Updated: Mar 20
Can team members working in different offices, or from home, build strong working relationships, if they rarely or never meet in person?
There was a time where I would have said absolutely not. I used to believe that people needed to be in the same physical space with one another to build trust, do good work and get things done.
A few years back, we were looking to recruit high-caliber engineers for one of my companies that was based in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Incidentally, Spartanburg has one of the highest murder rates in the Nation and this did not help when it came down to convincing top talent to relocate there. It was next to impossible. We had identified a few great candidates and to reach a deal, we agreed on allowing them to work remotely. Technically, for the nature of work they were doing, they didn’t even have to be physically present at our facilities. It seemed like a win-win solution.
But the honeymoon was short lived. Within a month we started having major communication challenges. With most of the communication consisting of emails and text messages being sent back and forth between our remote team members and headquarters, misinterpretations quickly escalated to hard feelings and even conflicts. I was surprised to see emails being sent by our engineers at all times of the night, leading me to think, “when do these guys take a break?” Everyone needs some semblance of office hours and it did not seem like they knew when to unplug. Perhaps, I thought, they felt like they needed to be working at all hours to justify not being physically present at our offices. I would later learn that isolation and even staying motivated were beginning to become issues also.
Working remotely, which seemed like a silver bullet solution at first, was backfiring in a major way. We were at risk of losing our engineering team and given the niche nature of our industry (manufacturing of fiberglass industrial water filters for aquariums and university swimming pools), there weren’t many candidates out there to choose from.
Then something interesting happened at one of our regular weekly meetings. We had our remote-working engineers on the conference line and while most of the leadership team was in the boardroom, we were waiting for our Operations Director to come back from the plant floor. As we waited, the Sales Director from the office brought up that his school had one a big college basketball game the night before.
Apparently one of the engineers working remotely had also gone to the same. Not only that, but the Marketing Director who was sitting beside him had gone to the defeated school form the previous night. Well you could just imagine what happened next. Teasing, friendly-rivalry and everything else you could expect from die-hard college sports fans ensued. Eventually, when we finally did get the meeting started, the tone and dynamics of the conversations was different than previous meetings. It was more relaxed. People were more engaged, the tone was lighter, the conversation flowed and you could feel that there was more goodwill in the room. This sparked an idea in my mind.
The following week, I organized a Remote Lunch session. I had our in-office and our work-from-home team members meet on Tuesday for a video conference call in the boardroom. There were only two items on the agenda: to enjoy lunch and learn something new about one another.
I also had two rules: everything that was shared in the meeting had to stay between us and we had to strive to be as authentic as possible. The goal was to share elements about yourself that you were very proud of or perhaps insecure about. Keep it real - whether it was good, bad or even ugly.
We started that first conversation with a simple ice-breaker: “what are you most grateful for?”
We took turns sharing and learned things about one another that we had not known before. Each time people shared, they revealed tidbits of their personality and past which opened up the conversation further. The hour flew by and everyone agreed we should do it again the following week. A new ritual was born: the Tuesday Virtual Lunch. When we eventually grew out of the ice-breakers, we began reading articles and then discussing them together during our Forum meetings. What surprised me most was not only how authentic the conversations became week after week, but how team members interacted after the calls.
The tone of the emails changed. There was more camaraderie, more willingness to support and be patient with one another. We didn’t have the usual conflicts or misunderstandings anymore. People began reaching out to one another offline. Real personal connections had been forged by truly getting to know one another.
Looking back to how things used to be, I realized that when it came to our remote team members, all their interactions with the team were strictly business. From emails, to Slack messages, to conference calls, when they joined a call we spoke about the task at hand and then they hung up. There was no real human connection.
This experience helped me realize the obvious fact that humans simply can’t function this way. We are emotional creatures and we need to connect. When working in an office setting, there are so many spontaneous interactions taking place all the time. The casual chit-chat that happens in the hallways. The small talk before meetings begin and the proverbial water cooler chatter. These are critical social lubricants that help build the trust and connection we need to collaborate and support one another - especially when times get tough and stress rises.
Running these meetings, or Forums as we referred to them, soon became standard practice at all my companies. I even used this process to help turnaround my family’s restaurant business after my father had a terrible accident (I will be releasing a book that tells that story later this Spring).
Inspired by these results, we began implementing these Forum meetings for the rest of our companies, and the rest, thousands of hours of Forums later, is history. I have personally seen the Forum process transform personal, professional and family lives. I have seen it mend relationships between quarreling co-workers and forge tremendous bonds between people - even those who had never physically met.
We have published a book that guides you on how to create powerful relationships remotely. It is based on over 3,000 hours of coaching remote workers and teams from all over the world. The forums@work™ process is based on the Forum process that over 60,000 CEOs use every month (read more here) and is ideal for building strong relationships, fostering support and keeping people engaged, no matter how far the distance between them.
We are offering free drop-in Forum sessions to help people connect and cope as we work through the Corona pandemic.
To learn more and participate, visit www.forumsatwork.com