Five Real Tips for Getting to Know Your Virtual Colleagues

By: Miranda Steele

You’ve never met your colleagues. You have no idea how tall they are, how loudly they speak on the phone, or whether they rhythmically tap their pen on their desk when they are thinking. In another time, you’d compare packed lunches and get to know each other’s coffee orders. You’d debrief on meetings in hushed tones, and have friendly hallway check-ins. And if you know your colleagues from “the before,” it’s likely you’re still exchanging texts or knowing looks in meetings about that inside joke, checking in on their never-ending renovation, or trading notes on new COVID pastimes.

But what if you’re new? How do you connect with colleagues and meet new ones during a pandemic?

It’s been a strange year in the world of work. Stranger still, if you’ve started a new job. In the last ten months, I’ve onboarded team members virtually, and more recently started a new job of my own — all without ever leaving my home office. So when I was recently asked for some tips on how to connect with virtual colleagues and build relationships while in lockdown, I had a few suggestions.

[Related: Focus on Your Next Employer Before Searching for that Perfect Job]

1) Make eye contact.

The Zoom fatigue might be real, but if you’re starting a new role, make your webcam your friend. If a meeting offers a video log in, use it, and be sure to turn your camera on. And if you’re in a position to encourage others to join with video as well, I’d recommend it.

While it’s not quite the same as reading the actual room, seeing people on camera starts to give you all sorts of clues about your new colleagues. Who takes the lead? Who adds a laugh? Who do people look to for conclusions and next steps? You’ll be able to start putting faces to names and getting a sense of team dynamics, too.

But be sure not to get distracted by your own image on screen. Minimize yourself and use speaker view (or pin the speaker’s image) to keep your focus in the right spot. Try moving the video window and change where your own image appears, so that you can look directly into the webcam lens. This is particularly important if you split your screen and keep notes up.

Consider holding a practice call with a friend to work out your screen set-up and make sure your virtual efforts feel like a real face-to-face connection.

2) Use every meeting as a gateway to more meetings.

Hear me out! While meetings are typically the bane of business existence, in the current environment they are the primary way to connect with other people. If you’re new, they are likely also the primary way you’re meeting anyone.

Coming out of the meetings you’re required to be in, ask your newfound colleagues if you can get on their calendars for coffee or a quick chat. Your recent meeting is the perfect opening to ask more about them — their role, their history with the company, and any tips they have that will make you successful in your new role.

And here’s the most important question you can ask them: Is there anyone else you recommend I speak to? Whether it’s based on your role, the fact that you’re new, or just another colleague they flag as a helpful resource, collect everyone’s suggestions on who to meet with and carve out time for these chats. You’ll have a growing network in no time.

3) You can — and should — still have water cooler conversations.

When you’re new on the job, finding common ground is key to building relationships. Before you can look back with your colleagues on your professional accomplishments together or reminisce about a team karaoke night (RIP, karaoke), you’ll want to find ways to be more than just “the new person on the project.” Personal and professional lives have never been more blurred, and right now that means permission to share more than just your professional achievements.

Whether you introduce yourself in a team meeting or one-on-one, consider adding something about how you’ve been spending your COVID lockdown time (puzzles, baking sourdough, learning a new language, or your last binge on Netflix). This glimpse into who you are when you’re not on camera is an easy first step in finding common ground and inviting new colleagues to connect.

While you might not have the communal kitchen in which to discuss last night’s must-watch TV, there are other ways to keep office banter alive and well. Microsoft Teams and other such platforms are an easy solve on this front. While I also use Teams for collaborative work, separate channels for non-urgent fun allow people to post the latest memes, recipes to try, and any “Did you see this?!” headlines. Commenting on shares and tagging colleagues into the discussion is a surprisingly good placeholder for real human connection and community building.

[Related: How to Advocate for Yourself in a Digital World]

4) The medium is the message (and right now, that includes the wall behind you).

Remember trading fashion notes with colleagues and having a sense of their personal style? Consider your virtual backdrop your new office attire. And with that in mind, consider what it says about you. While there’s no requirement to dress up the nook you’re working from, it can be one more way to make an impression.

My home backdrop is a bold stretch of grey, blue, and white fabric that’s easily mistaken for wallpaper. This abstract pattern behind me on calls has led to more connections and discussions about style, home decor, and general non-work chatter than I could have imagined!

And I make it a point to ask my colleagues about their backdrops, too. For those working in front of stacks of toddler toys, I ask about their kids and how they are managing with everyone at home. When someone has angled their dining room table workspace to capture a great piece of art, I remark on it. And while I might not comment on someone’s overall home, bedroom setup, or the blank wall in view, I make a mental note about what I’ve learned about them and their unique situation.

While it feels undeniably more authentic to give colleagues a window into your real backdrop, it doesn’t mean that virtual ones aren’t also a good option if you aren’t comfortable with the slice of your life others will see. Novelty backdrops can be a distraction, so load up your favorite vacation landscapes or simple home and office photos that mimic the kind of set-up you wish you had.

5) Take notes, and keep them in plain sight.

While it’s easier than ever to keep everyone’s names straight (video calls and meeting invites act as permanent name tags!), remembering who said what can be as challenging as ever. Consider jotting down a few points from your conversations with new colleagues and then pulling them up the next time you connect.

A tool like Microsoft OneNote makes this easy: Keep a binder for connections and add a page when you meet someone new. Jot down anything you might want to remember about them — personally or professionally — and anything to ask them about next time. Remembering someone’s home country, that they are planning a virtual birthday party for their five-year-old, or that they are caring for a sick relative are all meaningful ways to strengthen connections with your new colleagues.

Paper and pen have their place, too — there’s never been a better time for a post-it note. Whether it’s a bulleted reminder of how you like to introduce yourself or an inspirational quote that gives you confidence in your new environment, post-it proudly. I often have a note hanging off the edge of my monitor — I consider it the best teleprompter no one will ever see.

And as always, don’t forget to follow up. Relationships take work — even in a pandemic.

If you’re new, the onus is on you to reach out. Carve out time to manage your calendar and reach out to colleagues you’ve recently met and to the other names on your growing list. A fifteen- or twenty-minute coffee chat goes a long way, and when you ask someone if it would be okay to get back together in a few months, set yourself a reminder (or a post-it!) and make sure to lock it in.

While developing and fostering relationships in this virtual environment might take more time, it’s worth the effort. Relationships will always matter, and someday, we can only hope to get to connect in-person, too.

Do you have a virtual connection tip?

Nearly a year into the pandemic, the number of employees hired and onboarded virtually continues to grow. Have you recently started a new role? If so, what tips would you add to this list?

[Related: Stripping Away Bias, One Avatar at a Time]

Miranda Steele is a strategic business leader and passionate communicator known to lead high-performing teams to exceptional results in fast-paced, creative, and ever-changing environments. She has extensive experience leading communications strategy, managing issues, driving stakeholder engagement, and developing executive profiles. She is a tireless protector and driver of brand reputation.

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