When I transitioned from working in a school surrounded by the buzz of students and teachers every minute of the day, to working from home, the shift was huge and it took some time to adjust. Increasingly people are interacting with others online: engaging in a professional learning network, undertaking distance education, or working with colleagues remotely. Endless cups of tea only a few steps away, wearing my slippers, and the ability to focus without distraction in the quiet of my home office are some of the advantages. But on the flip side, one of the biggest initial challenges was how to build good rapport with my new colleagues who worked far away.
Relational trust is the foundation for successful relationships. It fosters collaboration, encourages staff to grow professionally, and creates safety for people to take risks and learn. The research suggests that you need good will, reliability, competence, honesty, and openness to build relational trust (Cranston, 2001; Robinson et al., 2009; Hoy & Tschannen-Moran, 1999) but how do you build this when working remotely? How do you display good will over an email or Slack message?
First up, there’s no denying that face-to-face discussions are hugely important in building relationships. Technology enables me to close the gap, but it certainly doesn’t erase the need for face-to-face time. In the early days of working from home, I tried to get down to the office whenever I could to meet my colleagues. It’s often the ‘water cooler’ chats that are more instrumental in forming relationships than official meetings. But what if this isn’t an option for you? How can you create those valuable moments to connect with others, either on a personal or professional level?
It’s important to be visible. In order to build virtual visibility, I engage regularly in professional and social conversations with my colleagues over Slack (our internal messaging system) and video calls. I participate in group conversations and try to respond to messages immediately. Emojis, which I always thought were superfluous, are used extensively in our communication and I now appreciate that they can convey more emotion and nuance in a conversation than text alone. It all comes down to the group culture and what’s appropriate.
We also have topic specific social channels (#coffee-roulette, #wholesomeness, #dog-tales) that help you contribute to the group and build relationships with others you wouldn’t normally interact with. Non-strictly-work related forums help build good will, openness and strengthen collegial bonds (as well as help combat the relative isolation of working from home).
Relational trust also requires you to demonstrate respect, personal integrity, and competence. Things we all do – like turning up to a Skype session on time, following through on what you say you’ll do, holding yourself to a high standard, and letting your work speak for itself. Sometimes it can take a while to build a presence and develop your relational trust in the online space, but with a bit of perseverance, you’ll be 👌.