How To Build Rapport When You’re Working Remotely

During the last 12 months of working from home, how many times has your first conversation with someone been online? You know…that initial chat at the start of a relationship that might previously have been face-to-face over a coffee in the office, but is now done sitting at your laptop on a Zoom video.

For me, the number would be pretty high. But while those interactions have been a little more stilted than if they’d been in person (dodgy Wi-Fi is the bane of my life) my ability to build rapport is the same as ever.

Why isn’t it hampered?

To use the words of an ex-client of mine Russell Dalgleish, you should “go into every conversation as if you’re already half-way through” – which is exactly what I do. So whether we’re meeting for the first time or the hundredth, you’ll get the same chatty, down-to-earth, irreverent person from the get-go.

Why’s that important?

Building rapport (and with it, a relationship) is all about finding common ground, reaching mutual understanding and displaying empathy. You can’t do that if all you’re putting forward is your formal, professional persona without any of the human side that goes with it.

Here’s what I’m talking about…

To explain what I mean, here are three interactions I had via video call last week where I didn’t hang around to get the rapport building:

  • I’d arranged to speak to a potential client and as soon as she appeared on my screen, I noticed something on the wall behind her. My first words became, “Hello there. Nice to meet you. I see you have cats.” She was surprised I’d known the lopsided shelves were for her feline and I replied my sister had something similar for her cats. Instantly, I knew something about her, and she about me.
  • When a new client came online, her bold patterned top immediately caught my eye. The first thing I said was, “Wow! I’m loving the leopard-print!” We ended up swapping war stories of shopping for clothes online – not just the successes but the definite fails.
  • Another new client appeared with a virtual background comprising her company’s logo. I immediately commented I was impressed it was on-brand, which led her to reveal she was using it to hide the Lego models in the background that her husband has on display. Which in turn led to a whole conversation about our own nerdish past-times.

In each instance, despite the newness of the relationship, I started the conversation as if we were already in the middle. The rapport flowed and the relationship strengthened a lot quicker than if I’d taken the formal approach.

What works for you when it comes to building rapport remotely? Do you have any conversation starters to recommend? Or other ways of approaching it? If you share them here other readers can then benefit from your wisdom. Thank you.

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6 responses to “How To Build Rapport When You’re Working Remotely”

  1. Tony O says:

    There’s no doubt that reading people and building rapport has been more difficult during the lockdown, but there have been other opportunities open up that weren’t available to us before. We rarely got to look inside someone’s house, but like your cat example there are often clues in the background that indicate someone’s interests and can lead easily into a conversation topic. I often get interrupted by one of my two dogs coming in to do a welfare check on me, so always make a point of introducing them to my audience.

    Videoconferences over the last few months have had some hilarious scenes, such as when one of one of my US contacts suddenly leapt out of his chair and screeched “Marvyn, stop eating the flowers!”, or a colleague who broke off with “Aaagh, the kids have locked the dog in the trampoline.”

    And of course, you can always ask if they are home-schooling… will give you some idea as to where there head is at right now

    • Jennifer Holloway says:

      Homeschooling is a definite hot topic and instant rapport builder. I don’t have kids but that, in itself, provides a route for the conversation to be different than if I were a mother.

  2. Jason McK says:

    I’ll never forget midway through 2020, having an important meeting on video with an external organisation we were looking to work with. The chat was going well, but then suddenly my 3-year-old burst into the room with a packet of crisps, sat on my knee and proceeded to take each crisp out, one at a time, and lick them (not even eat them!)

    I was mortified, but the people we were meeting thought it was really funny and cute. And it brought some light relief to the conversation. Opened up a conversation where we spoke about our children and the unusual struggles we were all going through.

    As much as I can’t wait to go back to face-to-face meetings in offices, there has been something humanising about us all inviting each other virtually into our homes and inadvertently revealing more about our lives. As you say so well, we’re finding different ways to build rapport with each other.

  3. Martin Smith says:

    At the start of lockdown we tried in vain to keep our toddler out the room during Team meetings, the result was usually a tantrum and a rapid scrabble to mute the feed (Pyrrhic victory I think the term is) , we’ve now given up and when she burst into the room and demands “UP!” we put her on camera, everyone smiles and has a moment “meeting the we’an”, she gets to see what’s happening and usually gets bored in about 30 seconds then it’s “DOWN!” and she’s off, quite happily causing havoc elsewhere.

    • Jennifer Holloway says:

      That’s lucky that she gets bored quickly. Imagine having a wriggling toddler on your lap for a 2-hour meeting!

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