Remote work has been a lifeline for many folks: more time with family or friends, no commute, wearing sweatpants during important meetings. But building relationships with your coworkers at a new job can be difficult through a screen. For folks who have a few years of experience, making connections remotely can be tricky but not unmanageable; for those who are in their first or second job, it can feel impossible.
Your coworkers, even though you may not see them in person often (or ever), are the people you spend most of your waking life with. They’re your current and future professional network. They’re people with whom you need to collaborate and negotiate, and that’s much easier if you’ve developed a working relationship. But how do you go about doing that when all your interactions are through a screen?
Many of the tactics for building a working relationship remotely are the same as building a working relationship in person, but they require more intention. Instead of grabbing lunch or coffee to get to know someone, you may have to reach out directly over Slack (or whatever messaging system your company uses) to have a video meeting. Rather than using body language in meetings to gauge folks’ reactions, you may have to ask explicitly. You probably won’t bump into someone outside your department/team just by chance, so meeting people outside your immediate teammates will take more time, effort, and yes, intention.
Why build working relationships?
Cultivating working relationships has a variety of benefits, and as you approach meeting colleagues and getting to know them, it’s helpful to keep a few goals top of mind.
- Developing rapport: Working with someone is easier when you’re on friendly terms. If you’ve already had a few conversations with someone, sending a Slack message asking for help may be received more warmly. Additionally, proactively reaching out gives you an opportunity to learn more about how your colleague likes to work. For example, some people prefer to collaborate out loud in meetings, whereas others prefer to work on written documentation. Some people may really enjoy diving into a new problem right away, whereas others might want time to sit with and process new information before sharing their ideas.
- Understanding individual and team motivations: Sometimes at work, your coworkers’ behavior can seem a little mysterious. Why was this person so frustrated in that meeting? Why are they pushing so hard for their team to do this apparently random thing? More often than not, deciphering your coworkers’ behavior relies on knowing the person’s or their team’s motivations. Is this person a product manager who is stretched really thin and is trying to gain stakeholder alignment as soon as possible so their team can build this new feature? Maybe a team is understaffed and is pushing for more resources, so everyone is feeling spread thin. Getting to know your coworkers and their teams makes it more likely you’ll understand the why behind their actions.
- Cultivating social and political capital: “Social capital” and “political capital” are fuzzy terms that, in general, refer to having a good rapport with teammates, so they’re more likely to help out if you ask (social capital) and have built up a bank of favors and alliances with other teams (political capital). These types of capital come in handy when you need someone to agree to pitch in on a big project or ask for their endorsement of your idea. Creating this capital is only possible when you connect with and get to know your coworkers.
- Making connections for the future: Your professional network is often comprised of current and former coworkers. Proactively fostering a working relationship with someone means that years down the road, you might be able to reach out for a referral to a job or ask for advice.
You can use a variety of methods to build working relationships. The most straightforward way is to ask to have a one-on-one (1–1) meeting. Asking is easiest over Slack. After you’ve started at your new job, you can send a direct message that may be something like:
“Hi [coworker’s name]! My name is [your name], and I just started at [company] as [your role] on [date]. I’d love to meet to learn more about you and get to know more about your work as [their role]. Could I set up a meeting with you sometime in the next week?”
During the 1–1, ask about what they do in their job, how long they’ve been at the company, and what they’re currently working on. And it doesn’t just have to be about work! One of the first steps to developing any kind of rapport is finding common ground. Where do they live? Do they like it? Do they have pets? If the person is a direct teammate, you might want to ask about their preferred working style and what you can do to best help them in their work.
You don’t have to rely just on 1–1s. People typically trickle into meetings, so if you and someone else are on a video call before everyone else joins, this is a great time for informal conversations — ask about weekend plans, general “how’s it going,” etc.
If you do work near some of your coworkers and feel comfortable doing so, you might want to meet up! Shared experiences make for great bonding, and even already strong remote relationships can become even stronger after in-person interactions.
Most importantly, remember to keep the conversation going. A relationship doesn’t come from a one-and-done meeting — continue to reach out over Slack and every once in a while grab “remote coffee” (not as fun as in-person coffee, but still a good chance to chat). For any meetings that you lead or have a role in conducting, see if you can allocate 5 minutes on the meeting agenda just for banter and catching up.
Meeting Etiquette Crash Course
If you’re new(ish) to scheduling and holding meetings, follow these rules of thumb:
- Ask first and schedule in advance: People usually appreciate the courtesy of a request to meet before you send one directly to them. It sets the context and also gives them the chance to say, “Yes, that would be great, but could we do it next week?” If someone agrees to meet, feel free to suggest some times that work for both of you (see below), which spares the other person from checking both there and your schedules.
- Come with a short agenda but be flexible!: It’s best to come with a few topics you’d like to cover in a meeting, but since your focus is on getting to know someone, don’t worry too much about letting the topic wander. You may uncover new insights or information about your coworker that you might not have learned otherwise!
- Respect working hours and time zones: Teams now extend across North America (and in some cases, the globe). Keep in mind someone’s local time zone. If you’re in NYC and your coworker is in San Francisco, they may not love it if you send a meeting for 10 am your time (7 am their time). People may also note their working hours on their calendar or block off times that they’re unavailable — avoid booking over those times.
- Don’t book in the middle of uninterrupted time: Many people need uninterrupted time to get into the “flow” of their work and focus. If you see someone has three consecutive unbooked hours, don’t book right in the middle! Context switching from solo work to a meeting back to solo work can be frustrating and time-consuming.
Ask for help
Learning how to connect with teammates might still feel daunting. Maybe your company isn’t big on having 1–1 meetings or people don’t respond to your Slack messages.
Perhaps, after 6 months, your company and your teammates still feel like total strangers. In this case, don’t be afraid to ask for help elsewhere in your network.
And if you’re having trouble getting started, connecting with a mentor on Merit is a great way to quickly and easily schedule some time where you can ask for advice and get ideas.