Online relationship building: The way to a healthy long-distance relationship

Online relationship building: The way to a healthy long-distance relationship"

As part of our “Online Teambuilding” series of topics in cooperation with the Haus des Stiftens, we want to bring you closer to the topics of online team leadership, online conflict management and online relationship building in three blog posts.

This blog article is based on a webinar recording. You are welcome to watch the webinar or read the content as part of the blog article. Just learn how it suits you best.

In the digital space, it is more difficult to create a feeling of friendship between employees. In the analogue world, we leave a first impression everywhere we go, and on that the decision of others to contact us or not is based. Then there is the possibility of building a trusting relationship, a partnership. But how does that happen without personal contact?

This article is about how to build healthy and trusting long-distance relationships between team members, mentors or partners, and how to establish and maintain relationships and new contacts in the digital space.

Building Trust

Building trust runs like a tier system, from conformity to individuality. At the beginning of a relationship, one acts in conformity with societal norms . This is because little or no trust has yet been established. One does not yet feel safe to freely display his or her individual character traits. The more trust you build in a relationship, the more secure and comfortable you become with the other person. In a trusting relationship one shows his or her individual personality. This is how a relationship moves from conformity to individuality.

This applies to personal relationships as well as to professional ones or in your voluntary work. Some people find it difficult to make a good impression in a video conference, but others feel more comfortable digitally and have no trouble doing it. Basically, however, this process applies to every relationship building (regardless of whether digital or in person)!

Relationship building: from conformity to individuality

1. The first impression

The first stage is the first impression. It helps us to classify other people and to connect them with feelings. This happens instinctively in the first few seconds when we see these people and have the first contact with them. For example: if you are in a party and someone enters the room, you get an impression of that person (how they appear, their attitude, etc.). Based on that, we decide whether we want to talk to that person or not.

The first impression is our chance to present an image of ourselves and to form an image of the other person. It is the first information that is perceived by others. That’s why we intuitively try to trigger positive feelings the first time we express them and to act in a way that conforms to society.

2. Getting to know each other

The second stage is getting to know each other. Here one exchanges roughly and talks about non-critical topics. You want to remain in conformity with societal norms. You get to know each other first, but tend to stay on safer topics, like the weather, for example.

3. Exchange of values and ideas

Little by little you dare to address more critical topics. In the third stage, the exchange deepens. Values and ideas that are individual and perhaps no longer conform to society are discussed. Examples would be which party you vote for or which religion you belong to. This can lead to conflicts and criticism. Here you slowly develop the feeling of “really” getting to know a person.

4 . Perception of differences

The fourth stage is crucial for the continuity or breakup of the relationship. This is where the differences are perceived, which is why there is a high likelihood that a conflict of interest will arise. The relationship can end at that moment or continue despite differences. One either decides that the differences are exciting and enriching for the relationship, or the different views are seen as an obstacle to further building trust. Some relationships simply remain at this level.

5. Wordless understanding

In the fifth and final stage, one no longer has a socially compliant image of one another, but rather an individual image of one another. At that point you have shared experiences and know the other person and their values well. One knows in advance how the other person would react to a certain situation without having to say it. For example, if you know what a person would like or not like. Thus, the understanding is wordless and there is great trust between the two people. You feel like you can be yourself.

The first impression counts!

Building friendships

How are friendships formed? There are various social factors that influence the decision to form a friendship or not. In the analog context, for example, physical proximity and frequent contact make a friendship more likely. If you have things in common with others, as well as shared experiences and experiences, a feeling of friendship can also arise. Of course, if you value personality, individuality and the character of the other person, you create a trusting atmosphere.

Analogue Friendships

Online relationship building is different. The online environment has certain effects on the process of building a friendship. You can’t meet each other by chance online, which creates trust in the relationship in the analogue world. Kind of like meeting up in the supermarket at the weekend and having a quick chat. Similarities are less recognizable and must be communicated very explicitly. In analogue, you can see superficial things quickly and identify similarities, such as the clothes you wear to work. In the digital context, such similarities only have to be uncovered in the course of the conversation.

Enabling shared experiences is also more difficult in the digital world and must also be explicit, since it is highly unlikely that you will meet outside of work. Digitally, you can’t bring a cup of coffee or a glass of water for a colleague. Non- verbal appreciation, small gifts and gifts are limited in the digital world. It is also important to mention the spatial proximity here: it is usually neither given nor recognizable.

Challenges: online relationship building

Challenges in online relationship building

So many challenges arise. The information for the first impression is limited because you don’t see each other in person and don’t perceive superficial aspects of the other person as quickly. This makes it difficult to classify the other person. It is not as easy to see what impression they have, how they behave. For example, you don’t see how the person entered the room. Furthermore, we cannot perceive the surroundings of the interlocutor: where they are sitting and whether they are alone, for example. Another challenge to online relationship building is technical difficulties. When the connection is poor, or when you can’t hear the other person, the focus shifts from getting to know each other to the technical difficulties. The atmosphere can become uncomfortable.

What does this mean for us?

This basically means that a lot has to be communicated explicitly and actively. We must make an effort to enable trust and opportunities for contact, that one can find common ground and share common stories. To do this, you definitely have to reinforce spoken communication, facial expressions and gestures.

A tip to turn the online conference into a trusting space is to explain the situation off screen. As already mentioned, the environment of the interlocutor is mostly unclear to us. It is important to tell what you are doing, what is happening in the room, what noises you can hear, etc. In this way you create a safe space for everyone, where you have the opportunity to exchange ideas. It’s also a great way to maybe find some common ground and help build relationships online.

A 2001 study by the University of Michigan on ways of communicating looked at different groups. Some met and some didn’t. It has been shown that video and phone calls can create almost the same level of trust in a face-to-face conversation (Bos et al., 2001).

achieved level of trust through different channels

In larger groups, you can also build trust and friendship. In our blog article online team building you will find a number of methods on how to create good group dynamics . To do this, you have to create individual contact with the individual people . This can be done through individual conversations such as virtual coffee dates. You can also send private messages when you meet someone in a digital space. It’s always nice to receive a friendly message!

5 ways to keep in touch

In order to create a trusting relationship and thus stay in good contact, I would like to give you the following 5 tips:

  1. Addresses uncomfortable feelings, insecurities and conflicts. When you can laugh about it and show vulnerability, you move from conformity to individuality and create common ground between you.
  2. Create common routines. Routines help to develop shared experiences and this allows for better acquaintance. We have collected a few tips for good routines together for you in the following blog article.
  3. Take your time for exchange! In project work, people often only meet for a specific purpose, such as a quick check-in or a team meeting. Consciously take the time to talk about other topics (how you are doing, what you are currently doing, etc.). You can schedule fixed meetings to work on your relationship.
  4. Plan activities together. For example, you can meet to watch a movie and talk about it, or attend seminars and discuss afterwards. This is how you create shared experiences and simplify online relationship building.
  5. Learn to be still together. If nobody is speaking in the video conference, the uncertainty increases and people want to speak to end the awkward situation. But you have to give the other person space to go on, which is very difficult. This also happens in analog, but faster and more often in digital. If you get unsure, just take a deep breath and exhale and whoosh is 10 seconds gone.
Opportunities: online relationship building


How to create relationships and trust in digital collaboration, we presented in the article. It is important to create points of contact and enable shared experiences. A light and trusting atmosphere, where you feel comfortable and safe, is created. So there are more opportunities for exchange and friendship!

Do you have any other exciting tips for building relationships online? Leave us a comment.

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