Illustration of three people working together but located in different places

I won’t lie: if I had my choice, I’d meet with people in person as much as possible. That energy and engagement just can’t be replicated by a phone call or any other technology – at least, not yet. When I need to get buy-in on an idea or puzzle through tough decisions with people in other parts of the world, I will start hopping on planes again just as soon as it feels safe to do so because we can get it done so much faster and easier when we’re in the same room.

But I’m also a realist. And the reality is, we’re going to be in a virtual-only or virtual/in-person hybrid world for quite some time. Any business meeting going forward will include someone joining through a screen.

When it comes to building relationships with colleagues, customers, and members of the teams we lead, we can’t just keep winging it until things go “back to normal”. It’s time to get serious about building strong working relationships with people we may never see in the flesh.

I’ve been in the business of relationship-building my whole career, from sales and marketing to corporate development, and now as Chief Revenue Officer, a role in which connecting with leaders at our customer companies and building rapport is vital because this is what leads to trust and partnership between our organizations.

Trouble is, trust isn’t built during cold calls or formal presentations when we’ve got our game-face on. It comes from observing each other in the moments in between when our guard is down. That’s when we get to know each other as humans, not just as co-workers or clients. And those moments don’t “just happen” during highly structured Zoom calls.

In fact, in a study Atlassian commissioned in July of this year, 40% of respondents said their social interactions with coworkers had suffered since the switch to distributed teamwork. Participants also reported feeling like the increased intentionality of communication and collaboration hurt their ability to build relationships organically. The good news, however, is that none of these problems are intractable.

Tip

Curious to see all the data? Download a copy of the report here. (Or, if you’re in a hurry, grab the executive summary.)

In today’s virtual world, the way to build trust is to be reliable, be a resource, and be real. Let’s call them the “three Rs” for short.

1. Be reliable

Reliability is about having a customer service mindset, even when you’re dealing with peers or people underneath you on the org chart. When you say you’re going to do something, do you stand up and make sure it happens? When they ask for information, can you provide it quickly and in the right level of detail? And, just as importantly, do you follow up to make sure that was exactly what they needed?

2. Be a resource

Being a resource starts with understanding the other person’s goals and the obstacles standing in their way. To do that, you have to start by asking questions.

I believe the best salespeople are never pitching. They’re uncovering the customer’s challenges and matching those challenges to the product or service they sell. Likewise, our job as company leaders is as much about listening as it is about speaking.

3. Remove obstacles

Then, equipped with that understanding, proactively offer to help remove the obstacles. It can be as simple as noticing that one of your team members is struggling to move their career forward and then sitting down with them to clarify what their goals are and what they need to do differently in order to achieve them. Or connecting two clients whose businesses might benefit from partnering with each other.

When you act as a resource, especially unprompted, the other person feels heard and valued.

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Last, you have to keep it real. This goes beyond not blowing smoke (although that’s definitely part of it). Be candid about what you can and can’t do as a business or as a manager. Be open about the reasons behind a decision or action the other person finds disappointing. Acknowledging when things aren’t perfect is a sign of strength. It shows confidence that the good outweighs the bad. And you’ll look even stronger when you can demonstrate that you’re constantly working to improve.

Being real also means bringing your whole self to the relationship, not just your professional persona. To the extent you feel comfortable, give the other person a window into your world by sharing a bit about your hobbies, hopes, and whatever else is happening outside of work.

On the executive team, we have a tradition of sharing one update from our personal lives in each of our weekly stand-ups (which, of course, now happen over Zoom with all of us sitting down). We also have a dedicated “off-topic” channel on Slack for socializing. This helps compensate for the fact that we’re spread across three continents and have been able to connect in person only once in the past year. I look forward to when we can gather for offsites again and the spontaneous moments of camaraderie that happen in the downtime. But for now, sharing pictures of our kids and swapping podcast recommendations over chat scratches the itch.

To be sure, building relationships remotely is hard. Any time my colleagues and I struggle to reach a shared understanding or agree on a path forward, I know the real problem is that we’re still in the process of getting to know each other and establishing trust. But I also know that fostering healthy working relationships from a distance is no longer optional. It’s a skill that allows us to be effective in our jobs no matter what the world throws at us.

The new rules of building business relationships