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The science of long-distance professional relationships

Spontaneity is overrated.

The science of long-distance professional relationships
[Вадим Пастух/Adobe Stock]

In today’s environment, we often find ourselves literally in long-distance relationships with our colleagues, many of whom we have not interacted in-person in more than 18 months. With offices across the country on the verge of shifting to hybrid in-person models if they have not already done so, the reality of long-distance office relationships isn’t exactly going away. You might see a colleague once a week or once a month in the office, all while maintaining an ongoing virtual cadence. So, what is the key to keeping these relationships career-enhancing and productive? Here are a few tips:

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SPONTANEITY IS OVERRATED

The organic conversations that used to happen around the office water cooler or snack station are no longer a given. If you’re not casually running into someone daily, it becomes more important to connect in alternative ways. Rather than hope that connections happen by chance, be intentional about relationship-building conversations. Someone you used to see in the office? Schedule a check-in for a virtual coffee or walking meeting, or coordinate in-person office days. Let people know you’re thinking about them even if you’re not physically together. Perhaps send them an article that could be of interest. Invite them to a virtual event you think they’d enjoy. Or simply reach out and see how they are doing.

WE & YOU + ME

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Relationships are complex equations. Simply interacting with another person does not create a relationship.  Rather, relationships emerge over time and are built on a strong foundation of trust and understanding. Whether you’re meeting someone for the first time or having your hundredth conference call this month, lead with empathy and make space to better understand the individual. I encourage my teammates to be authentically curious about others and to try asking questions that open the door to richer conversations. For instance, asking a parent about how the back-to-school process is going or checking in with a colleague about a recent move can make all the difference. Factor in interaction preferences by leveraging one of the many behavioral assessments on the market. At Deloitte, we use Business Chemistry to help us anticipate how an individual might prefer to work and communicate.

KEEP THE SPARK ALIVE

While getting through your day might seem like a never-ending list of to-do’s, be careful not to just go through the motions of relationship building while your mind is on other things. Particularly in a virtual or hybrid setting, it can be easy to get distracted and not fully tune in to the other person. Be fully present (resist the temptation to check email, text, or respond to the IM that just popped up) and let yourself lean into your connection with genuine interest and empathy. Remember, having meaningful relationships at work is one of the strongest drivers of workplace satisfaction, and a large part of career growth stems from networking, mentorships, and sponsorships.

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NO GHOSTING

Working from home or in a hybrid model has disrupted our daily routines, and it is arguable that we are busier than ever. While it may be easy to cancel check-in meetings due to bandwidth concerns or busy schedules, it is important to sustain the relationships we have with coworkers for both our productivity and our engagement in work. And of course, be sure to respond in a timely fashion if colleagues reach out to you. In other words, don’t ghost colleagues. Being consistent and present is key.

Success in a long-distance relationship certainly can be achieved, even in this ever-changing environment. Recognizing the value of strong professional relationships, scheduling time to foster these relationships, and being intentional with when, where, and how we engage are steps we can all take to improve and strengthen our day-to-day interactions. And that’s a combination everyone can love.

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Kim Christfort, national managing director of The Deloitte Greenhouse® Experience group, Deloitte LLP, and co-author of Business Chemistry.

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