Date posted: 22/02/2023 5 min read

How to build positive work relationships remotely

According to Dr Fiona Kerr, positive human interaction and proximity causes us to synchronise mentally, emotionally and physically. How can we create those same positive connections in work-from-anywhere teams?

In Brief

  • Meeting people face-to-face triggers a chemical interaction that builds trust and collaboration
  • Remote meetings such as video calls and phone calls don’t create the same level of connection, so we have to choose our media and rules of interaction more carefully
  • Meeting in person at regular intervals can top up our connections, in between remote work.

Every time we interact with another human, a flood of electrical activity is triggered. Chemicals swirl around our body causing a range of physical, emotional and mental reactions.

The more familiar-sounding ones are oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine, but they are just a few of many thousand chemicals in our chemosphere and we can track around 2500 of them when we share a space.

This electrochemical activity helps us make a connection with someone, building trust and collaboration, and there is a vast difference in how those connections are formed when that interaction is taking place via a screen compared with face-to-face.

Dr Fiona Kerr, founder of the NeuroTech Institute, describes us as “electrochemical bags of sensors with brains that synchronise” and the many chemicals we exchange as “emotional sweat”, all of which are vital for developing empathy, complex problem-solving ability and loyalty.

Dr Fiona KerrPictured: Dr Fiona Kerr

“It sounds revolting, but it’s not,” Kerr says. “The electrical syncing ‘tunes us in’ and the chemical indicators that we’re picking up, absorbing and swapping help us read a room – and it’s also why people love to come into a shared space.

“This activity fuels the brain, boosting its activity and ability to collaborate across different areas, find relevant data and solve complex problems, and create new networks.”

Interacting with colleagues on a conference call, on email or over the phone doesn’t trigger this chemical exchange as the same level.

“Because we have a much more fragile bond over a screen and we have much less activity going on, the collaboration is lower and it is harder to solve complex problems,” says Kerr.

Bridging the (tech) gap

So, how can we still create those connections that lead to positive and collaborative work relationships, when so many people are relying on technology to connect at work?

The first steps are to invest in the right technology, train people how to use it properly and make sure people know when and how to use each type of communication method – from picking up the phone, to turning cameras off in a meeting, to chat and email, says Kerr.

“One example of this is the difference between the screen and the phone,” she says. “The screen is fatiguing and many parts of the brain don’t turn on, so information is limited and the bond more fragile. But, with a phone call you can get a beautifully rich information flow. You pick up vocal nuances and all sorts of things that you don’t pick up over a screen. So, there are times when having a phone call is much more effective than a video call,” she says.

Set the ground rules

Developing rules on remote working etiquette is critical, Kerr says. Research indicates we should limit the number of people on a video call: four maximises information and emotional processing. Virtual meetings of longer than 15 minutes cause brain fatigue, as do multiple meetings via a screen each day; turning off the live-chat function increases attention and stops distraction; and agreeing when cameras are turned on or off is also an important consideration.

“There is a different kind of trust we are dealing with via a screen,” says Kerr. “You need to be able to be clear about why you are there, and you have to have an agreement on the etiquette.”

Top up your IRL connections

Most importantly, making some time for face-to-face interaction on a regular basis helps build positive work relationships.

“When we are together, we have lots of brain-to-brain coupling, which allows us to bond with each other in a team. We actually read each other to use shared knowledge and solve problems.

“If we start face-to-face, our brain will remember that interaction, which will make it easier when we are communicating through a screen, then we regularly top it up,” says Kerr.

Attend the virtual Women in Business Conference

Dr Fiona Kerr is just one of the speakers at the CA ANZ Women in Business Conference, taking place online on 8–9 March 2023. Register today to hear from Dr Kerr and other inspiring women leaders, and earn up to 10 CPD hours.

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