WFH: 4 Ways to Strengthen Relationships at Work

In this Covid-19 driven, mass move to work from home, setting up office and working from home will be new to many.  Thankfully there are countless wonderful articles available on how to use the technology, co-ordinate projects and deadlines, run virtual meetings and all the other practicalities to help you get up and running.  

There is however, one more vital area of focus to add into the mix – learning to manage the emotions and relationships of the people involved.  Quite often the technology works smoothly enough – bar the odd Wi-Fi hiccup! The real challenges generally lie in keeping relationships at home intact, and staying connected and emotionally engaged with colleagues while out for extended periods.  More than ever, the quality of people’s relationships will be the glue that holds teams and companies together through the uncertainty of the weeks and months ahead.

When it comes to working remotely with teams, this one rule applies – if relationships are strong, they will work creatively to find a way to make things happen, even if they have to bend the rules; if relationships are weak or broken, they will use the very rules to create obstacles and justify why things can’t be done.  The truth is that often we make decisions emotionally and justify them logically. Finding a way to keep people connected and emotionally engaged is crucial, especially when working with virtual teams.

Here are four ways to build relationships across distance…

1. Assume the best

Now that we are working virtually, the social cues we normally pick up from being face-to-face with each other – especially through body language – are not that easy to spot on camera, and even less easy to spot off camera!  For some, the technology creates a false environment where they are tempted to “perform” or feel awkward/ self-conscious and not their true selves.  Add to that the global, multicultural world of work, which means that people will have different ways of expressing things based on culture, gender, mother tongue and /or personality, and the scene quickly becomes rife for misunderstanding and miscommunication!

To get the best from our online teams, we need to commit to thinking the best about each team member, assume their intentions are good and clarify any misunderstandings quickly.  This is where everything you have ever learned about understanding fundamental differences (time to go dig out those Personality profiles you did way back when) and listening well, will help you adjust your approach so you can create shared meaning and understanding for everyone.

2. Create connection through virtual “water-cooler” moments

In every conversation, make an effort to create “virtual water-cooler” moments –  times where you pause and check in with each other and just talk with no agenda and no rush.  Encourage people to share what’s happening in their world and how they’re really feeling.  And if you are the team lead, it helps to share how you are feeling as well.  

As vulnerability guru, Brené Brown, says “vulnerability is the birthplace of connection”.  To the extent that it’s appropriate, talk about your fears and concerns together, not to dwell on them but so you can each be mindful of how things are affecting each person and offer mutual support where possible.  Remember for those who are used to the buzz of the office and now find themselves on their own, feelings of isolation can be a real issue so take time to “be team” for each other.

3. Expect and embrace “real life” moments

I remember being at a live seminar once with about 200 people in the room, and as the speaker presented, his 7yr old daughter walked from the back of the room right up to him.  Everyone got distracted by this little girl and wondered what would happen next. Without losing stride, he bent down, lovingly scooped her up in his arms and continued presenting.  Kudos to Brian Mayne.  

So often we put ourselves under pressure to be “official” and shove out the things we care about that might make us look less than 100% professional.  The famous Robert Kelly interview with BBC news comes to mind. He was in his home office on live TV when one, then both of his children merrily wandered in.  He tried to ignore them – unsuccessfully. His wife rushed in to get them, clambering on her knees and trying hard not to be seen – except the whole world saw!  

Let life happen.  Now that we are all working from home, dance with the moments – the child that walks in on a video call, or is screaming down the hall needing attention, or the dog barking, the cat walking across the computer, the doorbell going.  Rather than get tense, bring the moment into the room and take the opportunity to get to know your colleagues – and their partner, kids, dogs – a little bit more!

4. Be more intentional in managing the “temperature” of relationships

We all have emotional bank accounts, those subconscious recordings we make of every interaction with the people around us.  Where the interaction is positive, it registers as a deposit. Where the interaction is negative, it registers as a withdrawal.  The “balance” of deposits and withdrawals determines the “temperature” of the relationship. Where the balance is positive, the relationship will feel positive, friendly and connected.  Where the balance is negative, the relationship will feel scratchy, cold or tense. There is a whole lot more that could be said on this, but the key point is to become more aware of how things are “landing” when you are interacting with each team member and try to manage the temperature of each relationship.  

These are uncertain times for everyone, and colleagues / team members / bosses will be going through their version of tension, stress and anxiety – especially if jobs and finances are threatened.  Words will come out wrong sometimes, so be patient with each other and forgive often.  That is not a word we use much in the corporate world but in the midst of heightened emotions and rapid change, each of us will get it wrong sometimes. Forgive others, forgive yourself and move on – without the weight of resentment and bitterness holding you ransom.

Assuming we make it through alive, Covid-19 could actually serve us in the long run ….

Everyone’s relational competence will be put to the test over the next few weeks and months as our work connections become predominantly virtual.  If we allow ourselves to be more caring and more human during this time, team relationships will thrive, and we could actually emerge better off for the experience.

Meanwhile, stay safe!

If you would like to find out more, visit to discover how four simple but fundamental habits can equip you to build great relationships at work and at home and manage emotional bank accounts effectively.

A woman waves at her laptop screen as a man on the Zoom call waves back.

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