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How to Cultivate Work Relationships in a Zoom World

4 ways to build bonds with colleagues when work is virtual

By Nancy Collamer

Working from home is undeniably convenient, if you're able to do it. But remote work can also get lonely. A Pew Research Center study found that 65% of workers who shifted to remote work due to the pandemic felt less connected to their colleagues. That's a problem.

Next A person on a Zoom work call. Next Avenue, work relationships, virtual, Zoom
Credit: Getty

Having strong friendships at work is a critical, if often overlooked, ingredient of happiness and career success. Their support, guidance and willingness to listen can prove invaluable in alleviating the pressures of a stressful work environment. Fortunately, there are a few ways to cultivate and nurture work relationships even in a Zoom world, as you'll see below.

"Even when your work is mundane or demanding, you can feel as fulfilled as people with fun or inspiring jobs if you invest in work relationships that nourish you and create a sense of purpose," Rob Cross, professor of global leadership at Babson College, told me.

When There's No Watercooler

Unfortunately, maintaining work friendships in a virtual world can be challenging, especially now that many of us have tired of spending our days online.

"You have to be more deliberate about finding innovative ways to connect."

"People get fatigued from watching themselves on screen all the time. It's just not natural," says Karen Mangia, a vice president at Salesforce and author of several books about remote work. "The reality is we can only be fully present for a set amount of time."

This doesn't mean you should avoid video meetings when asking colleagues for a "let's catch up" or "get to know you better" conversation.

But, as business coach and author Chris Westfall, explains, "You have to be more deliberate about finding innovative ways to connect."

For guidance, I asked Mangia and Westfall to share their top strategies. And I gained interesting insights from longtime virtual worker Desiree Lemons, an Atlanta-based product manager at the global digital infrastructure company Equinix. Lemons recently implemented a few new practices she picked up at a coaching program led by Mangia and Westfall. 

4 Ways to Build Work Bonds Virtually

Their four suggestions:

1. Make relationship-building a daily practice. Whether you're a new hire or a seasoned veteran, it's important to connect with colleagues on something other than the task at hand. Lemons says that although she's busier than ever, she now devotes part of each day to building work bonds.

For example, when a new person joins the organization, Lemons reaches out to learn more about them and their interests through a video chat, email or by phone. Then, she uses digital collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams to keep in touch.

A woman on a Zoom call. Next Avenue, work relationships, virtual, Zoom
Equinix product manager Desiree Lemons  |  Credit: Justice Lemons

"It's really made a difference," Lemons says. "And it's proven a nice way to figure out how we can help each other."

2. Vary it up. While Zoom has become the default for work meetings, that doesn't mean you can't meet with colleagues in other ways. Four alternatives:

Missing the opportunity to bond over a meal? Extend an invitation to catch up during a virtual lunch. "We need to release our belief that the only way to meet someone for lunch is in person," says the aptly named Mangia.

You can also get out of your home-office chair and schedule a walk-and-talk. Grab your cell phone and hold your meeting as you venture outdoors. "Exercise helps you exercise a new way of thinking," notes Westfall.

Another idea: Hold open-office hours. Remember the ones professors held for students when you were in college to encourage quick chats or advice sessions? Consider doing the same with your fellow employees during regular, specified days and times.

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"Let people know that you're free by phone or video every Wednesday at noon — or whatever works for your schedule," says Mangia.

It's a pressure-free way to encourage colleagues to stop by for a casual, no-agenda chat.

"Connecting with people with common interests creates uncommon results."

You might also consider meeting local colleagues in person if you're both vaccinated. Just be mindful that everyone has a different idea of what constitutes a safe environment these days. So, weather permitting, always include an option to meet outdoors.

3. Actively listen for opportunities to connect. Colleagues often share small talk during Zoom meetings, providing a glimpse into their personal lives. Follow-up on things you hear.

For example, a co-worker might mention that he recently lost a friend to COVID-19. Westfall recommends that instead of just letting that drop, after the meeting, invite him to chat. You could do it by sending an email like this:

Subject: Time to talk?

I heard you mention on the Zoom call that you lost somebody during the pandemic. I did, too. If you have some time later this week, I'd like to connect.

"You'll build stronger relationships by sharing some common value or experience," notes Westfall.

4. Participate in small affinity groups at work. "Connecting with people with common interests creates uncommon results," says Westfall.

Lemons participates in a virtual book group at work. "We recently discussed a book that led to a deep discussion about social issues, she says. "Our conversations are always very meaningful."

In addition, she's involved in her company's Black Connect resource group, which provides a safe space to exchange ideas. Lemons also values the virtual intergroup exchanges with members of the other resource groups offered by her employer, such as Vet Connect or Asian Connect.

"I've come to appreciate that each of us has our own story," she says. "As you actively listen and lean in, you find it's true what they say — we really do have more in common than what is different."

Photograph of Nancy Collamer
Nancy Collamer, M.S., is a semi-retirement coach, speaker and author of Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit From Your Passions During Semi-Retirement. You can now download her free workbook called 25 Ways to Help You Identify Your Ideal Second Act on her website at MyLifestyleCareer.com (and you'll also receive her free bi-monthly newsletter). Read More
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