We are in a strange time where many of us are working from home for the first time after decades accustomed to the cultural norms of in-person human interaction. From job interviews and work meetings to social hours with friends and schooling, relationship building now occurs by phone, video, and online chat.
I thrive on in-person interaction. I have been conditioned as a recruiting expert to read body language and the unspoken cues to determine the quality of what a person is saying. I have come to realize moving all of my human interaction at work to a virtual setting has pivoted my strategy for building work relationships.
I have boiled down 7 simple but incredibly effective techniques for successfully building relationships with remote teams and candidates we interview when communicating virtually. Taking these steps helps people to see that you value them and are open to building meaningful and authentic relationships.
Right out of the gate, the first tip is extremely basic; bring your whole self to the meeting, which includes your face. It’s easier to assess tone on a video call in comparison to a phone call because the added dimension of seeing facial expressions brings authenticity to the meeting. Seeing someone’s face fosters deeper connection and likability than simply hearing their voice. Make sure there is ample light in your room so the other person can clearly see your face.
Additionally, give your audience a humanizing sneak peek of where you work. I like to show people my home environment. I deliberately sit in front of a noteworthy piece of art I found at a street market in Peru, so if someone happens to ask about it, I can share a piece of my personal self by briefly explaining how I stumbled across my sentimental treasure.
Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Being that these biases are unconscious, resisting it can feel impossibly challenging. When you are connected with someone virtually in a meeting or interview, bring awareness to how you are treating the person as it relates to their identity.
If judgmental thoughts bubble up in the back of your mind, bring it to awareness and squash them. Based on our upbringing, we are all conditioned to carry bias. No one is perfect. I have made a conscious effort to learn about what biases were taught to me and creating deliberate plans to distance myself from those beliefs. I make efforts to use inclusive language and get to know them as who they are and not what they look like.
I didn’t learn this on my own by any stretch of the imagination. By reading books like Inclusion by Jennifer Brown, listening to countless podcasts and reading a plethora of academic articles, I am just now feeling confident enough to navigate the world of unconscious bias as it relates to the remote work environment. Among the many moving parts of today’s virtual world, we must not forget to prioritize this conscious effort.
Humans are social creatures and require a healthy amount of in-person engagement to stay connected. In the traditional office environment, this is accomplished by gathering around the water cooler, standing in the lunch line, or passing in the halls to catch up. However, breaking the ice in a virtual meeting or interview can be tricky.
After everyone gets past cross-checking if audio and visual are working, dedicate the next few minutes to build trust. While it may be easy to ask the cliche question, “How is the weather?”, stay away from that one because they have most likely been asked that several times the same day. Come up with your own unique icebreaker and use that on all of your virtual meetings. What works for me is that I simply thank the person for joining the video call and mention how it’s been a crazy day but am looking forward to spending virtual time with them.
From there, I typically share a small glimpse of my personal life, so they can see I’m a well rounded person, a.k.a. human. I usually find common ground as we banter back and forth, and it sparks the other person to open up in return. For example, I like to talk about juggling work from home while homeschooling my two young kids.
Another conversation starter I use is mentioning how I’m sitting close to the window and can see all the delivery trucks going by as I eagerly await a new book I have been dying to read. The goal of small talk isn’t to brag about myself. It’s a deliberate strategy to soften the stiffness of the meeting, especially a two dimensional, virtual meeting.
Experts say over 80% of communication is through expression and non-verbal communication. We all know the feeling when we are talking on the phone delivering a compelling monologue only to find out the call dropped, or worse, the other person is still on the line but disengaged. The same can happen over a virtual meeting.
If you sit still enough on the video call, the other person might confuse your stillness with a bad internet connection and ask you, “Are you still there?” Doing so disrupts the flow of the meeting or interview and breaks their attention. To validate that you are listening during your virtual meeting, give head nods and visible signs you are actively engaged and thinking. If you like what they are saying, throw in short cues like “Good point” and “Gotcha.”
On the flip side, try to avoid unsavory unspoken facial expressions if you disagree. To avoid uncomfortable moments, go ahead and gently disagree instead of frowning or furrowing your brow for an extended amount of time, to the point where the other person has lost all confidence.
This is for the virtual interviewees out there. Thanks to LinkedIn, you can easily research the backgrounds of your interviewers and their companies before you meet. Too frequently, I’ve had hiring managers say they are disinterested in a candidate because they knew nothing about the company or the interviewer's background.
Do your research on the company because it shows the interviewer you are invested in the company and position. On a personal level, it’s also a big sign of flattery when the interviewee draws in commonalities between himself or herself and the interviewer. Everyone likes feeling important. If you are interviewing for a job, it’s a good time to make a great impression and build a relationship by calling out something notable about the person you are engaging with.
The Harvard Business Review conducted a research study on virtual working environments and found that virtual teammates are 2.5 times more likely to perceive mistrust, incompetence, broken commitments, and bad decision making with distant colleagues than those who are co-located. Worse, they report taking five to 10 times longer to address their concerns.
Recently, a co-worker told me during a performance review at her last company that the manager wished she would openly share her feelings and opinions more often. It’s tricky, because we have been conditioned by our parents to be cordial and polite. The old saying, “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it at all” was invented before the world of virtual work environments.
Because it’s much easier to fall silent in a virtual team meeting, it’s even more crucial to speak up, share your opinion and offer valuable feedback when you are compelled to do so. Doing so builds meaningful relationships. People will start to look to you as a subject matter expert when you have thoughtful ideas and opinions to share. This will build trust. Fight your intuition and natural human instinct to mistrust. Assume people are bringing their best selves in the work relationship before assuming the worst. In doing so, you will feel empowered to speak up more and challenge conversations.
I self identify as a cheesy, humored person. I don’t change who I am in the presence of a virtual meeting. I like to make people laugh and I get validation from earning a smile. Even in an interview, it’s ok to let your true self shine through.
Humans are drawn to familiar feelings for comfort and display trust in those familiar experiences. We can all agree it feels good to smile and even more so to laugh. Smiling encourages positive interactions. Make your virtual interaction positive and pleasant by smiling, being your radiant self and, in return, you will get a smile and earned trust.
It’s surreal to comprehend that in a matter of weeks, most people in the US and across the world have been cut off from in-person human interaction. Just because physical interaction is limited doesn’t mean we can’t build strong social relationships virtually. We are social creatures and must stay dedicated to maintaining relationships. This current virtual lifestyle is temporary, and in time when we resume normal social norms, we will all come out a lot stronger.