Virtual employee relationships

Matt M. Starcevich, Ph.D.

Working from home has changed employees–how can managers adapt? In the past relationships were developed over the course of day to day face to face interactions. Not so anymore- 97.6% of 1,900 remote workers surveyed would like to work remotely some of the time for the rest of their career[i].( The continuing pandemic has delayed when the office will reopen and provides a reset opportunity for virtual employee relationships and changes to the managers’ role.

The role of the manager shifts from authority figure to nurturer[ii] (Fuller)

Interpersonal skills will gain greater importance with decreased emphasis on technical skills. Gaining employee trust and commitment over digital platforms will become crucial.

Millennials don’t want bosses–they want coaches.[iii](Gallup)

Millennials are the largest group (35%) in the US workforce. (Pew Research Center) They are tech-savvy, place high importance on relationships with superiors, value social interaction in the workplace, and many have acquired a taste for independence and less manager oversight.

Emotional trust is the foundation for effective coaching. Emotional trust is formed when others care about us, have our best interests at heart,  and we feel secure. The nature of our relationship, how we interact with others determines the level of emotional trust. Good managers believe today as never before, a major responsibility is building supportive individual and team relationships.

Intentional relationship building.

Minimal face to face contact between team leaders, with and among employees dictates deliberate, intentional,  and consistent actions. What can the manager do to build and maintain relationships between team members and direct reports?

Take stock of your experiences and what you have learned over the last 18 months:

  • What has been frustrating?
  • What changes in your leadership process are you comfortable making?
  • What are your needs?
  • What is realistic?

Start with a clean slate; renew relationship with every single employee, yes, even with long term employees.

  • Schedule face to face meeting to assess how employees have grown or changed.
  • Open a dialogue to better understand what the employees expectations are for more control over how, when and where their work gets done, what they need from their manager and other team members.

These meetings are one of the critical in-person times. A managers’ challenge to understand the unique and different needs of employees will never be truer than in the hybrid environment. 71% of employees working remotely during the pandemic said losing flexibility is a source of anxiety about returning to the workplace[iv] (Limeade Institute).

Formalize the social aspects of work.

  • Devote virtual meeting time for informal check-ins with colleagues. Water cooler talk that occurred naturally now needs to be deliberate. Celebrate life’s events, and what’s going on with everyone.
  • Reinforce the legitimacy of interacting with peers while the team is together–lunches, group coffee breaks, wandering around the office space, informal non work discussions are but a few ideas.
  • Physical presence is limited to collaboration or social bonding. Requiring employees to sit there and do what could have been done at home results in negative relationship capital.
  • Encourage; don’t mandate employees to maximize their interactions during at work hours. Let the introverts and extroverts define their level of interactions.

Create learning meetings. e.g., mental wellness, work life balance, skip level meeting with an open agenda, issues facing the team.

Beware of proximity bias, the belief that those who choose to work at the office will be perceived as better workers and ultimately more likely to be recognized, rewarded, and treated differently than those who choose to work from home. If it’s not OK to work from home, the result will be more in person time spent at work than is needed just to be seen resulting in negative relationship capital and resentment within the team. Out of sight does not mean out of mind.

Occasionally, devote an entire virtual meeting to something that is fun and non-operational. The options are endless, Google “fun zoom meetings” for some great thought starters.

Rethink how performance will be evaluated. Manage team members based on progress toward mutually agreed upon outcomes rather than the number of hours spent sitting at their work station. Then stay out of their way!

Managers, be authentic in your individual and team interactions.

  • Be real; bring your whole self to interactions with employees.
  • Openness is not a one way street, exchange personal stories that go deeper than just operational discussions.
  • Model the connectivity expected in the work team. The goal to cement in the employees mind that you care and are really interested in them.
  • The ultimate question: do they believe me?

These suggestions are not all inclusive; please comment on other approaches you have observed. Employees are emerging from the pandemic changed. The best managers will recognize the opportunity the pandemic return to work delay has created and benefit from it with intentional relationship building actions.

Thank you Carol Otto Ph.D., J. Arnold Sykes for their input and Roy Holley for the image in this post.

[i] of-remote-work

[ii] Joseph Fuller, Harvard Business School and co-lead of the school’s Managing the Future of Work initiative.


[iii] Gallup, How Millennials Want to Work and Live: the six big changes leaders have to make.


[iv] Limeade Institute online survey Jan.-Feb. 2021, 1,628 respondents