What I learned about relating remotely - before coronavirus

I was doing Bible studies on Zoom years before it was essential in this new age of social distancing.

A cross-cultural worker with no-one else from my agency in the South-East Asian mega-city where we lived, I’d log onto Zoom to join other mothers in similar situations. It was beautiful and life-giving in the circumstances.

My husband and I also managed three remote mission teams, had to collaborate with colleagues globally, and report to our sending office and leaders across the region. With limited budgets for travel, in-person meetings were rare and precious. We still had many local ministry relationships but much of our work was online.

Not all cross-cultural workers have to do so many relationships remotely, but they all relate at a physical distance to a key set of relationships, churches, individuals and agencies who send them.

Cross-cultural workers can help the rest of the world come to grips with the new weariness and sense of grief that comes from the lack of physical presence.

A lot of my friends, be they pastors, teachers or office workers, have been sharing lately just how much more exhausting it is to do their job “online”. I thought about this as I was scrolling through Twitter recently, and came across this tweet from Gianpiero Petriglieri, a management professor: “Dissonance is exhausting. It’s easier being in each other’s presence, or in each other’s absence, than in the constant presence of each other’s absence. Our bodies process so much context, so much information, in encounters, that meeting on video is being a weird kind of blindfolded.”

That tweet hit a nerve attracting more than 35,000 likes. Even with so much advice and encouragement coming at us these days, I believe cross-cultural workers can help the rest of the world come to grips with the new weariness and sense of grief that comes from the lack of physical presence.

Living a life full of the grief due to physical distance, I always took most encouragement from the example of Paul and Timothy’s relationship. When they were apart, Paul longed to be together again but did not give up praying and writing letters of teaching, advice and encouragement. For me, opportunities to connect and be encouraged were spiritually sustaining – the response to a newsletter, the call from a home church pastor, the unexpected care package, the message from a co-worker who was worried about you.

Today, my inbox may be full of tips for adjusting to this new normal and while it hardly feels new to me, there are three things I found helpful in navigating remoteness: creating opportunities to connect, building trust and cultivating empathy.

1. Recognise lost connections

It’s important to recognise the loss of water-cooler moments, the coffee runs, shared lunches and unplanned catch-ups, but we have many tools at our disposal. I found video calls lovely and necessary but often a visceral reminder of the absence of those people. It was good to mix these with other ways of connecting.

When email felt too formal and slow, but I couldn’t just pop my head into a colleague’s office, I appreciated WhatsApp for its immediacy. The private chat function on Zoom replicated those whispered asides in meetings. I also loved sending silly stickers on Messenger to maintain the fun lighthearted chatter.

2. Be intentional

Because relationships feel different behind a screen, building trust and vulnerability is much harder in a mediated space. We need to be intentional. We can watch for warning signs that psychological safety might be suffering. Are there people who normally bring concerns up easily who are quieter or speaking their mind less?

Cross-cultural workers in sensitive locations are always mindful of what they say online and aware of the real and significant barriers this makes to relationship building. Even if you are not worried about whether a foreign government listening in, people may be more cautious or guarded in an online space. Increasing the methods and opportunities for connection outside of scheduled meetings will help.

3. Practice empathy

Now is also the perfect time to practice empathy, according to experts such as Simon Sinek, who shared this recently on his Youtube channel. I know my husband and I felt encouraged by the relationships with our financial partners, our sending office and remote co-workers who trusted us and were empathetic to our challenges, while recognising that it was hard for them to understand our day-to-day context.

Micromanaging might seem tempting if we can’t look over someone’s shoulder but, from my experience, it is exhausting for both the leader and the team – and can erode trust.

For those who are part of a newly remote team, it’s important to acknowledge the limits of their understanding of each other’s contexts. Teammates might be at home with kids who are doing online school for the first time.

Rebecca Oakley and kids

Rebecca with her boys

When I was juggling homeschooling and school drop-offs, mentoring and management with international calls, the most generous of gifts was people being willing to talk at times that might not be ideal for them.

Consider how one of your teammates might be single, navigating days off when every day looks the same and they have no-one to “switch-off” with. They might appreciate a few purely social check-ins.

If we’ve empathised well, we can trust our teams will do everything they can to stay productive, even as routines take time to establish.

We shouldn’t underestimate the good we can do even from a distance.

Living a distant life, watching your grey hairs grow as you stare back at yourself on Zoom, may be exhausting but we shouldn’t underestimate the good we can do even from a distance. So, we don’t give up praying for those who are now remote and for those who were always remote. And we don’t just pray for them, we let them know we are praying.

When we hold onto hope for what it will be like when we are together again, we’re strengthened in the process. For cross-cultural workers who wait three to four years between home assignments, being face-to-face again is a great joy. It is a deep breath out to be in the presence again of someone we have related to at a distance but who we’ve known to be intimately concerned with the details of our life and work. We can do this.

Rebecca Oakley has been serving cross-culturally since 2011. She is a 2020 Fellow with Anglican Deaconess Ministries. Rebecca is passionate about making the gospel global. This article has been republished with permission from Anglican Deaconess Ministries