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How to build relationships working remotely is a key challenge for many remote workers and teams.

Research by Buffer found that, in a remote work environment, 52% of respondents reported feeling less connected to their colleagues, highlighting a key opportunity for improvement in the way that we build relationships in the remote work environment.

I’ve been building relationships remotely using for over 15 years. Some of my closest friends, mentors, and colleagues are people I’ve never met in person. The good news is, there are now more methods and tools than ever to facilitate remote connections.

Here, I’ll share some of my personal secrets and tips for building relationships with people you don’t often get to see face-to-face and in person. We’ll cover:

Why Strong Relationships Are Important

Strong relationships are important at work because they promote trust and collaboration in an environment of mutual respect, open communication, and shared understanding.

Stronger bonds also increase job satisfaction and morale in the workplace, and having strong relationships with coworkers helps create a sense of belonging and security, which make it easier to establish a positive work-life balance (which we all should want!).

Yes, it takes effort, particularly in a remote setting, but here’s why it’s beneficial to invest time and energy into building strong relationships at work:

  • They build trust and help to deliver great work as more people feel empowered to connect and contribute ideas. Also, everyone needs a favor sometimes.
  • They aid with talent development and career opportunities, especially in the case of internal promotion and mobility
  • Relationships with colleagues help protect mental well-being, and your investment in those relationships contributes positively to the well-being of others
  • Relationships can simply make work more enjoyable, we all need a work friend or two.

Connection researcher, Susan McPherson, recently published a book where she highlights the importance of building relationships at work, even if you work remotely. As Susan says, “Anything good that’s ever happened to me professionally happened because of the connections that I made.”

In short, making connections matters!

The Challenges Of Building Relationships Remotely

Relationships can be difficult to forge at the best of times and especially if you’re starting from scratch and need to build a relationship completely remotely.

Remote relationships can often feel like a double-edged sword. While having a long-distance connection can offer newfound friendship and motivation, it also presents some unique challenges.

This is particularly true for employees working with colleagues in other countries and who may have been hired by an employer of record service, meaning they may have a different experience around benefits or how they experience things like onboarding.

The challenges that individuals, managers, and organizations need to overcome are:

Less time spent together

Despite all the benefits that remote working can bring, less team interaction, which naturally happens when everyone works in the same space, makes it harder to get to know each other.

Consider the experience of someone you only know remotely. If you don’t know them that well, and you have other stuff going on, you might not be as inclined to help them. Now contrast that with the potential of a friend from your in-person life needing help with something; you’re much more likely to jump in and save the day.

It’s harder to meet people from other business areas

Without the usual watercooler chats, shared lunches, or company socials and events, it can be difficult for employees to get to know and form relationships with coworkers from different departments.

This not only makes it more difficult to collaborate across the organization but can also leave remote workers feeling disconnected from their co-workers and the company culture. 

I started working at my company in person, in the office, and it made it easy to get to know everyone! That meant that, when I needed help with a purchase order, I knew I could reach out to Alec from the accounting team for help. Even if he wasn’t the exact right person to solve the problem, he would help me find out what to do next.

Similarly, people notice who talks to and collaborates with who around the office. Do you see one of your close coworkers talking to upper-level management all the time? They might be able to help you find a mentor because of these conversations.

These opportunities are harder to spot in a remote work environment (assuming you’re not calendar stalking, of course).

The way we communicate changes

Meeting people in person provides an entirely different experience than communicating through digital tools. 

With physical interaction, we can detect body language, facial expressions, and other nuances that provide us with more information than simply relying on words. 

In-person conversations also make it easy to ask questions and discuss ideas spontaneously, without the need for delays or waiting for someone to respond (this can get sooo awkward, especially if there’s any lag in the video/audio).

Digital communication removes these advantages and forces us to rely heavily on text to communicate our thoughts effectively. 

People may choose their words more carefully, or have difficulty understanding sarcasm or emotional cues in written form. This leads to a less fluid conversation and often results in a misunderstanding of the speaker’s intent or tone. Think about if someone has ever taken a “LOL” or “yup” the wrong way in a text, the same thing happens in work conversations. 

Looking at Albert Mehrabian’s 7-38-55% rule, we only get up to 7% of understanding through words, an additional 38% through tone of voice, and the remaining 55% of understanding is reliant on body language!

graphics of albert mehrabians elements of personal communication

This is exactly why people misunderstand texts, understand better when tone of voice is introduced, but then understand best when they get the full words/tone/body language package. This is also how you and your pets understand each other, 55% of understanding of a message comes from body language!

Ultimately, digital communication tools are an easy way to stay connected, but it’s hard to replicate the deep, spontaneous conversations we can get from face-to-face interactions.

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How To Build Strong Relationships Working Remotely

If you work in our current era, chances are you need to build or help facilitate relationships with remote colleagues, classmates, or collaborators.

Now I’ll share some of my methods for fostering strong remote relationships as an individual, manager, and organization.

On An Individual Level

You have the ability to build amazing relationships virtually, I promise! As an individual, your interactions with other people make a huge difference in building relationships and inspiring trust. Try out these methods:

Seek connections intentionally

First and foremost, to build effective and trusting relationships virtually, the connection needs to happen! People want to be heard, seen, and understood—especially online—so reaching out with intention is a must!

Finding people to connect with may start by looking for new hires in your company or forums or groups related to your topic of interest. These will give you a starting point for creating conversations with like-minded individuals.

For example, if you're an aspiring writer, join online writing communities and get involved in discussions about topics related to writing. You can also participate in virtual events such as conferences, webinars, and workshops that can provide valuable knowledge while also expanding your network.

Now, if you’re anything like me, you’ve sat at the end of a phone line or text message screen waiting for someone (or that special someone) to reach out to you. You wait by the phone, waiting for the call or text to come, and it takes forever! 

Well, have I got news for you. Assuming you haven’t already reached out to them obsessively, it's your job to make the connection.

image of waiting for someone

Science of People researcher Vanessa Van Edwards recently reminded me that people like people who like people! Seems odd, but this means that if you want someone to reach out to you, YOU need to reach out to them! Be intentional in your outreach.

If you’re reaching out to a new person, or someone that doesn’t know you, open with a friendly comment, a swift introduction, and a question. Open the conversation and give the other person an opportunity to respond.

If you want to learn from someone, tell them. If you think you can help someone get up to speed at your company (they might be new), tell them! Show your value and invite the conversation.

I’ve made a habit of reaching out to new hires in my organization, even if we aren’t going to work together closely.

I send a short note on their first day or two just saying hi, introducing myself, and offering to help in any way I can. This usually moves to a casual exchange and then a coffee chat (video call). Bam! Relationship started, trust being built, and the new member of the company feels welcomed and supported. Win-win!

Jump on a call rather than email (if it makes sense)

Sure it's easy and fun to throw instant messaging chats and emojis around all day, but, remember, words are only 7% of understanding and you can miss out on deeper conversations.

You miss a lot of critical information when you only use text methods of communication. Reduce confusion and drive clarity by picking up the phone (+38% understanding), or, better yet, jump on a video call to connect as best you can remotely (up to 100% understanding because 55% is body language)! 

I’ve seen people navigate the change from a “voice-only” organizational culture to a “video-on” culture and nine times out of ten people prefer video-on! Take the jump and try it! If you have a laptop with a webcam or a smartphone, you are capable of a video call.

Just look at how much more understanding you get from body language here, all without words or tone of voice! I can almost hear the person on the left saying “hi!”.

Don’t worry about a messy room, undone hair, or not the right outfit. We’ve all been at home for so long, a) no one cares what you look like and b) no one cares what your background looks like (and you can use virtual backgrounds).

Also, if your organization doesn’t already have video conferencing tools, you might be able to leverage some free tools such as Google Meet or a basic account in Zoom to get started. 

Learn to ask the right questions

Connecting with others isn’t just getting on a video call and "spilling the tea".

Connection researcher Susan McPherson suggests leveraging her "Gather, Ask, Do" method of making meaningful connections. She advocates for using the 3-part method to build intentional, real connections and relationships with others. 

graphics of the gather ask do model
The Gather, Ask, Do Model

Gather: reflect on yourself, determine your values and goals, and determine how you could help. Focus on JOMO—the joy of meeting others. Everyone we meet can help us learn or connect to someone or something else we might not have known before. 

Ask: Ask meaningful questions of others so you understand how you can help or learn from them best. This is the most important part of the whole process. When you talk with others, consider what’s important to that person, what challenges them, and what their unique superpowers are. Consider how you can help them. If you listen carefully, you can then move to the do phase.

Do: Take action based on your connection and conversation. Following through, and making that follow-through visible to your conversation partner, builds trust and deepens relationships because you actually did the thing you promised yourself or your connection you would do.

Facilitation skills

If you think about the best teachers, managers, and leaders you have had in your life, they likely have this one thing in common—they are intentional facilitators.

When working with virtual teams and looking to build connections, facilitation makes all the difference between someone feeling like they are observing the meeting or if they are actually participating.

Intentional facilitation is a virtual meeting game-changer, but it requires thoughtful planning and effort. Facilitators should focus on creating experiences where conversation flows naturally by guiding the conversation along topics that are relevant to both parties without making either one feel judged or pushed aside. 

As a facilitator, you should ensure that each participant has an opportunity to voice their opinions in a respectful manner and that all participants have access to the same information and have equal opportunities to contribute.

By taking the time to carefully plan and facilitate conversations between people who aren’t able to interact face-to-face, intentional facilitation helps build remote relationships based on mutual understanding, respect, and trust.

Leader/Managerial Level

It’s part of the leader's job to help knit teams together and provide clarity and direction. This is trickier in a remote setting, but certainly doable using these methods:

Bring everyone together at a regular cadence

Leaders of remote teams need to be mindful of the importance of bringing people together at a regular cadence and providing opportunities to foster a strong sense of community and collaboration.

By setting up regular gatherings, leaders are able to keep their teams connected and on the same page. This not only helps ensure that everyone is aware of what everyone else is doing, it also allows team members to bond with one another and build relationships outside of typical “work meetings.”

People need meaningful connections in order to stay motivated, productive, and focused on achieving their goals—something that cannot happen if they don't have the opportunity for frequent interaction (and a little fun).

Video conference tools make bringing dispersed teams together a breeze, and each time is easier than the last (practice makes permanent). 

When I lead virtual team meetings, we do a little business and a little fun. We start with some fun via an icebreaker, then do some business, then end with some more fun.

My favorite icebreakers and energizers are easy to do, and you’ll probably learn something about your colleagues along the way! When you host or join your next virtual team meeting, consider kicking it off with one of these icebreaker questions! 

Allow time for small talk in meetings

Allowing time for small talk in virtual meetings can help people stay connected, even when they are physically apart. 

Small talk is often seen as a waste of time and energy, but it can be an important tool for fostering connection and engagement among virtual teams.

Having a few minutes at the start or end of each meeting to chat about personal matters, non-work related interests, current events, or anything else unrelated to the task at hand helps with overall communication and building a sense of camaraderie. You may even notice that some people like to join meetings earlier for this reason!

Small talk helps team members to build rapport with one another, which is essential for creating effective collaboration in a virtual environment. Without small talk, team members are more likely to feel disconnected from their colleagues, which could lead to feelings of loneliness or isolation.

In my teams, we often have recurring check-in, sync, or standup meetings, but we have an agreement that we don’t start the business talk until four minutes after the meeting starts. 

The first four minutes of the meeting are for small talk, show and tell, celebration, or talking about our personal projects. Once the four minutes are up, we say, “OK, let’s get to it” and the planned meeting agenda begins. 

Facilitate virtual team activities

Facilitating virtual team-building activities with remote teams can be a great way to help foster strong interpersonal relationships and promote engagement among team members. 

Virtual team-building activities can include online games and competitions, group video chats, virtual happy hours, or even virtual workshops designed to bring out creativity and collaboration among the group.

Providing an opportunity for employees to come together, connect, and interact in an informal atmosphere helps create a sense of community—which is essential for effective communication and collaboration in a virtual environment. 

For example, playing online games together can provide an ideal platform for connecting with colleagues while still fostering collaboration within the team.

Online games are interactive, fun, and often require problem-solving and creativity—making them perfect for helping remote teams work together towards common goals while getting the chance to relax together too.

In my teams, we often hold virtual Happy Hours where we play online games together, such as those offered in the Jackbox Suite, or other online collaborative game platforms. Beyond Jackbox, one of our repeat favorites has been drawing games such as Skribbl.io

We’ve also done crafts together, such as creating customized terrariums where we each were sent the materials for the craft and then joined a live class to put them together, hosted by Craftiful Studio.

My team loved this activity. If you choose to host this with a group, I do suggest scheduling some time before the class starts to chit-chat (reference the above point about small talk being important) or enjoy a beverage together.

Bonus: This one is alcohol-forward, so it’s a bonus! ONLY if your whole team is into cocktails, consider a virtual cocktail-tasting event! Straightaway Cocktails makes a very cute sampler set that one of my virtual groups has used to throw our own virtual cocktail-tasting party! 

Each member of the group purchased the sampler set, and then we joined a Zoom call and worked through them one by one, sharing our notes, what the flavors reminded us of, and what we liked best.

This is also a great way to include family members of people in your virtual team who want to share in the fun! If you have a big enough group, contact Straightaway Cocktails directly and have a member of their team lead the tasting! 

Make it a Double: If you’re looking for something themed differently or with more variety, check out Priority Experiences for a super rich list of opportunities for your virtual team! 

These activities are not inexpensive, but you get what you pay for! Priority Experiences has a lot of options beyond alcohol, from chocolate tasting to cooking classes, and international options are available to suit your global team (harder to do than you’d think).

Important! If you’re scheduling virtual team activities, schedule them during normal working hours. Don’t make your people pick between taking time away from their family and having virtual cocktails with coworkers.

Yes, it’s okay to stop “normal work” at 3 pm once in a while to enjoy each other’s virtual company. Don’t make people “work extra” to participate in team activities. 

Encourage 1:1 connections across swimlanes

As a leader, I encourage people to connect across swimlanes, especially when working in a virtual environment.

This is because connecting with people at work who you might not normally interact with can be beneficial in a number of ways, including diversifying your network and expanding the range of perspectives and support you have access to.

Instead of just interacting with the same small group of colleagues, reaching out to others across departments or locations allows for more diverse conversations and opinions, which may prove useful in problem-solving scenarios or in gaining a better understanding of different aspects of the company.

Additionally, connecting with people from different backgrounds or roles within the company helps to break down hierarchical structures and makes everyone feel like they are an equal part of the team.

By taking the time to connect with colleagues who you may not normally interact with, you’re also helping create a more inclusive workplace environment and encouraging collaboration between individuals who may have never considered engaging with each other before.

I actively encourage 1:1 connections across the company by seeking opportunities for folks to connect with someone new for guidance, advice, or to cross-check work output. 

People love to give advice and be seen as a coach or expert, so approaching this from a “Maybe this person could help you, you should reach out to them” stance usually helps ease the discussion and answer the “Why is this person wanting to talk to me?” question that often comes up when someone you don’t know reaches out at work.

Pair people on work items

Pairing people on work items when working remotely can be a great way to increase engagement, collaboration, and creativity.

Having two employees working together on a project allows them to draw on each other’s strengths while providing feedback and support where needed. This can help lead to more effective problem-solving and innovation and aids knowledge sharing, which is important when working remotely you don’t always overhear information that is critical to your own work!

It’s also worth noting that pairing is also especially effective for new team members (virtual onboarding is super difficult!) as it helps new starters get up to speed faster and build relationships.

Sure, pairing might not seem like the right thing to do on tasks that may not necessarily require two people, but the work output and the people will benefit from the pairing.

For example, I have often paired two project managers from different areas of the company on one large cross-functional project. Project managers don’t often work together because they manage separate projects on their own, but pairing them together helps to build relationships across the team, and each learns so much from the other!

Pairing people in the virtual workplace can help remote teams feel more connected and break down silos within the company as everyone is collaborating towards a common goal regardless of their individual roles or departments. By combining different ideas and strengths, teams are equipped to create something that could never have been achieved by just one person alone.

Share a bit of your not-at-work self

Yes, even you as a leader should share a little bit about your life with your colleagues and direct reports.

Sharing about your life with your team when trying to build culture and connectedness virtually is a great way to help create relationships when you can’t be physically together. 

Opening up about personal interests, family, hobbies, or any other topics outside of work allows for more meaningful conversations and helps break down the barriers between each team member as well as build trust.

Sharing also contributes to a psychologically safe work environment as employees feel more comfortable talking openly without fear of judgment. Sharing about your life can encourage collaboration through shared experiences.

On my teams, we have a tradition of hosting a summer picnic/cookout/camping trip. This wouldn’t have become a thing without us sharing about our hobbies, weekend plans, and where we feel the most like ourselves. 

From these conversations came the idea for the event that’s been a smashing success for over 5 years, including the last few years where we have worked completely remotely. 

photo from summer cookout
This is one of my favorite photos from my team’s 2021 Summer Cookout. With a team working remotely but located within a day’s drive of each other, we prioritized getting together in the Tillamook Forest, about 2-hours from Portland, Oregon, USA. This group worked entirely remotely starting in March 2020, but we maintained relationships such that this annual event was a must! 

Organizational level

If you’re working in a remote organization, especially at a managerial level, here are some tools and methods you can use to help facilitate better working relationships

Give space for people to share about themselves and connect informally

If you’re like me, you’ve become chat-centric in the world of remote work, meaning, most of the quick collaboration and conversations you have with others at your company happen on a chat platform such as Slack or Microsoft Teams.

In my experiences with these tools, people want to share funny stuff, pictures of their pets, the amazing lunch they just made, etc. Enter the rise of social, informal chats that drive social connection, community, and belonging!

Not-so-work-related chat channels are great for teams and organizations that are growing and distributed across the globe. Informal chat channels on specific topics (or not) allow for more casual interactions which can help build relationships between team members, even if they’re not directly connected on projects or might not see each other in meetings.

In my experience, not-so-work-related chat channels have included #Random (yes, it's random stuff), #Puppies (pictures of dogs), #Kitties (pictures of cats), #New Parents (all things babies), and #Foodies (pictures of food, recipe sharing).

Having informal chat channels provides people with outlets to share ideas and accomplishments, ask questions without feeling like it needs to be relevant to their job functions, and learn more about each other.

Bonus: If you don’t have a naturally chatty bunch at work, there are apps that can help get the informal, not-so-work-related conversation flowing! Apps like Donut pair people one-on-one to meet new folks across the organization without the awkwardness of the email intro from a manager.

Mentorship programs

Mentorship programs are a great way to connect different people across groups and hierarchies.

People love to give advice and see someone else succeed with their help, so mentorship programs give an opportunity for experienced staff to feel valued and fulfilled while helping lesser experienced staff learn about the organization in ways that otherwise would typically not be possible.

I have run multiple mentorship programs and have been both a mentor and mentee. Mentorship has made a significant impact in my career growth, and I have seen those I have mentored grow exponentially both professionally and personally, including beyond our mentorship time together. 

Mentorship programs are also a great way to encourage diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in an organization. 

Related read: How To Start An Effective Mentoring Program In 6 Steps

Gather at retreats, summits, or ‘workcations’

While this article has aimed to provide some helpful tips for bringing people together virtually, there still is no true full replacement for getting together face-to-face.

For this reason, leaders of highly collaborative, strategic teams should try to get team members together every year for a summit, retreat, or workcation.

Bringing remote employees together for in-person retreats and summits is a great way to strengthen team relationships and spark innovation. It provides an opportunity for diverse teams to work together on projects collaboratively which can lead to new ideas and solutions coming from this collective effort.

Spending time with colleagues outside of the virtual workplace helps foster strong bonds between team members, which ultimately leads to better collaboration when working remotely. It also creates opportunities for mentorship as more experienced workers are able to provide tips and guidance directly to others who might be struggling with certain tasks or processes.

If you’re not convinced yet, remember that an in-person retreat gives everyone the chance to connect with the company’s mission or values through shared experiences and conversations. This helps form a stronger sense of purpose in the organization as employees can see how their individual efforts fit into the bigger picture, leading to greater employee engagement. 

Bringing people together in person transcends the relationships built virtually and crystallizes them through shared experiences, problem-solving, and celebrations.

With that said, if push comes to shove and you can’t bring people together in person, you can always hold something remotely! Check out this Guide to Virtual Event Planning

Remember, connections are powerful

Working remotely can be challenging when it comes to building relationships with colleagues. 

However, with a few intentional steps like seeking connections, jumping on video calls, building facilitation skills, bringing remote employees together in person for retreats and summits, or even just scheduling virtual coffee chats on a regular basis, we can foster meaningful connections that will help strengthen the organization as a whole.

Connecting with your colleagues virtually is an investment in the relationships you have with them at work and beyond.

Remember, we spend most of our waking hours at work, so it's beneficial to all when we invest time in building relationships that are trusting, collaborative and productive. 

What have you tried in your organization to build relationships remotely? I’d love to learn from you! Let me know in the comments, and be sure to subscribe to the People Managing People newsletter to say up-to-date on emerging opportunities to be better at your job and grow in your career.

Further resources:

By Liz Lockhart Lance

Liz is a strategic leader focused on the intersection of people, process and technology. In her day-to-day she works as the Chief of Staff at Performica, an HR Software Company revolutionizing how people give and receive feedback at work. She also teaches an Operations Leadership course in the MBA program at the University of Portland and is working towards completing a Doctorate at the University of Southern California in Organizational Change and Leadership. Liz is certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) by HRCI and has 15-years of experience leading people and teams across education, consulting and technology firms.