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Is remote work really working?

Thoughts on professional relationships in a virtual world

by Hawi Bekele Bengessa

I’ve never met any of my co-workers in person.  And yet, I spend more time with my team than nearly any other human being on the planet.  I can count on my fingers how many meaningful conversations I’ve had with my colleagues. And yet, my Google calendar tells me I average 5.5 hours of meetings a day. 

Welcome to remote working in 2022. Where Zoom meetings are booked to perfection and water cooler convos are minimized to (scheduled) two-minute shout-outs.

In a post-pandemic society, one of the most important tools employers have used to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus is caution. But at what cost? 

This “caution” was pivotal in helping the world return to (a new) normal, but it also dramatically shifted the dynamics of professional relationships. This “caution” was also responsible for transforming the workplace into a virtual network that’s filled with oxymorons. 

We’re more connected now than ever, but experiencing some of the most alarming rates of isolation and depression. Remote opportunities have expanded recruitment efforts and reach, and yet we’re in the middle of the Great Resignation. Zoom meetings in bedrooms and living room offices have blurred boundaries but the walls that separate us are more formidable than ever. 

So, which one is it? 

Has remote working been a Godsend or the beginning of Pandora’s box? 

Certain studies show that virtual employees experienced a boost in performance and a significant reduction in stress. Other studies emphasized how company culture and teamwork had decreased due to this transition into a remote world. It feels like the data is conflicting but it’s actually painting a larger narrative on the importance of connection. 

As humans, we’re fundamentally social beings and relationships are an important part of our growth, self-discovery, and worldview. This is no different in the workplace. A recent Gallup study found a strong correlation between positive employee engagement and having meaningful connections at work. When the quality of relationships is suffering, there’s a stronger likelihood that employees will disengage and thus, the quality of their work will also decrease. 

If this sounds discouraging, don’t lose hope (even with the “Pandora’s box” reference). As employees, we have the power to create the culture we want to see within our teams. Even if it’s just a few co-workers, you can take steps towards building (or maintaining) workplace relationships and fostering a stronger sense of community and connectedness. Here are a few tips to help you get started: 

  1. Learn to listen. Active listening is one of the most important skills in relationship building. When your co-workers are sharing a bit about their pet being ill or having to pick the kids up from dance practice, follow-up with a question later in the week to check in to show that you were listening. 
  2. Exchange phone numbers, if appropriate. This may feel a bit awkward at first but there’s something about connecting with a co-worker offline that really helps to humanize them. Instead of following up with an email, try calling or leaving a voice note. 
  3. If working on a project, send instructions/directives through a video instead of emails. This will create another face-to-face interaction that’s not related to a meeting (which is starting to be a point of anxiety for some). 
  4. Take the initiative to set up remote coffee chats and lunches. Try to shoot for at least one 15-30 minute, bi-weekly chat with a different person on your team. 

At the end of the day, it’s as simple as remembering that the person on the other side of the camera is an actual person, not just a floating head with an island and hammock Zoom background. They’re a human being with emotions, dreams, and passions that go beyond their titles and tasks. 

Because after all, tasks don’t build relationships, intentionality does. 

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