How can we maintain professional relationships while working from home?

With many people still remote working and ‘Zoom fatigue’ taking its toll, Andy Lopata explains how we can keep human contact going from behind a screen

One of the biggest but less remarked upon challenges presented by lockdown has been the impact on professional relationships. As remote working stretches on for many, how do we maintain presence and profile with colleagues and clients, have conversations that spark new ideas or help us out of a rut and continue to develop our networks by meeting new people?

During a webinar I delivered for The Association of Consulting Actuaries in September, two-thirds of the 69 respondents to a poll reported that they would be working from home for the foreseeable future, despite government attempts to encourage people back to the workplace. Only 7 per cent were back in the office full time. 

With the vast majority of respondents working from home still, how is that impacting their ability to build and nurture relationships? 

Participants in my webinar confirmed that the biggest challenges they faced revolved around difficulties building the ‘personal touch’ from a distance, along with the predictable issues with technology. (Zoom fatigue is definitely a thing.)

It’s very difficult to maintain eye contact when you’re teleconferencing. To appear to look the other person in the eyes you have to look at the camera, which means that you can only see them in your peripheral vision. If you look directly into their eyes, you appear to them as though you are looking away and distracted.

Add in the loss of the physical clues we share through our body language when we meet in person and we can see that technology, while presenting considerable benefits, has many shortfalls in helping us to build rapport. 

Recognising that Zoom fatigue is real, it’s important to vary the communication channels we use, going back to phone calls, SMS, WhatsApp and social media more to vary our touchpoints with our network. Even arranging socially distanced walking meetings where geographically convenient and when the weather is nice. 

The nature of our conversations is changing too. In the poll I conducted, more than half of the respondents (55 per cent) reported having more ‘transactional’, agenda-driven conversations than usual. I think this reflects more transactional calls taking place and a loss of natural opportunities for small talk as we meet people for lunch or simply bump into them around the office.  

Interestingly, almost half (45 per cent) also reported an increase in the number of ‘relational’ conversations they were having. We seem to be making up for the loss in natural small talk conversations by spending more time engaging in personal conversation during formal meetings. 

We’re getting an insight into the people behind the job titles. We’re seeing into people’s homes, laughing with them as their pets or kids demand our attention. We’ve become more accepting and more human and that’s pushing our transactional agenda further down the list of priorities.

Perhaps we’re compensating for the loss of human contact by changing the way we engage online. We can’t lose sight of our purpose but relationships are also key and a ‘blended’ mindset of engaging relationally as well as transactionally will help. As will picking up the phone without agenda just to ask people how they are. 

One of the most important takeaways for me has been the importance of empathy in the way we engage. People feel tired, threatened and bored. They carry health concerns for themselves and their family, worries about their job or business, concern for the state of the country and more. 

But they are not necessarily going to let you know that. 

The truth is that we don’t know what’s happening in the lives of the people we’re engaging with. We could be launching into a transactional conversation with someone who has just returned from a hospital visit. 

Empathy is key at the best of times, but right now it’s probably the number one quality we could demonstrate when building relationships with our network. Sure, get the business done. But show an interest in the individual you’re doing business with. 

Andy Lopata is a professional networking specialist and author of Connected Leadership