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Adding a personal touch: How to build better relationships when working online

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Dr Ayana Horton is a Lecturer in Occupational Therapy at Brunel University London

Building relationships at work is an important part of our working lives.

When we come to work after a long weekend we greet those who sit near us and brag about our weekend adventures or lack thereof.  We may bump into a colleague in the hallway and compliment him on his new shoes which we learn were a birthday gift.  We may sit next to a colleague during lunch and learn that you share a love of spicy foods.

But when working online, building relationships can be more difficult because we lack the proximity that facilitates our ability to get to know each other.  We no longer see each other in the hallway, at the lunch table, or in the elevator on the way to the third floor.

For that reason, we have to be more intentional in our approach to making use of each interaction with colleagues to enable them to get to know you and you to get to know them.

Since email is the main way that we interact with our colleagues when working online, here are five tips that you can use to build professional relationships when communicating using email.

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Add your picture to your email

People who you interact with online may know your name but be unfamiliar with your face. It’s hard to say you know someone if you don’t know what they look like.  Adding your picture to your email helps your colleagues associate your face with your name. It adds a human element to your emails and makes it so you are not just some random person.  Instead, you are a specific person with a nice smile. Ideally you want to choose a professional photo that is up-to-date and looks like you on a good day.

Personalise your email signature

Your email signature is another opportunity to tell people a little about yourself and therefore help them get to know you. Since you don’t have a large amount of space on your email signature, less is more.  However, there is enough space to provide a little insight into who you are.  You should definitely highlight your professional credentials in your signature.  You may also use your signature to highlight your preferred personal pronouns.  Your signature is a great place to highlight your achievements like recent publications or awards. Be sure to include links to social media channels. Some people use the little space at the bottom of their signature to include their work philosophy or a meaningful quote.

Acknowledge receipt of emails  

In face-to-face interaction we acknowledge our understanding of the sender’s message in many ways including nodding and verbalising our understanding. This provides immediate confirmation that the message was received.  Online interaction can lack that immediate confirmation of the message being received and can sometimes feel like you’re putting a message in a bottle and tossing it into the ocean.  To reassure your colleagues that you are there, you should promptly respond to their emails even if it is just to acknowledge you received it. People are more likely to interact with people who respond and it is through interactions that relationships are formed.

Start emails and meetings with small talk

When you’re busy it is tempting to shoot over a quick question via email or jump straight into your agenda.  Although you have limited time to do all the things you need to do in a workday, you must always make time to build relationships.  One way that you can do this is just by starting emails with a little small talk.  How are you?  How was your weekend?  I hope you are enjoying this lovely weather.  This type of small talk doesn’t take much time but it acknowledges the humanity of the person or people with whom you are interacting.   It tells the other person that you’re interested in them and not just the information they have or the work that they do.  Small talk can make a cold email warmer and helps you build rapport. 

Send an email to introduce yourself

If you’re starting a new job or if someone new has started at your job, it is a good idea to send an email to introduce yourself.   A personal email is more effective than a mass email because people are more likely to respond to a personal email than an email that is sent to everyone.  You may tell them a little about yourself including your experience and role.  Through corresponding in this way you may find that you have something in common with the person you are emailing and that provides a platform on which you can build a relationship.

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