Thoughts on building strong(ish) relationships over video chat…

by Jerry Lewis

2020 was tough. 2021 thus far has been no picnic either. Most of us are still working from home, wondering if wearing masks in public is the new normal, and/or mastering the three ring circus our home full of remote workers, remote learners, and bored pets represents. The memes that showed people raising a glass to 2021 but saying ‘bring on 2022’ were humorous expressions of frustration and exhaustion I’m sure we’ve all felt by now. And while humor may be good for the soul, we all still have to make the best of our remote work situations. Since there’s no end to remote work in site (at least for this blogger), and success at my job is based on relationships, I’ve devoted time to optimizing how I communicate with my clients and my team over web meetings.

To that end, I’d like to offer some thoughts on how to make the best of video chat to build strong(ish) relationships. While I don’t think video chat will reach parity with face-to-face interactions in terms of building trust and connection, there are ways to get more out of your conversations through the digital medium, and I’d like to focus on those.

First, a little background. I work as an account partner for IBM, which means that I’m responsible for all the consulting services we deliver for my account, a large multinational integrated energy company, full stop. I manage client relationships, the account P&L, the IBM account team, the account operations, all of it. That said, the most important parts of my role are managing the client and client relationships and the IBM team and my relationships with them, and theirs with each other.

Ordinarily, I’d be walking the halls, having meetings in conference rooms, going to lunch and dinner, perhaps playing the odd round of golf, doing team building events, attending conferences and events, and in general being in front of client and team as much as possible. In short, being a good account partner is a full contact sport. Well, imagine starting such a role in March of 2020. Imagine what COVID has done to my ability to do ANY of the things cited in the list above. Net net, it’s eliminated every single one of them. I have yet to meet face to face a SINGLE client employee. Of the 100 hundred + IBM employees I interact with over a regular week working in my current role I’ve met perhaps 2 or 3 in person and that only because we live in the same geographic area.

These extraordinary circumstances have forced me therefore to focus on how best to build relationships with client and team over video chat. It’s been a work in progress to be sure. The IBM team I’m lucky enough to work with has been inspirational both in their willingness to step out of their comfort zones in terms of how they communicate and their willingness to try any number of new technologies to enhance those communications.

In no particular order then, here are some of the things I and we have learned over the last year.

· TURN YOUR CAMERA ON AND ASK THE OTHER PARTICIPANTS TO DO THE SAME

Cameras on may be the single most important factor in building strong(ish) relationships over video chat. Whether WebEx, Teams, Google Chat, Skype, Zoom or some other technology, a video chat just isn’t the same if we can’t see your face. Are you engaged? Are you working on something else? How are you reacting to what I’m saying? How are you feeling? What’s the weather like? Are you comfortable, happy, frustrated? Is the dog jumping on your lap? Are your kids crawling all over you? Do you have a weird backlight issue or in my case light shining down on the top of your bald head? I find human connection and empathy with others through moments of vulnerability and sharing. If you aren’t on camera, you may as well just be on some phone somewhere, listening in on a boring conference call.

If someone pushes back, explain, gently that in these crazy times seeing the faces of the people you are talking to makes life less insane. Beg and plead. Joke and cajole. Offer to send them Jacques Torres Ice Cream from Mr. Chocolate in NYC. If all else fails, ask the team to vote on rules for how they/you show up for remote meetings. 99% of the time the group will add Cameras On to the list. And we all know the power of peer pressure. Of course, there will be the occasional situation where someone truly can’t turn on their camera (bad hair day, workers in the background, limited bandwidth, the Masters Golf Tournament on the tv behind them, etc), but I’ve found that clients and teams are more than willing to turn on the camera with a little encouragement.

· Don’t be afraid to show who you are (in all your glory). You are working from home, people get it. Maybe it’s cramped. Maybe your desk is in your bedroom or maybe your futon doubles as your couch AND desk. Pictures of your kids and family and last vacation may be visible. Clients may find out that you’re a fan of Game of Thrones (who isn’t), or that you typically rock a t-shirt and shorts when you aren’t required to dress for a special meeting. Or maybe you don’t change out of your PJs some days. Dogs run around, cats pop up in front of your camera, kids come in and out. It’s cool. It makes you relatable and human. It makes you real. I would argue that these snippets of your home life build trust and connection in a profound way. It kind of goes back to being vulnerable and being good with that. We all struggle. We all have bad days. We all find comfort in silly, unavoidable collisions of our home and work lives.

· Ask people about what you see in their background. I’ve found this little gem to be very helpful in getting to know folks in a remote world. I asked a colleague I’d just met that I needed some help from about a framed award on which I could just make out the word ‘Masters’. I asked him about it expecting to find out that he’d played golf at Augusta National or something like that. Turns out it was his Masters Hall of Fame induction award for martial arts. And it turns out that he happened to know the actor who played Johnny Lawrence in Karate Kid and the more recent YouTube cum NetFlix three-season epic, Cobra Kai. I happened to be watching Cobra Kai at the time and our conversation quickly jumped to all he knew about Johnny and the show — and on to other favorites of mine like Jackie Chan and of course Chuck Norris. We didn’t cover much about the logistics questions he was supposed to help me with, but we agreed to catch up again and we’ve been talking ever since. We connected. Don’t be afraid to probe a bit about what you see in the background if meeting or getting to know someone virtually. One never knows what doors will open!

· Put your camera at eye level. Be central in the frame. Look people in the eye. Use your hands to complement your speech (shoulder width and not covering your face is best).

Engage in your conversations and bring your energy, enthusiasm, and emotion to bear. These are your tools to build relationships and connection. You are in control of all of them and can shape who you are or want to be in each conversation you have.

· Do be thoughtful about your background if you can. You can do some ‘merchandizing’ of your background with just a little bit of effort and forethought. Don’t know how? Clueless about style and branding and image? Don’t worry — that’s most of us, yours truly included. Try this site for some great tips on how to make the most of your background in web meetings. Most sites recommending ‘best practices’ or ‘professional’ tips will in my view err on the side of formality. I’d take some of the recommendations on dressing up and eliminating all distractions with a grain of salt. If you’re interviewing for that dream job, ok, you may want to dress like a pro and spruce up the background, but for day to day, cover the basics, add some flair, and be yourself.

· Use tools like Mural to solicit opinions, do brainstorming or design thinking, group activities, and other collaborative exercises. It and other like-type technologies take collaboration and participation to the next level. They are especially useful for those meeting participants who are shy, don’t like to participate verbally, are introspective, can’t get a word in edgewise, don’t want to talk over the alphas in the group, etc. With clients they bring a new level of collaboration and cooperation to the relationship and foster team building and alignment.

I hope you find the list above valuable and I hope that if you’ve hesitated to go on camera, or have struggled to connect with people in this virtual world we live in today, the tips I’ve shared will inspire you to find ways to deepen your relationships and connections even when you can’t meet face to face.

Jerry Lewis is a Partner with IBM’s GBS consulting arm. He has more than 22 years’ experience helping companies of all kinds execute digital and omnichannel transformations, and has spent the last 4 years working with large industrial clients specifically. The opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions or points of view of the IBM corporation.

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