Interpersonal Relationships in the Digital Workplace

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As digital platforms and communications technology have rapidly evolved, teams are no longer limited by geography. But that doesn’t mean it’s gotten easier to create and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships at work.

Those strong interpersonal relationships are not just a nicety; they’re proven to result in stronger, more creative teams, says Alexis Davis, founder and CEO of HK Productions, a digital media company based in New York. “Through healthy interpersonal relationships, team members reduce the risk of feeling lonely, are able to brainstorm, collaborate, share their ideas, creativity and expand point of views. Although we are living in a technologically advanced world, we must still maintain human interaction, connectivity and support,” Davis says.

Business leaders must deliberately cultivate those connections. Here’s how.

Develop Habits for Strengthening Bonds

There are myriad tools available to allow for effective communication and coordination between teams who don’t necessarily work right next to each other or even at the same time. But Erica Keswin, author of the forthcoming book “Bring Your Human to Work,” says it’s more important to seek strategies for strengthening bonds rather than focusing on specific platforms.

Instead of worrying about interactive tools, think in terms of protocols, Keswin says. Leaders should have a strategy for connecting people in the digital workplace. For example, she says, she knows one company that’s 100 percent remote. Everyone attends a weekly video conference call.

Other ideas for meetings: No one is allowed to look at phones or computers while it’s going on. Small talk and sharing of personal details is welcomed. People should be empowered to be “curators of connection,” to be self-starters in creating a sense of community. “To me, it comes down to the leaders and the protocols and studying the expectations. One of the things that I often say is that none of it’s rocket science, but it does take discipline, hard work and intentions,” Keswin says.

As Davis says, “These tools can assist leaders in fostering good interpersonal relationships digitally, but leaders must also be intentional in creating a sense of community. When your intention is to help your employees connect, grow, thrive and maximize their full potential, you can begin using technology effectively.”

Encourage Friendships at Work

Some organizations have strict non-fraternization clauses for managers or even colleagues. But many experts believe that forming interpersonal bonds is key to employee happiness and retention.

The main way we build friendships at work is by talking about things unrelated to work. Instead of viewing this as unproductive or unprofessional, leaders should encourage people to share the things about their personal lives that they feel comfortable talking about. This may not happen organically among colleagues who work remotely or interact only through email or other technology. So start or end meetings by asking each person to share something personal that has happened to them since the last time they talked.

“The longest longitudinal study ever done … found that at the end of your life, the thing that was most correlated with your health and your happiness was the depth and the strength of your relationships,” Keswin says. She also pointed to a Gallup poll that found that when you have friends at work, attrition goes down, engagement goes up and you’re less likely to consider moving to another employer.

So talking about non-work-related things is actually a huge benefit in the workplace, rather than something to be derided as “goofing off.”

Use Technology, but Don’t Hide Behind It

As artificial intelligence and things like robo-advisers become more prevalent, it’s the human parts of jobs that are going to be what actually differentiates performance, Keswin says.

“We are beginning to default to that technological end of the spectrum because we think it’s easier. Some people are hiding behind it. One of the things I talk about is that we need to match the message to the medium — meaning pause and think strategically about what we’re trying to achieve,” Keswin says.

Chunks of required information may work fine in an email, but if you’re trying to get someone’s input or opinion, it’s better to hear their voice or see their face so you can gauge their inflections and expressions. “The tools are the easy part. The best practices can be a bit harder,” says Michelle Broderick, who has experience in bringing remote teams together at Yelp, Uber and Now senior vice president of brand marketing and communications at Automattic, the web development firm behind WordPress, she works with more than 700 colleagues who live in over 60 countries and speak more than 80 languages. “Reach out to people to see how they’re doing — even when you don’t need anything from them. It’s important to honor the importance of human connection, even from afar,” Broderick says.

Foster a Sense of Shared Community

It may not be possible with every organization or every industry, but consider loosening up the hierarchy and having less strict concepts of “bosses” and “workers.” Instead focus on a sense of shared community in which colleagues communicate and collaborate on projects and strategy. View each other at eye level instead of through the ups and downs of a rigid organizational chart.

In a more personal and balanced workplace, managers are seen less as supervisors who give orders than as facilitators who help employees achieve success and expand their skills. In a digital workplace, that can mean simple things like trust and respect for others’ time. “When you are remote, you need to be able to trust that your teammates are going to come through for you even though you might be out of sight and out of mind,” Broderick says.

“You also need to trust what their silence might mean at any given time. Are they heads-down working? Are they ignoring you because they are avoiding conflict? Are they hiding because they are embarrassed that they are stuck on a problem? When you encounter silence, you need to be able trust that your teammate is doing the right thing until you get a response.”

There can be differences with varying countries and cultures. Jon Ingham, executive consultant at The Social Organization in the U.K., says that Americans’ strong belief in personal identity can hamper the spirit of collaboration, which is why he thinks the U.S. is behind the rest of the world in fostering interpersonal relationships in the digital workplace. “True community needs a sense of what’s in it for us, not just of what’s in it for me,” he says.

In contrast, Ingham thinks Asian culture can experience the opposite problem because the focus on groups allows some people to disappear and lose their sense of identity within the organization. He says he considers South Africa to be the best placed of all the countries where he has worked. “They have enormous technological challenges, but once these are sorted their culture of allowing people to sit around and talk things through will act as a huge advantage there,” Ingham says.

Broderick points to Bali as another place that’s getting digital workplace relationships right, where people embrace the title of “digital nomads” and roam coffee shops and co-working spaces. “They’ve done a great job of connecting the community and allowing people to create unique ways to live and work,” she says.

Relationships > Knowledge

As people are becoming more and more specialized in their skill sets, there can be fragmentation as people’s functions become very different from others’. Sometimes people in a co-working space may not even have a clear grasp of what the workers literally sitting across from them are doing.

This leads to looser personal connections. As more routine functions of jobs are taken over by machines, business leaders need to double down on the human equation and empower employees to seek and deepen these bonds. “As AI takes over a lot of work currently performed by people, the main area that will be left as our competitive advantage is the ability to have relationships with each other. Virtual and remote working make it more difficult to develop the quality relationships we need,” Ingham says. “We’ll soon need to start thinking less about people as knowledge workers and more about ourselves as relationship workers, where relationships are the core aspect of what we do.”

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