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Connecting remotely

How to be human in a digital world

When the first lock-down as a result of the pandemic was announced, I was angry. Having been working remotely for years prior to the pandemic, I was very familiar with how technology amplifies any communication issues that might exist. I also know that the most common problem amongst teams is communication. It is rare to find a team that communicates well. I was not happy to be forced to go remote full-time.

Benefits of remote work

Before we jump into how to connect online, let’s first highlight the top three benefits of working remotely as building blocks for building relationships online.

1. Psychological safety increases

In an open-space office I always felt I had to be careful what I say as there’s bound to be someone overhearing the tail end of a conversation without the necessary context to make up a story of their own.

2. More time to think

One of the biggest issues in an office environment is that people tend to spend a lot of energy trying to look busy. Inevitably, according to Murphy’s Law, if you are busy for 7 hours of the day and spend just 10 minutes relaxing by playing a game or scrolling through social media, your manager will walk past your desk exactly during the 10 minutes of downtime.

3. Healthier eating and exercise habits

Commuting to the office and back creates a lot of time pressure, even if your office is around the corner. I used to either end up not eating anything for lunch, overdosing on coffee, or simply grabbing the closest thing I can find which is usually either very unhealthy or very expensive.

How to connect remotely

Knowing some of the key benefits of working remotely, let’s move on to the real topic at hand, namely how to connect remotely. Being tool agnostic and focusing on the human aspect of relationships which can be applied in any type of environment, here are my top tips for building and strengthening online relationships.

1. Include a topic that doesn’t involve work at all

My first rule of thumb is that whenever I have a call with someone, especially new contacts, we first talk about something that doesn’t involve any work at all.

2. Don’t schedule every meeting

I’m always surprised to hear how un-common this approach to managing time is. Most people I speak to tend to schedule most to all remote conversations.

3. Chat regularly with small conversations

As a rule of thumb I check-in first thing in the morning with all my direct team members with a simple good morning and some small talk over virtual coffee, the same as I would do in a normal office.

4. Establish and clarify clear rules of engagement

One of the most common complaints I hear from remote workers is that they feel overwhelmed with a company chat where they feel they have to respond immediately and be active all the time to show that they’re productive.

Remember. Time reading or responding in a chat is time not doing real work.

5. Know when to rely on tools and when to connect in person

This might seem obvious, yet, I’m always surprised at how bad people are at knowing when to use which communication channel, so here’s my obvious guide for when to use which.

  • For ensuring all standard work items gets done rely on the tools and the processes in place.
  • For communicating process changes, important messages and making decisions, team meetings are great and following it up with a chat ideal. But the in-person communication is the essential part, with the chat follow-up the optional one, not the other way around.
  • For problem solving or dealing with complex tasks (complex being something that is not standard and straight forward, not necessarily just difficult options), connect in a voice call (with or without video and screen share) and follow up with a chat.
  • For personal feedback or negotiation, or a first time conversation with someone, always do it face-to-face (video call with your camera on).

Use the right communication at the right time to solve the right problem.

People aren’t stupid, we just think differently, have different skills and backgrounds and seniority. What you might think is common sense as a one-liner instruction in a Jira task, might have multiple interpretations by the person needing to do the work.

6. Add music

Sounds simple, but there’s nothing as awkward as an awkward silence. Especially online where everyone is scared that they might interrupt someone else.

7. Mob together

And the grand finale, worthy for a post in itself and the default for me, do it together.

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