When I was first hired to my current position, I was tasked with managing a large, complex rebuild project. Our full team met with the client daily over video calls and much of the rest of my day was spent in continuous communication with our remote team and the project stakeholders over chat.
Because of the difficult nature of the project and the compressed timeline, we had to work very closely with the client, prioritizing features for launch to make the deadline and to adhere to the project budget.
We often had to tell our client stakeholders they wouldn’t be able to have features that they had planned to have at launch, or that a bug in the application would take more time and budget than previously anticipated.
These conversations were certainly difficult, but were made much easier by the relationship I had worked to build with the client. Our frequent conversations and face-to-face connections had allowed me to get to know our client’s stakeholders and build a level of trust that allowed for open, honest project communication.
As modern project managers, we have so many roles, and managing relationships is one of the most important ones. Our position makes us responsible for project health and gives us the special opportunity to nurture the health of our teams and our ongoing relationships with clients. When we invest in relationships with the members of our project team, we help to build teamwork and collaboration, improve communication, create a creative and solution-bound project environment, and build stakeholder investment in our common goal–the success of our project. Above and beyond our day-to-day tasks, relationships give meaning and significance to the work we do as project managers.
As a member of a digital agency, I often find myself working with remote teammates and clients, and, more often than not, our relationship building occurs over the phone, video calls, and online chat tools. Most people prefer to spend as much time in-person as we can with the members of our project teams, but how do we make sure that our communication remains compassionate and empathetic even when it occurs over digital mediums?
How To Build Strong Relationships In Virtual Teams
Here are 5 simple but incredibly effective techniques for successfully building relationships with your remote team and clients when communicating virtually. Taking these steps helps people to see that you value them and, in doing so, helps you build critical project allies with the stakeholders involved.
1. Don’t Assume. Ever. Just Don’t Do It.
One of the most important things to remember when building relationships (in any situation) is to never ever ever make assumptions. Do not assume anything about a person’s identity, their priorities and motivation, or what kind of person they are, just to name a few.
Instead, ask questions about them to learn and understand who they are. Use intentional, inclusive speech. (Read this great article about being deliberate with your words, and this article for gender-neutral ways to address a collective!) And, when in conversation with someone, always frame your relationship as “we,” making it clear that the two of you are on the same team and can be viewed as extensions of one another. Make sure that the person knows they are safe with you by consciously creating a space where they are safe with you!
When I asked a colleague Jase Rodley—a lifestyle business owner who works with remote teams—about the dangers of making assumptions, he explained:
“When working with a virtual, international team, getting ‘lost in translation’ is a daily thing. My default mode is to think about comments for hours, where I can easily come to many incorrect assumptions. To combat this, I remind myself that I’m ‘the dumbest person in the room’. If I don’t fully understand something, I ask for clarification.
But when working with people all around the world, it’s important to consider how these questions are interpreted too. By asking ‘Can you please help me to understand?’ or ‘Can you show me an example so I can better understand?’, it takes the focus off of what they said (which can sometimes cause offense) and instead onto myself, who they are eager to help understand.”
2. Don’t Limit Your Conversation To Professional Topics.
Build trust with others by letting them see who you are outside of work. Tell them that your brother just graduated from college and you’re so proud of him. Share a funny story about your pet or your child. Mention your love for rehabilitating antique furniture.
During that difficult project, I tried to check-in weekly with my client stakeholders individually and see how their weekends were or, towards the end of the week, how their weeks had been. I sent around a picture the weekend I adopted a kitten, and some of them even shared photos of their families in return. It gave us something to connect over when the project got tough and allowed us to get to know our dynamic team more completely.
Granting your clients and coworkers little glimpses into your personal life helps them to get a better picture of the multi-dimensional person that you are, building their trust and comfort with you. It builds a more intimate relationship, provides a potential common ground for you to discover that you share interests, and shows them they can be safe sharing more about themselves as well!
3. Make Time For Face Time.
This tip is far from groundbreaking, but it bears repeating: when at all possible, opt for a video call instead of a conference call! Even if they can’t or choose not to turn on their video as well, allow your coworker or client to see your beautiful smile (and be sure to flash it often)! Let them see where you work and that you always have a cup of coffee nearby or that you like to work in your favorite Steelers hat.
Especially with our remote teammates, I find this is so critical to building relationships. We don’t get to engage with them as much during the week or spend time together during our team-building exercises, so learning that one of my developers is an incredible painter or that another has a cat that loves to curl up in her lap while she’s working allows me to get to know them in a way that conference calls would not allow.
Even if your call will only be a few minutes long, seeing someone’s face and their environment instead of just hearing their voice fosters a deeper connection and increases likeability (see the Mere-Exposure Effect). It opens the door to reveal quirks, facial expressions, and body language cues as much is possible remotely, and it helps build a more intimate relationship that will foster the success of your current and future projects together.
4. Validate People When They Do Or Say Something Good.
Make sure people know that you hear them and that you value what they add to the conversation. Point out when they’ve done something well, agree with a suggestion, or just take a moment to say “hmm, good point!” It can even be as simple (and silly) as leaving an emoji reaction to someone’s message on Slack!
We want to step away from focusing only on the actionable next step or adding our opinions to the conversation. Instead, first take a moment to react positively to what someone has said to let them know that you are listening and that their presence is important.
5. Follow Up/Check In.
There will always be members of your virtual team who don’t get to speak as much as others and there will always be people who need a little bit of extra attention. With them, it is especially important to make sure that they feel their voice is heard (even if they’re speaking a lot more than they realize).
Try asking your teammates and project stakeholders, “Do you have any thoughts on this topic?” “How do you think that meeting went?” “How is your week going?” “Is there anything I can do to make things smoother for you?” Usually just asking someone about their thoughts and feelings, even if it turns out that they don’t have much to say, makes them feel valued and heard, and reinforces the relationship you are building with that person.
Why Building Relationships Is Important
It is so important to build relationships with the members of your internal and client teams. When you form alliances with your project stakeholders, you ensure that your work as a project manager will carry more weight, and any tough conversations you may need to have down the road will go much smoother.
By intentionally communicating with empathy, you build a relationship between human beings who have thoughts, feelings, and personal interests, not just two “resources” playing the roles of project stakeholders. As you work to build relationships, even through digital communication, your projects will be more successful, your teams will be happier, and the likelihood of future success with those virtual teams will increase.
I have seen time and time again that these simple actions make a world of difference in professional relationships. Relationship building may not yield a tangible result, but it will always have a positive effect on your project’s bottom line. I am so thankful for the relationships I was able to build with the stakeholders of that difficult project, and when we launched the product, every single one of them took the time to send me a personal email with thanks for the work my team and I had put into the project.
What Do You Think?
Do you think it is harder to build a strong relationship when communicating virtually? What do you normally do to build trust when managing virtual teams? Let me know in the comments.