Advice, Engineering Manager, Leadership Development

How Leaders Can Build Lasting Rapport With Their Teams Remotely, in Time of Crisis

I had always thought it’d be very challenging to have a remote 1:1 with my team members, let alone build rapport with them remotely. I used to be that manager who would reschedule their 1:1’s when they were working from home on that particular day. I’ve always thought it’d be hard to connect with someone deeply on 1280 x 960 (or 1920 x 1080, size really doesn’t matter here) screen.

A few weeks ago, the company that I work for, just like many other companies in the world, started our journey of fully remote work, otherwise known as WFH, due to Covid-19. Just like that. One day, we were in the office, having lunch together, and the next day, we were in our own homes, trying to navigate this new normal. In non-ergonomic settings, no-less.

As a recovering skeptic to building real connection and rapport remotely, I’d like to share with you a few things that I’ve learned over the past few days as a leader in building rapport remotely, in time of crisis. Some perspectives, some suggestions and hopefully, some useful takeaways for you.

Recognize basic needs and concerns first

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is no stranger to me, and I am sure it’s no stranger to many leaders out there. However, during an unprecedented time like now where the basics needs are at danger, especially, safety and security, people are not at their usual state of mind. It’s important for leaders to recognize this and make sure we are addressing the basic needs and concerns of our people.

How do you know what are the concerns of your people, I hear you ask? In the absence of water-cooler chats and morning coffee walks, the only way I know is to listen intensely, read between the lines and verify. Which takes me to my next point below.

Speak directly to the fear

Everyone is being impacted by COVID-19, whether it’s socially, physically or psychologically. But not everyone is going to be completely transparent about how they are feeling, especially to their managers. Common fears that I’ve noticed that are related to work are:

  • Worry about job safety
  • Worry about financial impact
  • Worry about performance
  • Worry about increased responsibilities
  • Worry about growth opportunities
  • Worry about career progression

As you can see, every person will have different concerns and fears. Person A may be worried about losing their job when Person B’s biggest worry is how long it’d now take for them to get promoted. They are at two different ends of the scale, but as leaders, you need to speak directly to the fear in order to build that rapport and connect with them where they are.

Over-communicate, and increase frequently of your check-ins

I used to think weekly 1:1’s were too frequent and too much. But these days I am checking in every few days because weekly 1:1’s aren’t frequent enough. When you can no longer see your team members in the office, and you can’t observe how they are going, and you can’t just swivel your chair around for a quick and light-hearted conversation, it’s important to have a quick check-in with them throughout the week. Usually, through means that are not very demanding, so a slack message or a quick email instead of a zoom call. It’s not about getting status updates on the projects. It’s more about how they are doing in their lives, and it could be about something as simple as what they are having for lunch. The importance of over-communicating about work and projects doesn’t go away, but it’s even more important to talk about other things too or your people will soon feel like you’re treating them as resources and work units instead of humans. Once that happens, there will be a lot of disengaged people who stay in your team not because they want to, but because they have to.

Show the vulnerable and less-shiny side of you

I’ve learned that I don’t have to be prim and proper and always have things under control 100% of the times. It’s a time of crisis. Most of us are doing and trying our best. It’s ok to admit when you’re feeling overwhelmed. It’s ok to share your concerns. I used to be very careful about not showing negative emotions but now I am learning to let go of that a bit. I want people to know that I am not perfect, and fundamentally, under your job titles, roles and responsibilities, we humans are the same. We feel sad, we feel happy, we feel frustrated, we feel angry. It’s ok as long as we recognize those negative emotions and move on.

The following is a slack conversation I had with someone in my team:
Person: how’s your day?
Me: Busy I’m surprised I’m still breathing ha.
How are you?
Person: Busy afternoon too

Then we started talking about how challenging it was to homeschool, look after kids, look after people, look after projects and trying to stay afloat.

Don’t be too much of an optimist, instead, be a realist

I am often an optimist, but there is a time and place for being an optimist, and now is not one of those times. We all want things to work out, we all want to get out of this pandemic as quick as possible, we all want to go back to our normal lives. But it’s not the time to hide the truth or try to sugarcoat the situation.

I recently had an interaction with someone who told me that he couldn’t wait to go back to the office so that he could be more productive. In a normal situation, I’d try to play along and said it’d be a matter of time before we would be back in the office. This time, I had to stop myself from saying those things because I knew it wasn’t true. We all know very well that it would take months before we can all go back to our normal lives. I don’t know if his productivity would be back to what it was during the long WFH period, I don’t want to make any assumption because everything is so uncertain. So this was exactly what I told him. It definitely was not motivating or encouraging, but it was the truth and the truth will help us stay informed and make the right decisions.

Speaking of being a realist instead of an eternal optimist, there is a well-known paradox called The Stokedale Paradox which was named after James Stockdale, former vice presidential candidate, naval officer and Vietnam prisoner of war. Author Jim Collin explained this concept in his book, Good to Great. The followings are the excerpt from the book. It’s about making an objective assessment of the situation and being a realist instead of an optimist.

We need to know James Stockdale is to fully appreciate this concept.

The name refers to Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest ranking United States military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam War. Tortured over 20 times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973, Stockdale lived out the war without any prisoner’s rights, no set release date, and no certainty as to whether he would even survive to see his family again. He shouldered the burden of command, doing everything he could to create conditions that would increase the number of prisoners who would survive unbroken, while fighting an internal war against his captors and their attempts to use the prisoners for propaganda.

During Jim Colin’s interview with Stockdale, the dialogue went like this:

Stockdale said, “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

“Who didn’t make it out?” asked Collins.

“Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.” “The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say,‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” Stockdale continued.

Building rapport as leader is not about having all the answers

There is a joke that I saw on the Internet that goes something like this:
Who is responsible for the biggest and quickest transformation in the way your company works?
1) CEO
2) CTO
3) Covid-19 ☑️

Most of us were put into this way of working so abruptly. We are not prepared for it. We didn’t plan it. We don’t have the answer to a lot of things and as a result, we will get many things wrong, even with the best intention. I’ve gotten a few too many things wrong just in the past few weeks, and I am sure I am not alone. My advice is to cut yourself some slack because the best thing that you can do as a leader is to put your own oxygen mask on and look after yourself first so that you can look after others and care about them. The only important thing to do is to admit your mistake and apologize when you’ve done something wrong that has a negative impact on something or someone else. When your people can see that you are kind to yourself and are not afraid to admit your mistakes, they will be able to relate to you and build a great connection with you, despite the distance and difficulties that you are facing right now.


If you enjoyed this article, you might like to check out my latest book on engineering management. It's a practical guide for engineering managers at tech companies.

The Engineering Manager’s How-to Guide is very targeted for engineering managers, and in this book, you won’t find generic advice like having regular 1:1’s, giving feedback, etc. Yes, those things are absolutely important, but they are not specific to an engineering manager’s role. It’s my goal to make sure this book provides a concise and actionable guide for engineering managers, the specific and niche content for engineering managers that you won’t find in other leadership and management books.