You can probably picture the spot in your office right now: Maybe it’s literally by the water cooler, or maybe it’s in the kitchen, or near the elevators. It’s the place folks gather for friendly banter and to catch up on the previous weekend, and the random conversations you have there are an important part of the glue that holds the workplace together.
That kind of casual bonding with co-workers can be beneficial for morale and business. A 2018 LinkedIn survey revealed that 95% of professionals think being friends with co-workers is a good thing, with 65% saying that work friendships “encourage us to learn from one another” and 55% believe they “can make things easier when challenges arise.”
But how do you create bonding opportunities with co-workers who don’t work in the same office as you? If quick desk drop-bys, weekly bagel breakfasts, and monthly happy hours can’t happen, how do you get to know the people you’re working with?
“For so many people today’s 'workplace' is no longer one office location where everyone clocks in 9 AM-5 PM and works side by side,” says Lindsey Pollak, a multigenerational workplace expert and author of The Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace. “Many teams today include remote workers, flexible schedules, multiple offices, and global teams, so it’s critical for morale, productivity, and trust to make sure everyone feels connected and included.”
Got co-workers in different cities—or even different countries? Try these tips to foster strong bonds, no matter where everyone sits.
1. Start With Empathy
“We all bring different expectations to work," Pollak says. “I always come back to the importance of empathy; of putting yourself in the shoes of the people you work with. When you’re not in the office, what makes you feel included?”
Think about ways you can be inclusive in typical work situations. For example, have all meeting participants call in, rather than asking just one remote employee to dial in to a meeting that everyone else is attending in person. (Being the lone voice calling in all the time can feel alienating.)
Another example: Be mindful of time zones. “If I’m invited to a conference call and someone gets my time zone wrong, I feel excluded and unimportant,” Pollak says. To that end, when you’re scheduling conference calls or meetings, remember that some participants may be in a different time zone, and a perfectly acceptable 10 AM call on the East Coast is a much less pleasant 7 AM on the West Coast. World Time Buddy is a great resource for scheduling meetings across multiple time zones.
2. Take Advantage of Technology
Technology, of course, makes it possible for far-flung colleagues to interact much more easily and casually. So go beyond conference calls and use Skype or other video conferencing technology for meetings. Being able to see someone’s expressions and reactions can go a long way in understanding their tone.
Chatting via Slack or G-chat can help create bonds, too, since it’s more “live” than an email conversation. Plus, important work queries get shared and answered quicker.
And if your co-workers are comfortable with it, follow them on social media. Connecting on LinkedIn is a no-brainer for colleagues, while Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are good ways to connect on a less formal level. You’ll get a peek into their lives, their hobbies, and what they do on the weekends, so next time you jump on a video call you’ll have something to chat about before you dive into the topic at hand.
3. Communication Is Key
Don’t assume that your preferred method of communication is the same as your co-workers’—ask how they like to communicate. Do they love the immediateness of Slack or G-chat? Do they hate being interrupted by phone calls when an email will do?
Agree on multiple ways to communicate—in addition to conference calls and video meetings, have shared docs, send emails, and create group Slack channels. Giving people options can help keep the lines of communication open when co-workers can’t just pop over with a question.
4. Prioritize “Peace Time” Interactions
Face time is the best way to create a bond, especially early on in a work relationship. But if face-to-face visits aren’t possible, take it upon yourself to schedule a quick video call. Consider it a virtual cup of coffee. “Be the person who reaches out and builds a connection,” Pollak says. “You can be on 17 conference calls with someone and never have talked to them one-on-one.”
It’s those casual exchanges and niceties that can get lost when co-workers are in different offices. But the effort you put into creating “peace time” relationships—getting to know them as people and bonding over, say, your favorite book or Netflix show—will go a long way when an issue pops up that you have to deal with together later on.
5. Watch Your Jargon and Slang
Be mindful of words that co-workers from other countries might not be familiar with, Pollak says, sharing an example of a time when she was speaking to a global audience in the U.K. “I did this whole slide talking about how to get employees to do grunt work,” she says. “About halfway through, the audience looked confused, until one person finally asked, 'What is grunt work?'” The lesson: Run your talking points past someone from that culture and ask if there’s anything that doesn’t translate. You can’t bond if you don’t understand each other, so take the time to make sure you and your colleagues are on the same page.
The classic way business is done is changing. The modern reality is that we all work in different places, in different ways, and in different time zones. So take it upon yourself to be the initiator, the person who reaches out just to say “Good morning” and includes the person who’s not in the office, Pollak says. “Think about what you personally are doing to build genuine, deeper relationships with co-workers who aren’t in the same office as you.”