between work and socializing isn’t exactly possible when you’re remote—you have to deliberately cross it. Schedule time for all of the things you’d normally do ad hoc, such as: 

  • Virtual coffee. It sounds corny, but have you ever done it? It can be really wonderful. Talk about whatever you want—work, life—but if you talk about work, don’t talk about projects or action items. Focus more on feelings, things you’re excited about, frustrated about, etc. to provide a sense of connection.

  • Pad your online interactions with time for informal chat. Start 1:1s with some “how are you/what’s new?” talk and make sure you share and set the tone for real connection.

  • Plan group hangouts. Get the team together and have everyone bring a beverage or snack of choice. Play an online game (my office is exploring the Jackbox suite of games you play through your phone and computer).

  • Remember when you were a teenager and you would sit on the phone with someone for hours and sometimes not even talk? You’d just be doing your homework or something, but they were there? Try this with work. Maybe both you and a colleague have a deep-think project to work on and could use the occasional outside perspective. Schedule time to be online together doing your separate work, with the ability to ask for feedback or suggestions whenever the moment strikes.

At the end of the day, logistics are important. If you can’t hear or see someone, it will obviously be hard to communicate with them. But don’t stop at that surface level. Focusing on building human connection with your colleagues through culture and planning will help you develop and maintain the relationships that are the lifeblood of successful work.  

Rae Feshbach is the Head of Content Engagement at Cornerstone.