How to build relationships in a remote work environment

Jun 12, 2024 | News

The COVID-19 pandemic drastically accelerated the shift to remote and hybrid work models, a trend that seems likely to continue. While the pros and cons of this change are debatable, one consistent challenge is building strong working relationships with remote colleagues.

Why are work relationships important?

There’s a mounting body of evidence to back up the theory that strong working relationships are important at both an individual level, and for the businesses more widely.

  • Half of all workers would prioritise “great relationships” at work over a 10% pay increase (Hubspot’s 2023 Hybrid Work Report)
  • Employees that have a best friend at work are 7 times more likely to be engaged in their jobs (Gallup’s State of Global Workplace Report 2022)
  • Employees who feel safe speaking up and sharing ideas are more likely to report feeling energised and have a strong sense of belonging (Microsoft Work Trend Index)

Not only that, strong work relationships have been linked to lower absenteeism, higher customer ratings, higher job satisfaction, lower staff turnover and improved productivity.

With all those advantages within reach, it’s important to find ways to solve the challenge of building relationships, even when you’re never in the same room as your co-workers.

10 ways to build strong work relationships remotely

1. Communicate openly and frequently:

Effective communication is crucial for any team’s success, but it’s even more important when working remotely. Leaders play a vital role in fostering open and frequent communication to build strong relationships:

Frequent communication and video calls: Regularly update your team and use video conferencing for face-to-face interaction. Clear and frequent communication builds trust and avoids misunderstandings.

Addressing the Undiscussables: Don’t shy away from difficult topics. Silence around hidden concerns can hinder productivity and innovation. Signs of “undiscussables” include quick consensus in meetings, lack of debate, and disengaged employees.

Mindful communication: Be mindful of your communication style in texts and emails. Avoid overly formal language and encourage a more natural flow of conversation.

Set the tone: As a leader, you create a safe space for open communication. Use inclusive language, actively listen, and acknowledge your team’s emotions (both positive and negative). This fosters empathy, builds trust, and strengthens relationships within your remote team.

By prioritising clear communication and addressing hidden concerns, you can create a thriving remote work environment where everyone feels supported and heard.

2. Be intentional about relationship building:

Remote work can limit those chance encounters that build camaraderie. As a leader, you can bridge the gap and foster connections:

  • Schedule casual connections: Plan virtual coffee breaks or lunches for team members. Dedicate time in meetings for non-work chit-chat. These interactions replicate the “water cooler moments” of an office environment.
  • Regular check-ins and virtual spaces: Establish regular team check-ins and create virtual spaces for collaboration and casual interactions. This can involve online team-building activities or tools that allow for informal communication.
  • Weekly teammate outreach: Aim to connect with individual team members at least once a week. Schedule these as recurring calendar events to ensure consistency. Leaders can also help team members develop “social capital” by offering support in building connections.

By being intentional and creating opportunities for casual interaction, you can cultivate a strong sense of community and collaboration within your remote team.

3. Build trust and assume positive intent:

Trust is the bedrock of successful remote work. As a leader, you can help foster a trusting environment using these tips:

  • Assume positive intent: Give colleagues the benefit of the doubt. Understand that team members are likely to be working hard and trying their best, even when things go wrong.
  • Foster psychological safety: Leaders set the tone. Avoid overreacting to challenges or difficult information. Instead, express curiosity and openness to feedback. Publicly thank team members who speak up, even if you can’t implement their suggestions. Consider working with a coach to improve your communication during stressful situations.
  • Measure work, not time: Evaluate your team based on completed tasks and results, not simply on the hours they work remotely. This fosters trust and empowers your team to manage their schedules effectively.
  • Be reliable and transparent: Leaders build trust by consistently meeting deadlines and following through on commitments. Communicate clearly, openly, and honestly, even when facing challenges.
  • Give credit where it’s due: Acknowledging others’ contributions helps build trust and camaraderie within the team.

By demonstrating these qualities, you can establish a foundation of trust that allows your remote teams to thrive.

4. Prioritise one-to-one meetings:

Regular one-to-one meetings are crucial for building strong relationships and fostering trust within your remote team. Here’s how to make them effective:

  • Employee-centric agenda: Focus these meetings on topics most important to your team members. This could include project discussions, goal setting, or roadblock identification.
  • Regular check-ins: Schedule these sessions frequently to maintain open communication and address concerns promptly.
  • Dedicated feedback sessions: Schedule one meeting every month or two specifically for open-ended feedback. Ask your team members direct questions about their experience, such as challenges they face or areas for improvement within the team or their relationship with you. Share the questions you will be asking so they can come prepared with thoughtful responses.
  • Active listening: During these sessions, actively listen to your team members’ concerns and feedback. This demonstrates your commitment to their well-being and encourages open communication.

Remember though, sometimes it is just enough to ask if a team member needs something and then go away without a full status update. This makes them feel valued whilst demonstrating trust, helping build that relationship.

5. Use icebreakers and team-building activities:

While remote work offers flexibility, it can lack the casual interactions that build stronger bonds. Here’s how to use icebreakers and team-building activities to bridge the gap:

  • Virtual icebreakers: Start meetings with online games or polls to lighten the mood and encourage interaction.
  • Regular social events: Schedule regular “virtual water cooler” meetings or Friday afternoon game sessions to foster casual connections outside of work topics.
  • Monthly learning sessions: Organise “Lunch and Learns” where team members share their expertise in an informal setting.
  • Collaborative challenges: Incorporate virtual escape rooms or puzzles into team meetings to promote communication and teamwork under pressure.
  • Online workshops: Host workshops focused on both professional and personal development to create a shared learning experience that fosters connection.

By incorporating these fun and engaging activities, leaders can create a more positive and collaborative remote work environment.

6. Embrace transparency:

Transparency is key to building trust and strong relationships within a remote team. To demonstrate transparency:

  • Share the big picture: Keep everyone informed about projects, company developments, successes, and challenges. This fosters a sense of inclusion and helps your team understand how their work contributes to the bigger picture.
  • Set expectations: Acknowledge that discussing difficult topics may not always lead to immediate change. Be clear that you value their voice and want to work together to navigate challenges, but don’t create unrealistic expectations about outcomes.

7. Celebrate together (virtually):

Physical distance shouldn’t stop the celebration! Here are some tips for recognising achievements, marking special occasions and fostering a sense of community within your remote team:

  • Virtual cheers: Acknowledge milestones and successes with virtual team celebrations. Host video calls where everyone can raise a toast (with their favourite beverage) and share their excitement.
  • Remote recognition: Implement digital recognition programmes to publicly acknowledge individual and team accomplishments. This can be through a company chat channel, a dedicated recognition platform, or even social media shout-outs.
  • Digital rewards: Consider offering virtual rewards for achievements, such as gift cards for online retailers, subscriptions to streaming services, or donations to their favourite charities.

8. Make use of virtual collaboration tools:

Virtual collaboration tools are essential for remote work, but using them effectively is key to building relationships and avoiding distractions:

  • Choose the right tool: Use a variety of tools like shared documents, project management platforms, and video conferencing for different communication needs.
  • Focus, don’t flood: Use instant messaging strategically – only for urgent team-wide messages. Encourage direct messaging or saving non-urgent issues for meetings. Leaders should establish clear guidelines for using these channels to minimise distractions.
  • Respect individual preferences: Recognise that some team members prefer frequent check-ins, while others value autonomy. Tailor your communication style accordingly.
  • Embrace time zones: Be mindful of time zones when scheduling meetings and setting deadlines to ensure inclusivity for your geographically dispersed team.
  • Minimise miscommunication: Provide written summaries or follow-ups after important discussions to ensure everyone is on the same page. Consider a communication charter to establish clear communication guidelines for your remote team.

9. Be available and responsive:

As a leader, it’s important to be there when your team need you. To help manage this:

  • Define your availability: Set clear times that outline your availability for meetings, calls, and communication and also when you can’t be disturbed.
  • Be responsive: Make yourself reachable during the time you designate to answer questions and collaborate with your team. This demonstrates your commitment to the team and fosters a sense of trust.
  • Respect boundaries: While being available is important, adhering to your set schedule also shows respect for your team’s time and your time and avoids burnout.

By establishing clear boundaries and being consistently present when it matters, you can create a supportive and reliable foundation for your remote team.

10. Meet in person (if possible):

Finally, if it is at all feasible, schedule occasional in-person team meetings or retreats to strengthen bonds and communication. Even if it’s only once a year, this time is likely to prove highly valuable.

Need help to bring your remote team closer together? We can help! Find out more about Thriving Teams.



HBR: How to discuss the undiscussables on your team

Go1: Building strong relationships in a remote work environment

Nathan Nate Meyer: Building work relationships remotely

Leadership Review: Tackling your team’s undiscussables

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