Image by Chris Montgomery (Unsplash); Edited by Marni Kanne

OH, THE VIRTUAL HUMANITY: Building Business Relationships in the Zoom Age

Lucy Flanagan, Author

In life and in business, relationships are built on trust, and never is trust more important than during times of uncertainty. We’re all accustomed to developing our business relationships through in-person engagement; after some planning calls and emails, a live meeting marks a level of mutual investment that’s tough to replicate virtually. But in the context of COVID-19, we have no choice. It’s time to recognize and embrace how screens-only contact feels and works, and adopt new, human practices that can truly connect us.

Virtual collaboration isn’t new, of course. Many of us have been joining team meetings from the road for years. What changed? We no longer have any other option, and not even a sub-set can gather to sustain what we all took for granted: natural interpersonal flow. Each of us sits alone in a room we didn’t necessarily know would become a workspace. Trying to chime in without interrupting, which suddenly became harder.

The shortcomings of Zooming shouldn’t surprise us. When we meet in person, our body language and tone establish warmth and contribute to building easy rapport. The subtle messages we send may be less explicit, but they’re no less impactful-and human beings respond to their absence. At Bluedog, we see clear evidence of this in our practice: our clients are limiting themselves to existing networks and partners. They’re coalition-building across those they’ve already met, whom they already trust.

As consultants and partners, we know that relationship-building must continue in order for businesses to grow. Cultivating trust virtually may be harder, but it’s essential when goals, budgets and professional reputations are on the line-and they always will be.

To help teams find the human side of virtual contact, we offer three insights on online collaboration, along with proposals on how to respond. Our first recommendation? Accept everyone’s feelings and realities. It’s a strange time, to be navigated together.

INSIGHT #1: Virtual Contact is Convenient, but Relationships Take More Time to Develop

The ease of firing up Zoom and connecting with anyone, anywhere in the world, can create a false sense of relationship security. Yes, we can see each other and speak, but absent time spent relating comfortably in shared spaces, trust is a longer-term build.

We’ll share a story to illustrate. By referral, Bluedog first “met” (virtually) key contacts at a far-off potential-client almost one year ago, back when a global pandemic still sounded like the stuff of sci-fi. We shared our capabilities remotely with promises to travel and meet in person soon, but we never let the connection drop. Virtual touches kept us learning and mutually engaged.

In early 2020, we connected digitally regarding a new project. Over the next three months-surrounded by and sometimes from within COVID-19 lockdowns-we traded emails and phone calls. We collaborated, iterated and narrowed in on a brief, and then a proposal. We eventually delivered our executive pitch via video conference.

During that pitch, one VP asked, “Is this even a project worth doing virtually?” And we answered, with all confidence, “Yes!” Tactically, we always had the tools to do our job remotely. But more importantly, over months, we’d come to know our clients, developing mutual trust. We knew, definitively, that we could navigate the uncertainties ahead together, and they trusted our relationship enough to move forward.

So when building new relationships, we recommend adding more time and patience to the calendar, recognizing that virtual contact is easy but unnatural. Supplement video meetings (which have become exhausting to many) with emails, texts, and traditional phone calls. When possible, honor how other team members prefer to communicate. It can be surprising how little extra effort can yield genuine appreciation and openness.

INSIGHT #2: Video Calls Democratize Teams, Introducing Informality and Opportunity

Perception is reality, and video conferencing platforms share a common characteristic: they display every attendee in a small box equal in size to everyone else’s. Visually, roles are deemphasized-a development leaders can embrace to encourage participation.

Let’s return to the example of our distant client. They have a highly-engaged culture that starts at the top, so their executive leadership actually attended our project kickoff. What might otherwise have been an informal discussion about deadlines and To-Do’s had to be reimagined for senior-level participation. So we prepared, practiced and sharpened our team’s strategic posture. We strove for C-Suite-readiness.

At that kickoff, however, we experienced something fascinating. Everyone occupied the same amount of real estate on the screen, positioned within a random “seating chart” that separated traditional peers and rendered seniority visually meaningless. Several people realized they were using the same generic virtual backgrounds, which sparked fun moments of camaraderie as we made our rounds of introductions.

The resulting conversation felt casual, the presence of the C-suite less intimidating than usual. We enjoyed a more free-flowing exchange of thoughts, with everyone feeling just a bit more comfortable to speak up, question, interact and contribute.

So when gathering a large group across levels, we recommend acknowledging, openly, the flattening of the hierarchy that everyone already sees. This is especially important for leadership, which sets the tone and can signal that under the circumstances, informal engagement is not only acceptable but encouraged.

INSIGHT #3: Video Conferences Offer Priceless Windows into People’s Worlds

As we each sit alone prior to our Zoom meetings, we miss out on one of the most personal aspects of gathering in a conference room: the first five minutes. Just before the scheduled start time (and typically for some time after), participants trickle in and share stories or updates about their lives. It’s always been inaccurate to call these exchanges “small talk,” and we should all make effort to create virtual space for them.

Once Bluedog had launched our remote project, we conducted stakeholder interviews with individual members of our client’s wider organization. Something interesting happened when we logged in for our video interview with the CEO. He immediately zeroed in on our lead strategist, Wade, whom he remembered from the project kickoff. Why? Because he’d noticed the running medals displayed on the wall behind Wade’s WFH desk. As a fellow marathoner, he wanted to know more.

Over the next few minutes, they discussed their shared passion-until their genuine exchange gave way to an interview that became more personable and empathetic. If we’d met in person, Wade would never have worn his running medals (obviously), so this human, connected moment might never have taken place.

Many Zoom Room participants (or their employers) worry that video conferencing enables a degree of sloppiness that’s inappropriate in professional contexts. But while we’re still developing our relationships, witnessing each other’s humanity through glimpses of homes, family members, beloved pets or treasured art can give us somewhere to start. If we see something that excites us-like Wade’s medals-it’s a gift we should accept.

So when viewing someone’s living space, we recommend indulging in positive curiosity. Homes reflect who people are, and sharing the view creates vulnerability. Whenever possible, join your colleague in their space-virtually-by asking about what you see. Everything likely has a story, and sharing stories fosters connection and trust.

Remember, we’re all in this together, finding solutions in real time. Try these approaches or, working from our insights, develop others that fit your culture. An open mind, and sometimes a sense of humor, can help everyone adapt and find new ways to connect while we’re still building our relationships through screens. (Only.)


IN THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENS is an article series from Bluedog Design’s most creatively strategic minds, launched to engage the many challenges and emerging opportunities facing the business leaders of today and tomorrow. About Bluedog Design Bluedog partners with clients to apply principles of Design Thinking that strengthen their businesses-developing inventive growth strategies across brand identity and engagement, marketing, product lifecycles (prototyping through in-store activation), portfolio management, organizational structure and business operations.

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