How to Build Relationships and Rapport with Remote Team Members

I used to work in an office where most of the communication was done in person. We had a remote team of proofreaders, and I felt like they were the most left out guys ever. Barely anyone in the office ever saw them face to face, no one ever talked to them in the flesh, and only a handful of people knew what they were actually working on. For everyone in the office they just… existed somewhere.

While I enjoyed the company of my colleagues at the watercooler or dinner, the proofreaders were working from home, sometimes in complete isolation. Actually, the first time I talked to one of them over email was well over one year into my job. That felt weird.

Such isolation is bad for people and it’s bad for business. According to an academic survey of 672 workers by California State University,

loneliness at work has “significant influence on employee work performance, weaker productivity, and demotivation.”

Work Loneliness and Employee Performance

The question is – what can you do about it? Unfortunately, as a simple IT guy in a big company, I never had the means to improve things on a larger scale. But if you’re in a small startup or managing a team of distributed workers, you can dramatically improve their productivity and joy of work by making a few small changes.

The key answer here is inclusion. Remote workers often feel left out because they are, in fact, left out. Here’s what you can do.

First of all, create a shared digital space. All the communication in my company was done via email, and the most collaborative thing you can do with emails is to send it to several people. That’s not inclusion, that’s informing.

Back then we didn’t have Slack or WhatsApp, but nowadays there’s no excuse. Create a common platform for all your team members, onsite and offsite. This will allow them to talk to each other and share both work and life experiences in order to build deeper relationships with one another. It will also boost your onsite interactions because unified digital space brings closer even those who share the same office space.

Slack is more preferable because it allows you to create both shared space and a shared culture (facilitate corporate memes & emojis, add extensions like Giphy to let people have more fun, set-up non-work channels e.g. #watercooler).

Next step: meetings. If you have a department that is fully remote, never work with people in it on a one-on-one basis exclusively. Schedule at least one or two group calls a week and invite interested people from your office as well. As a manager, your goal is to create as many connections between remote and onsite team members as possible. Just make sure these meetings always have a goal. Otherwise, people will deem them a waste of their time and stop coming (either literally or figuratively).

If you have remote team members in different departments, make sure you include them in your onsite meetings – set up a notebook with Skype in your meeting room and let them be there and have a voice. Best option: buy a projector.

Another key task is to make work of remote team members visible to everyone. Remote team members do their job and help the company grow as much as the office workers, however, the latter group may simply not be aware of this.

What can be done? A few suggestions:

  • daily standups (frankly, all agile practices help tremendously to form a relationship between team members)
  • regular automated questions (here you get to be creative. e.g. Geekbot slack extension allows you to ask specific team members certain questions and post answers to a preferred channel. For example, you can ask all the remote proofreaders once a month how many times they had to replace literally with actually or how many books among those they proofread they liked… you get the idea. Keep it fresh & useful, though, to make it last.)
  • keep a sheet pinned somewhere visible with a schedule of when remote workers are available so that all office workers know when they can contact them or when they are active. This actually solves a big problem – sometimes onsite workers don’t contact remote workers just because they are not sure if it’s the right time. So instead of calling via Skype, they write lifeless emails.

Social Media Hubs / Shared Community – if your company has a strong digital presence (and it should in 2019), the social media platform becomes a front between your company and its clients. Let your workers unite on this front and work together to the benefit of your user base.

Now, in simpler terms, make everyone work with your clients. If you have a live chat, allow people from different departments to be a part of it. If you have a Facebook group, encourage your employees to comment and post there, talking with the community. If you have a blog, encourage your team members to write for it. When you do all these things, it won’t matter anymore if the people are in the same room or city, because now they will have a shared front of work in the digital world.

This is why some remote departments have it much easier than the others. The support department or marketing department naturally have these digital communication channels, so working remotely with onsite team members for them is easy. Not to mention they get to talk to many people on a daily basis. However, other departments may not have such socializing opportunities naturally, so you have to facilitate them yourself.

Lastly, company retreats. Gathering everyone once a year (including remote workers) is a great way to form lasting relationships between colleagues. Well-known remote companies like Buffer & Zapier regularly share their positive influence on team morale after such retreats and made them part of their company cultures.

If you have team members from another country that might be a bit difficult. A helpful tip here is to be attentive to any plans they may have of coming to your country, and if they are, make sure to invite them to a corporate dinner or organize a small museum tour with a few onsite workers they work with the most.

All the digital age tools that allow us to work from any place in the world do a terrible job at combating feelings of loneliness. Why don’t we make a hard turn and use them to bring us closer? All you need is some will to improve people’s lives and maximize your team’s productivity in the process.