11 Remote Workers on the Strategies They Use to Bond With Co-Workers

How to feel more connected when face-to-face interaction isn’t an option

Credit: Stockbyte/Getty Images

The day-to-day life of remote work has its upsides. Your commute is the distance between your bed and your living room. You have privacy. You can wear what you want, eat when you want, and set up your desk how you want. In a way, it’s liberating.

But it’s also lonely. “I really love working remotely, but it seems like the relationships I have with my virtual peers are merely professional and nothing more,” says Déborah Andrade, the San Francisco-based vice president of communications for the Brazilian data warehouse SlicingDice. “I don’t feel my remote colleagues are as much a part of my life as they’d be if I worked with them in person.”

Right now, more people are staring down this tradeoff than ever before. Nearly 4 million U.S. employees — about 3% of the total U.S. workforce — work remotely most of the time, according to a report from the job search website FlexJobs. (That percentage increases to 43% when you factor in employees who work from home once or twice a week.)

Other research has found that remote workers made up about 16% of all white-collar jobs added to the economy between 2010 and 2017; in fact, on the job search site Indeed, the fourth most popular search term in 2017 was “remote/work from home.” And experts predict the popularity of remote work will only increase further over the next decade.

That’s a lot of employees potentially struggling to figure out how to connect with their virtual colleagues. Below, people who work remotely talk about what they wish they’d known before taking a remote position, the challenges they face as a remote worker, and how they develop relationships when face-to-face interaction isn’t an option.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Find something you have in common.

I’ve been able to form friendships with a couple of my virtual coworkers simply by finding things we have in common. I even text one co-worker on evenings and weekends because she’s my workout accountability buddy. We typically text each other whenever we workout — and sometimes when we don’t, because we feel guilty or we’re annoyed we couldn’t fit it in.

Lindsay Wissman, 34, senior copywriter, The Content Factory

Use social media to your advantage.

To help make a connection, I keep up with my co-workers on social media, and I start conversations with them based on something they’ve posted. Informal things, like, “I saw on your Instagram that you were at a concert. How was it?” I feel very comfortable asking them about something they’ve posted.

— Déborah Andrade, 23, vice president of communications, SlicingDice, San Francisco

I miss not being in an office, and not being able to socialize with my co-workers, so I follow many of them on social media to get insight into their personal lives. It gives me a better sense of who they are as people. However, I don’t generally talk to them about what they post on social media unless they bring it up.

— Susan Stitt, 56, marketing director, Front Edge Publishing

Have a virtual lunch or coffee break.

I have a few colleagues, other solo practitioners, who I meet with regularly through video chat — sometimes we eat lunch, sometimes we just have coffee. We typically meet once a month for an hour. Since I work for myself, and mostly work alone, I find it’s really nice to have people to talk to about business stuff and personal stuff. And even though we live within driving distance, the virtual setup reduces the time and overhead required to get together in person.

Alexis Haselberger, 38, a time-management coach in San Francisco

Talk about something other than work.

I reach out to other remote colleagues just to connect one-on-one with no business purpose. I usually just ask them about themselves: What are their interests and hobbies? What brought them to the company? Part of our software is a behavioral assessment, and we can access each other’s assessments, so I may ask how their behavioral pattern plays out in their job. Sometimes I ask, “What would your pattern not tell me about how you work or how we should work together?” I demonstrate that I want to learn more about them, who they are, and what they’re working on.

Shannon Howard, 26, content producer, The Predictive Index

I try to connect by private message on a personal level with two to three people every day. I might share a recipe I’m making that evening, or something funny that happened with my kids — nothing too time-consuming. When people get my messages, they often share their take on what I’ve shared, and I learn a bit more about my co-workers.

Kimberley Moran, 50, senior digital editor for WeAreTeachers and School Leaders Now, Hampden, Maine

Use video whenever possible.

Asana and Slack are efficient, but impersonal. Behind that headshot is a person. Collaboration is more than completing a task — it’s also getting to know team members, listening to a voice, looking for nonverbal cues. I once worked on a project with a co-worker in another time zone; thankfully, we both were on the same page and agreed to Skype or FaceTime with each other daily. Except for a few days, we chatted that way for a month until the project was completed.

Vivian Young, 64, senior content manager at Good Night’s Rest

Check in regularly.

If I see someone hasn’t logged into our system in a while, I will reach out to them and see how they’re doing or ask if they need help. I’ve learned about co-workers’ health issues, family structures, and other career endeavors by taking the time to do this.

Emily Perschbacher, 36, editor, First Quarter Finance

After working on-site for eight years, I’ve been working remotely for a year. I’ve had to make some shifts to do my job more effectively because I can’t do a flyby to someone’s office. I’ve established a frequent and regular cadence of one-on-one calls with people I need to maintain a strong personal connection. And I’ve set up regular times — a couple of times a week, once a week, or every other week — to have individual conversations with colleagues about business and their personal lives. Most of our conference calls are so big, you can’t really ask someone about how they’re doing. I also make an effort to physically be at any off-site meetings or conferences where everyone is gathering in person. I travel more than I used to, and that’s been critical to make sure I’m privy to conversations and not being left out of the loop.

Carly Tatum, 37, social impact communications director, Dell Technologies

Treat texts like in-person conversations.

There is so much information we communicate to each other through tone, body language, and facial expression that gets lost in a text. My goal when communicating with someone remotely is to engage with them over text the same way I would in person. If I’m being professional, I use sentence case and punctuation. If I’m being casual, it’s usually lowercase. If I notice someone likes to joke over Slack, I engage them with humor. Others are more concise and prefer not to carry on long conversations, so just like I wouldn’t hold them up talking in person, I try not to hold them up on Slack.

Rob Ritzenhein, 37, senior software engineer, Skillshare

Be proactive.

I often check in to ask for feedback or if anyone needs help on a project. I’ve also sent care packages to co-workers to mark a major life event, as well as small gifts for holidays and birthdays. Even though we don’t work together in person, I can still do something to lift their spirits or make them feel appreciated. In a previous job, we were all animal lovers, so I would frequently start photo chains in Slack where everyone would upload favorite photos of their pets. It was something we really bonded over. I also try to learn about my co-workers’ other professional and personal endeavors, whether it’s a hobby they’re great at, a blog they maintain, or a side business they run.

Amanda Bellucco-Chatham, 31, editor, First Quarter Finance

Journalist: Fast Company, OZY, Christian Science Monitor and others.

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