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The Future of Work is Human: Building Strong Relationships in a Virtual World

6 min read ⌚ 

The world of work as we know it is changing, and there’s no longer any denying it. Even this change is nothing new under the sun. Work has always evolved, and embracing that evolution will help you thrive. One area we should all adjust and adapt to is how we build strong relationships in a highly virtual world.

Remote work is growing like never before, and companies depend on more digital tools to help build camaraderie and trust at work. Why is relationship building important in business? How do you build thriving work relationships in this highly digitized world? We discuss these questions and more as we dive into the future of work and how to build relationships in today’s working environment.

What Will Work Relationships Look Like in the 21st Century?

Digitization and post-pandemic advancements are significant transformations in work relationships. Many of these changes come from technological advancements and changing social norms. 

Here’s how these changes manifest, especially in light of some growing trends, and how we should respond to them today as we strive to keep a human touch in the workplace.

The Rise of Hybrid Work 

Post-COVID-19 pandemic, people have shifted away from fully remote work settings, especially in the United States, where more companies are pushing for back-to-office movements. However, that doesn’t mean that remote work will disappear forever. 

Statistics show that 49% of knowledge workers work in a hybrid environment. As employees split their time between working from home and an office, our work relationships will change dramatically. While this model offers flexibility and work-life balance, we must consider what it will do for our people. 

No two companies will be alike, of course. You also need to consider the industries. A dialysis technician and a computer engineer will respond very differently to the future of work. However, we can look at overall trends and see how we can maximize this developing trend for our individual contexts.

That’s also because hybrid work challenges maintaining strong interpersonal connections and team cohesion. Companies will increasingly rely on digital communication tools to bridge the gap, there’s no doubt about that. Still, the lack of face-to-face interaction can impact the development of deeper work relationships.

Technology’s Role vs. The Human Mind

Artificial intelligence has been a buzzword as of late, and people are wondering how this might affect the workforce. Statistics show that 73% of people believe technology will never be able to replace the human mind fully. There’s still a unique value of human intelligence and creativity, things that technology cannot fully replicate (at least not yet). This suggests a continuing reliance on human skills like critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and creative problem-solving in work relationships. 

What does this say then? It’s best now that we see technologies like generative AI and automation as tools to augment human capabilities rather than replace them. Having this perspective promotes a collaborative relationship between humans and technology in the workplace.

Future Trends Influenced by These Forces

With these trends changing work as we know it, how will they change our work relationships then? Here are some trends that could soon become the norm at work:

  • Increased Emphasis on Soft Skills – As technology takes over more routine tasks, soft skills like communication, empathy, and teamwork will become more critical in the workplace. Managers should then choose to develop these skills to enhance work relationships in a hybrid and tech-driven environment.
  • More Collaborative and Inclusive Work Cultures – The hybrid model and the continued value of human skills could also lead to more collaborative and inclusive work cultures. We will start to see more companies invest more in team-building and diversity initiatives to foster strong work relationships across physical and digital workspaces.
  • Continued Evolution of Leadership Styles – Leaders must also adapt their styles to manage remote and hybrid teams effectively. This could involve more emphasis on trust-building, flexibility, and open communication.
  • Blending of Professional and Personal Lives – Though no longer fully remote, a hybrid work model will blur the lines between professional and personal lives for many of our professionals. We should consider these factors and if they could lead to a more holistic approach to employee well-being.
  • Rise of Lifelong Learning – As technology evolves, our staff will need to upskill and reskill to remain competent in the future. As early as today, are we creating an environment where continuous learning and adaptability become integral to work relationships? If you aren’t, this is the time to cast the vision to your employees and show them that the time to grow is at hand.

How to Navigate Work Relationships in a Virtual World

As we start embracing the digital workplace more and more, we will need to foster meaningful connections more than ever. It’s important to look at some work relationship examples that still show strong relational unity amidst growing physical distance.

Here are seven best practices to navigate and build work relationships in a virtual world.

1. Understand and Respect Cultural Differences

Erin Meyer’s “The Culture Map” emphasizes the importance of understanding cultural differences in communication. In a virtual setting, it’s vital to recognize these differences to avoid misinterpretations. 

Meyer suggests, “Pay close attention to the cultural maps of your colleagues, and adjust your communication style accordingly.” Embracing approach is not just about being polite. It’s also about being effective in a multicultural environment.

2. Regular Virtual Social Interactions

Fostering a sense of community in a virtual environment will be challenging, for sure. However, it is highly crucial. To respond to these challenges, one simple practice you can build is creating regularly scheduled informal interactions, like virtual coffee breaks or team games. 

These avenues can create a more relaxed atmosphere that encourages open communication. Understanding personal contexts can greatly enhance intercultural communication and collaboration.

3. Use Clear and Concise Communication

Clarity will be paramount as we increase our virtual communication in a hybrid work setting. Since digital messages lack the nuances of face-to-face interaction, it’s essential to be explicit when communicating at work. 

This means avoiding jargon, being concise, and confirming understanding through follow-up questions. Being clear reduces misunderstandings and builds trust because it shows respect for the recipient’s time and cognitive load.

4. Engage in Active Listening

Vanessa Van Edwards in “Captivate” underlines the power of active listening, especially in virtual settings. In a virtual world, non-verbal cues are less observable. Listening actively will help you comprehend the complete message and build stronger connections. 

When you build work relationships, examples of good listening practices include watching out for cues on video calls, learning to listen to feelings in one’s voice, and understanding someone’s feelings from text messages. 

5. Provide and Seek Regular Feedback

Feedback becomes a key growth and relationship-building tool in digital and hybrid work settings. Regular, constructive feedback helps align goals, adjust strategies, and understand expectations. Remember to be sensitive while giving feedback, as perceptions of directness and criticism vary greatly across cultures. 

Similarly, actively seeking feedback demonstrates openness to learning and collaboration, key components in building effective virtual work relationships.

6. Leverage Technology to Bridge Gaps

The right use of technology can significantly enhance virtual collaboration. Teams can quickly finalize agreements and contracts using an electronic signature, improving their project workflows. Tools for project management, real-time communication, and collaborative editing can streamline workflows and foster a sense of teamwork. However, over-reliance on digital tools for communication isn’t also ideal. Have occasional video calls to add a personal touch to the interactions. 

7. Show Empathy and Understanding

At the end of the day, empathy will be the cornerstone of strong virtual relationships in the future. It’s best to always come from a place of understanding, acknowledging the challenges and constraints that colleagues may face in a remote setting. When able, recognize a team member’s contributions or show flexibility in deadlines. Small actions like these can greatly enhance team morale and cooperation.

Building Relationships: It Still Matters in a Virtual World

There’s no denying the importance of building relationships in the workplace. Strong relationships at work are the backbone of successful teamwork, enhanced productivity, and employee satisfaction.

In a time where physical cues and in-person interactions are absent, investing time and effort into relationship-building becomes even more critical. As much as we can, we must now do our best to foster collaborative, understanding, and supportive environments where each team member feels valued and connected.

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