Real Relationships in a Virtual World

How to create deeper connections in a virtual workplace.

I retired from teaching a number of years ago and now work with a non-profit organization where everything is done in a virtual environment.  This was a new experience for me.  I knew from the beginning that the technical aspects of the virtual workplace would be challenging.  I had a lot to learn about teleconferencing and webinars, storing information in a cloud, and using Dropbox and virtual folders instead of file cabinets and manila folders. What I didn’t anticipate was the aloneness I felt. While the internet and world wide web are quite efficient in connecting us across time, miles, and languages, they come with the challenge of staying connected at deeper levels.

virtual worldI appreciate the way our computers can to talk to each other; but the world wide web remains a service, not a team of people. The internet can never be a replacement for face-to-face contact. Some organizations look for ways to make the virtual working environment more personal. Several months ago, the team I work with decided to develop a “values statement” as a reminder that, while our work place is virtual, the people we work with aren’t.

We devoted several of our bi-weekly meetings to developing our values statement. We started by each sharing one personal value and briefly describing how we bring this value to our work. Examples of personal values include honesty, enthusiasm, innovation, respect, and happiness. From this list of personal values, we developed our values statement: “We invest in our team to spur personal growth and excellence in a culture of fun, innovation, respect, passion and commitment to a common goal.” I like the way this statement promotes both personal growth and excellence in our work as a team.

We then initiated several practices to help us live our values. For staying connected on a personal level, we tried using google hangout for monthly “happy hours.” Different time zones and people’s varied schedules made this difficult for everyone to participate, so we switched to a different format. We now start our staff meetings with a brief sharing of “news and celebrations.” This sharing has varied from celebrating personal and professional accomplishments to announcements about getting a new puppy. We’ve also shared information about books we’re reading and places we’ve visited. We recently instituted a “Weekly Team Brief”—an online newsletter to helps us share and stay informed of any new developments in our respective initiatives.

I’ve now worked in a virtual environment for over a year. I still miss the face-to-face interactions, but I no longer feel isolated. I value the relationships I have with my team members and continue to invest time and energy in keeping these relationships strong over time. While the keys to meaningful relationships span the “in person” and virtual worlds, I’ve found they become even more critical when using technology to communicate. I’ve developed a few reminders to help me stay real and personal in a virtual world.  I call these the “three R’s”—reach out, respond, request.

Reach out to stay connected. 

While I work remotely and have siblings and daughters living a distance from me, I make a point of reaching out to team members and families frequently. It’s sometimes just a “checking in” with a short email, but I also make a point of calling fairly often. A real conversation, I find, strengthens a relationship more than email threads.

Respond with respect and warmth.

We all know that a true conversation involves both listening and speaking—that without the listening, there is no real conversation. With each email I receive from a colleague, friend, or family member, I try to engage a listening ear before responding. To me, listening is a form of respect. I also try to include a touch of warmth in my response. After all, it’s a person—not a machine—that I’m responding to. Finally, I’ll add a spark if this feels appropriate. By spark, I mean something interesting or an element of humor. I avoid overdoing this, as there are no visual cues to show me how the recipient is feeling.

Request the opinions and support of others. 

People who work remotely often take pride in their independence and ability to figure things out on their own. They tend to avoid “bothering” others on the team. Yet, we should never be afraid to ask for advice and help. The entire team and individuals on the team are usually energized by supporting each other.

I now feel connected with my team members in both a professional and personal way. Each one means more to me than the role they play in the organization. While our workplace remains virtual, the relationships are real.

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