Explainers

How to Establish Working Relationships as a New Leader in a Remote Team

Getting to know your team requires intention, time, and flexibility—especially in a virtual workplace

If you’re new to an organization, the tone you set early on with your team can make a huge difference in whether you’re ultimately successful as a leader. And while your initial welcome speech can serve as a good introduction to the team at large, it’s essential to connect on a more personal, individual level. Organizational design pioneer Ed Schein called this “personizing,” which he described as “the process of getting from that role-based transaction to this more personal relationship…get[ting] to know each other in the work context.”

Of course, you won’t achieve this all in one meeting. So despite feeling pressure to get down to business immediately, dedicate time and space to meet everyone on your new team as people. We understand that this task is all the more daunting in remote workplaces, since all those casual shared interactions that tell so much—meals, laughs, silences—are gone. That’s why we spoke to several leaders to get their insights into what they’ve seen work well, particularly in this virtual environment:

  • Don’t start from a position of scarcity. Time feels especially precious during Zoom meetings, and you might feel like you have to cram a bunch of specifics into your first encounter. You don’t. Instead, plan for multiple interactions. Then, in your first meeting, have an outline of what you want to cover, but adapt it to follow the person’s needs.
  • Remember, it’s not just about you. Your priorities and hopes for the team won’t be well-known yet. The reality is that your team’s initial questions will most likely focus on how their day-to-day will be impacted: the opportunities for raises, career development, and your criteria for success. In 1:1s, create space for individuals to share anything about the change in leadership that they want to know more about, or that might be making them nervous.
  • Break down the work. You probably have ambitious goals for your organization and information you want to share, which could feel overwhelming if tackled all at once. To make things more manageable, approach topics piecemeal. “We introduced firesides with themes to help bring our leader to our associates and vice versa via Zoom,” said Tim Gilligan, Chief of Staff, Commercial and Small Business Design at Capital One said. “[They] really helped with accessibility and trust building.”
  • Don’t force it. You may want to find a singular way to connect with everyone you spend time with, but that’s never as simple as it sounds. Be cautious with comments on their Zoom backgrounds, for instance: pointing out things you have in common (“hey, we both play guitar!”) could help create bonds, but seem too invasive to others. If your team seems more reserved, start by sharing information from your user manual, and invite them to ask questions or share what they feel comfortable with.
  • Try different formats. Give people options for how they interact. Playing games—even short games like the WikiGame—can bring levity into the workplace and provide clues as to how others think. Jennifer Paylor, Director of Learning & Development and Culture at CapGemini, suggested using a live video “Ask Me Anything” (AMAs). As always, a little experimentation—with a feedback loop from employees—can pay dividends.
Published April 7, 2021