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Developing Relationships in a Virtual World

by  Susan Fennema – Beyond the Chaos

Developing relationships in this virtual world of email, chat, and conference calls can be challenging. How do you convey the personality of your company and team members when you do not have opportunities for face-to-face contact and sometimes, not even phone contact?

An added challenge for those of us running virtual companies is developing relationships within your own team members. In my case, we are spread out from New York City to San Francisco. Plus, we have clients from Maine to Los Angeles. So, even figuring out time zone conversions for meetings can be an issue.

All of this affects our abilities to do our jobs well. But, not all is hopeless. Developing relationships virtually just requires a different skill set than the in-person relationship building of old. Let’s start with the different types of digital communications:

Email

Email has been tried and true since about 2004 with the advent of AOL Mail. (Anyone just hear that dialup sound in your head?) Obviously, upgrades to email throughout the last 15 years have brought it into all areas of our lives. Whether you love it or hate it (or both!), it is a necessity for business communications… and many personal ones. Email gives you space to create a tone, which helps with developing relationships. A big rule here is to remember not to hide behind it. By letting your personality come through, you’re able to convey who you are and how you interact.

My rule of thumb is to write it as I would say it, and then go back and edit it to include any nuances. And, possibly I would edit it to be more concise. Even with the ability to type all you want, you still need to get to the point, to avoid TLDR responses. Or, have people ignore the email completely.

This method might be your only way of communicating with people, especially initially. Even during our sales process, I use clear, concise communications. The intention is to start educating our potential clients on what it would be like to work with us.

Conference Calls

It’s not enough to just call people anymore. You have to share screens and have more than one person on most calls. For us virtual companies, that’s how we run all of our meetings. If you haven’t seen the “real-life conference call” video, I encourage you to be entertained. Over time, those interruptions and issues have become so common-place that we just accept it and move on.

Initially, I hated to use the video part of the conference call tools. It felt sort of like those who hate hearing the sound of their own voice when they record an outgoing message. Also, as a work-from-home person, I felt like I had to go “primp” for every time I was going to be on screen. But, video calls give you the ability to see colleague’s expressions and reactions and to have “eye contact”, even when you are just looking at their image and it looks like you aren’t looking at them at all. It still helps facilitate communication.

So, how did I get over my video issues? I just did it. Just like everything else, the more you do it, the easier it gets. If I am called into a video call and I’ve just come back from walking the dog in Texas heat, I say that straight up. “Forgive my crazy hair, I just got in from walking the dog and, man, is it hot!” With that type of communication, you are letting people into your real life. You’re sharing who you are and what might be “happening” in your life. Plus, you find out more about others. “Oh, you have a dog? What kind? I LOVE DOGS. I foster animals from the pound all the time.” That type of information is usually not communicated over email.

That being said, if I know I’m recording something for a videocast or it is the first time I am meeting with a person, I absolutely up my game. No attendance at those in fleece pajamas with frizzy hair and no makeup. Perception is still important. (But, no one knows if you still have your PJ pants beneath that professional top.)

I am a professional. I also walk the dog and wear PJs to work most of the time. So, be who you are. And don’t be afraid to let people see it.

Chat  

Chat is my favorite tool for developing relationships. There are so many options have come out over the past few years: WhatsApp, Teams, Google Hangouts/Chat, Teamwork Chat, Basecamp Campfire, and Skype. But, Slackhas made all the difference to me, my team, and my colleagues.

Since we work in project management, which often requires instant communication with clients, we use almost all of those applications regularly. But, Slack is by far the best. I currently am in 14 workgroups. Within those groups, I can communicate with literally hundreds of people. Instantly. When you interact with people via these chat spaces, you are able to quickly see who has a sense of humor, who is happy most of the time, who likes to brag a bit, who communicates really clearly and, of course, the opposite of all of those. I’m a huge fan of emojis as responses to posts, both to acknowledge that the person has been heard and to convey an emotional response. Your personality even shows through the use of those. And you can truly get to know each other through these tools. Even those people you will never meet in person.

My team’s main communication tool is Slack. We get help from each other that way. We share challenges and basic information. Sometimes we just complain or vent. We also share silly stories of what happened to us today. (Think water cooler talk, if you were in an actual office.) Laura has worked for Beyond the Chaos for 2 1/2 years and I’ve never met her in person. We don’t talk on the phone much. We don’t even have that many conference calls. But we know each other very well because of our chat communications. That goes for the rest of our Chaos Killers as well (except Maria and Kim… I’ve met them in person.)

Lessons in Developing Relationships Virtually

So, what are the lessons here? Lesson #1 is that you CAN be yourself over the airwaves. You can demonstrate your sense of humor, confidence, knowledge, and approach. People can feel that they know who you are by your writing style.

And that brings us to Lesson #2. You can truly get to know each other through these types of tools. One of my favorite client relationships is with The Proof Group. All the team members are dramatically different in personality. I worked with the team for over a year before I met them in person in December 2017. I was so excited to meet all these characters whom I had come to know through Slack. And they were exactly what I expected. One day, maybe I’ll even meet my own team members!

Lesson #3: Pay attention to perceptions. And know yourself. Self-awareness is one of the main keys to sharing your personality so that people get the true sense of who you are.

And, finally, Lesson #4: You have to be able to write, despite hearing all the rumors that the English language is dead. Your readers perceive you differently if you aren’t using correct grammar and punctuation. Business writing is one of those skills that is still required. And more so than in the past, you have to do it on the fly, without another proofread and without lead time to think about it. It is instant. And if you cannot do it naturally, and integrate your personality and culture into it, you will struggle with developing relationships. Guaranteed.

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