Building personal connections

Oct 03, 2021

Finding commonalities can help you build trust and strengthen relationships in this changing work environment.

Close your eyes and envision a day at work. What does that look like to you today, especially relative to two years ago? Does it look like a kitchen table, couch, or home office? Are there partners, relatives, kids, or pets around? Are you home alone? Or does it look like an office building with team members working at their individual stations?

Many people will think of something different when they picture work today, and what they see has likely changed significantly over the last two years. Fortunately, technology has been used to support more virtual work environments while adding some efficiencies, such as reduced meeting times and costs. Work continues, new and old, even while our surroundings look different.

With that said, living and working alone during the pandemic had its drawbacks, such as losing that physical connection with others that we as a species have relied on for thousands of years. I was recently working on a project that required several team members to spend an entire day in the field together, which is not a normal occurrence, especially with social distancing protocols. Most of the day we talked about work, but not the whole time. We caught up on recent life events – like how our families were doing, what kept us busy while staying home, and how we were feeling overall. This moment made me realize how our personal connections have degraded significantly since March 2020.

Allowing people to know more about you outside of your profession builds trust and allows you to find commonalities that will strengthen relationships, whether you’re being considered by a potential client for a new project, or seeking to bring on new talent into your business. The American Psychological Association indicates that “workplace friendships generally improve productivity and morale. They provide practical support by sharing knowledge and data, but the biggest benefit … is the emotional and moral support that we provide each other. We go through the same struggles and understand each others’ challenges and hurdles.”

During a virtual meeting, I mentioned teaching myself woodworking during the pandemic and another attendee responded and shared they taught a woodworking class, giving us something to talk about and making the encounter memorable. If I had joined this virtual meeting two minutes before it started and left when it was scheduled to end (as was the pre-pandemic expectation), a memorable encounter – and a great networking opportunity – would have been lost.

It is interesting to see how professionals were able to adapt to extreme changes in the environment, leveraging technology and new workflows, while creating new performance gaps that we may not have thought about before, such as subconsciously neglecting personal relationships, in the meantime. It is important to identify what other new gaps are being introduced, how and when they will start to have an impact, and what it will take to fill them. There are some strong relationships (most of which existed before work environments changed) that make it easy to pick up the phone or call on video to have a more casual conversation, but aren’t we all trying to build new relationships while sustaining existing ones? How can we build personal relationships with new clients, partners, and co-workers without the time before and after meetings, passing each other in the hallway, and/or eating lunch? It must become a more mindful and intentional effort.

So, what do we do now?

Three strategies can be used to help build back personal connections in the virtual setting and are applicable to both internal and external relationships. These strategies must be used with careful consideration and should be adapted based on the audience and setting. The intent is not to convert productive business/technical meetings into a social hour. The goal is to find a balance between strictly business and slightly human!

  1. Add “personal update” to the meeting agenda formally or informally. You can break the ice with a personal anecdote that others can engage with (“I had a water leak at my apartment,” “I discovered these new walking trails,” etc.), or have a generic topic for discussion that allows attendees to respond in a few sentences. Try to stay away from polarizing topics. Potential topics could include:
    • Favorite animal
    • Favorite television show or book
    • Greatest piece of advice
    • Something you learned in the last week
    • Most beautiful view you can remember
  2. Organize virtual events. Do not stop all the regular activities you would have done in-person, but instead look for opportunities to adapt and turn these functions into virtual events, whether it be a happy hour, baby shower, lunch, or poker night. As people are less likely to engage in conversation when the group becomes too large, use a platform that allows for smaller breakout groups, which will encourage more conversation. New companies have emerged for just the purpose of providing virtual synergy events within corporations, so there is no shortage of available tools, services, and resources.
  3. Schedule regular check-in meetings. Identify if a regularly scheduled meeting would be beneficial and encourage attendees to keep their cameras on. This is a meeting that is dedicated to just checking in and does not pertain to a specific project or task (while those may also come up). As mentioned above, having a large check-in group may be counterproductive in that some people will be less comfortable talking in front of 25 people as compared to six. If the check-in group is large, see if breakout rooms could be used and people can rotate around or have a list of discussion topics, similar to those listed under the first strategy above.

I know what some of you are thinking: Please no, this will be so uncomfortable. But growth, both personal and as a firm, is uncomfortable. If implementing these strategies is awkward at first, try to guide conversations rather than open it up for anyone to say anything, in which case most people will mute themselves and maybe even turn off their camera. These strategies can make such a difference in how you and your firm are perceived.

Of course, this is not an all-encompassing list. Tailor these strategies as you best see fit to meet the styles and personalities of those you want to interact with and build a relationship with. Communication and relationship building is an iterative process that takes work, which we all expect in our personal relationships but may overlook in our professional ones. If people do not participate at first, resist the urge to immediately throw in the towel, and try again. Once people start to find those commonalities, relationship-building will get easier. It is time to put these strategies to the test – what do we have to lose?

Katie Harrel, P.E., is special projects manager at CWE. Connect with her on LinkedIn. Charlotte Knight is senior proposal coordinator at CWE. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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