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Virtual but not distant: Building strong relationships remotely

Square Enix Montréal producer Derrick Aynaga shares his top tips for remote management

Virtual but not distant: Building strong relationships remotely

Managing a team remotely is hard, right?

Not if you ask producer Derrick Aynaga, who is not only remotely managing a team of 55, but is doing it from a different time zone!

Derrick joined Square Enix Montréal in July 2020, which, if you do the maths, means that he has never worked under the same roof at the team he is now guiding in the last stretch of game development before release later this year.

If anyone knows what it takes to build relationships with co-workers, colleagues, and collaborators - sometimes half a world away - it’s Derrick.

Derrick has spent a quarter of his close to 20 years in the video game industry working with and managing teams remotely. From his Vancouver home office, he has overseen the work of employees located all over the globe.

In this new world where interactions take place on screen and in 2D, we can all learn from Derrick’s surprisingly Zen and profoundly humane approach to remote management.

Start on day 1

Whether you are onboarding remotely yourself as Derrick did last summer or welcoming a new team member, start relationship building on day 1.

”A first good step when onboarding is booking introduction calls. I divide the agenda 50/50 between getting to know each other as humans and discussing how we can work together," Derrick says.

"There’s no time like the present to identify what I need to adapt in my management style to the people I’ll work with. The aim of this first call is to set the stage for everyone to freely express themselves and to speak openly about expectations we might each have.”

Make space for vulnerability

Yes, vulnerability.

According to Derrick, “passionate people are also vulnerable, and that’s not easy. Opening yourself up to others means risking being judged. When someone in your team cares deeply about something, give them the space to express themselves and let them know that they will be listened to respectfully.”

In other words, when you create an environment where people are free to express their ideas and where debates do not become conflicts, what you’ll gain are better ideas!

”We all have different views and reactions to intense conversations. Disagreements can be uncomfortable, so emotional topics must be worked through before they become conflicts. This has never been truer than in a remote environment.”

Adapt your communication style

As we adapt to remote work, we are communicating more than ever. But more does not mean better.
Are you communicating in a way that builds trust and encourages engagement?

If you’ve ever sent an urgent request by email but not heard back until the next day or asked for crucial input on a project by instant message only to realise you’ve frazzled your employee, then you know that not all communications channels are created equal or serve the same purpose.

So, how do you know what are your team members preferred communication styles?

Ask!

Identifying the right communication for the right person, and at the right time will not come instinctively.
Derrick’s advice: ”Ask your team how they want to hear from you. Not everyone reacts well to the interruptions of instant messaging. Not everyone reads their emails the minute they land in their inbox."

Adapting takes effort, but you’ll reap the benefits of establishing what’s more effective for each individual. Most importantly, be self-reflective when your communication style doesn’t work the way you expected.
Derrick also recommends exploring the myriad of online collaborative tools that are available.

”In person, it’s easier to share ideas in multiple ways. By adding a visual component to your online brainstorms, you’ll jog the senses, enhance collaboration, and provide new ways for your team to ingest information. There are many options out there to avoid the dreaded conference call fatigue.”

Derrick at his home office in Vancouver

Formalise the spontaneous

Company culture comes through casual moments.

As our head of studio, Patrick Naud expressed in a previous post: “Reduced personal contact can erode human relationships, potentially leading to every conference call being about tasks and deadlines... Never underestimate the power of kindness and compassion to help employees reach their full potential.” 

Indeed, the detachment of working remotely is making us focus on productivity rather than personal interactions. According to Derrick, we should dedicate more time and energy to connecting as people.

Coffee breaks and hallway chats may seem to be a thing of the past, but managers need to make the effort to not make work relationships all about…work.

”When things get intense, and they will take the time to plan informal catching-up conversation to reduce the pressure. Create the space to talk about something other than work. In my team, we organise sessions where we’ll play video games together. It might seem counterintuitive, but impromptu get-togethers must be added to the agenda.”

Crank up your sensitivity to 11

While some have adapted to remote work without a hitch, for others isolation and personal obligations are adding up. Managers must be at the frontline of their team’s wellbeing.

” Try to be even more sensitive than normal about the feelings of others. Notice if an employee is operating differently, acting in a way that is out of character, or seems less focused.

How do you open the door for employees to share their struggles? Admit when you are having a challenging time yourself.

”If you are having a tough day, don’t hide it. If you share that part of yourself with your team, they are more likely to be open with you. As a manager, you set the example. Work and life have never been more intertwined. By being open with each other, we are building a support system for the long haul."

Make the best of it

For better or for worse, we can expect to be working remotely for the next few months.

”When it comes to working remotely, don’t be fearful of change," Derrick adds.

"After all, what do you have to lose? Try new tools, adapt your communication style, invent innovative ways to build personal connections. We might as well make the best of it!”

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