Virtual Relationships

Wow – what a year this has been! 12 months ago I genuinely didn’t imagine that I would still be working purely virtually; that all my face-to-face interactions would be on a screen; and that I would be working with a whole team who I have never actually met in person.

In one way, it is fantastic that technology has allowed us to still meet, see each other (even if only in 2D) and have meetings that are relatively “normal” in terms of being able to read body language (or at least facial expressions). But on the other hand, it is rather scary that this could become our normal. Yes, it is just so easy to work this way, but at the same time we lose so much.

So going back to May 2020 – although lockdown and the Covid situation were truly horrendous – there was something quite satisfying about only having to commute downstairs to start work. Saving all that time each day seemed such a benefit and knowing the team I was working with well, it was fine to continue our meetings and day to day work virtually. But as that project and contract came to an end, and I was fortunate enough to start another piece of work, the situation changed somewhat. No longer did I have the benefit of knowing the team, understanding what their change in tone on a call might mean, or being able to joke about something that had happened back in the “office days”. Now I was working with people who I had only ever met in a virtual environment. Gone was the opportunity for a quick side meeting on the way to the kettle, or the benefit of getting to know about their pets or children while the kettle boiled. Now it was purely about meeting on screen and trying to build a relationship while miles apart.

I should at this point highlight that I have worked from home extensively in the past. I have worked on projects with teams around the world and I certainly haven’t spent every day with them in offices. But we did meet – we got to see how tall each other was, go and grab lunch or a coffee, walk together outside and generally interact in a “normal” way.

However, this was now going into the unknown – how long were we going to be working like this and would I ever get the chance to meet my new colleagues…? So, I was nervous about how it would work and whether I would be able to build natural and effective relationships with these new people. They didn’t know me – they couldn’t really see me (except on a screen) – and how would that impact our productivity?

Fast forward eight months and I can honestly say I love working with this team. I feel like we have built relationships based on the craziness of the situation, the shared frustrations and the ability to show our feelings on our faces!! I have got to know about them and their families and hobbies, even without the trips to the kettle. But there is definitely something missing… The side meetings; the ability to grab two minutes with someone for a decision; the shared joke about something random and the ability to work together effectively to solve a problem on a whiteboard whilst sharing a bag of doughnuts.

I won’t be nervous again about starting a role completely virtually, but I would definitely like the opportunity to meet up in person to solve challenges and put the world to rights. Virtual working undeniably has its benefits, but I would now actually like to commute to an office, wear heels and go out to grab a coffee. I feel like we need to learn from these experiences – take the best of both worlds if we can, but definitely appreciate the benefits of being in a room with others where it adds value.

I’m counting down the days until I can meet my colleagues in person but until then, I’d best go and join my next Teams meeting….

Liz Brown,