Working from home? There are advantages, no doubt.

But it can also be insanely difficult, as many of us have learned during the pandemic. 

Fortunately, however, every challenge brings opportunities--and there's a big opportunity right now for anyone who wants to improve their interpersonal relationships in ways that make other people like, respect, and agree with them more.

It all comes down to two things: Emotional intelligence and the power of habit.

The really great news? By mastering the kinds of simple things we'll explore below, you'll train yourself to act instinctively in other ways that ultimately make other people feel more positively toward you. Let's talk through a handful of them.

Master the art of small talk.

Small talk can be a drudge, but that's partly because so many people don't know how to do it properly.

When small talk simply fills silence, it's grating. But when it helps develop rapport--sparking conversation among easy, pleasant topics before turning to tougher ones--it's invaluable.

It's also crucial right now, given that for many people, the lion's share of their professional interactions are over video calls or other internet mechanisms.  

So, what makes for good small talk? The main thing to remember is that it's other-centered, as opposed to self-centered, and not perfunctory. Here are two examples that will make the distinction clear:

  1. "Jennifer, before we begin, how was Ryan's first day of virtual kindergarten yesterday?"
  2. "How was everyone's weekend, good?"

Example #1 expresses empathy, specificity, and even suggests that you paid attention to details in previous conversations. 

Example #2 is less emotionally intelligent: generic, even suggesting the appropriate answer. It's like going through the motions and checking a box. 

If you can get in the habit of starting out smart like this (but remember, only good small talk), you'll literally train other people to like you more.

Turn on the camera.

Every time you turn on the camera during a video meeting, you're showing a small bit of vulnerability. That vulnerability in turn makes you more approachable and relatable, which pushes both you and the others involved to develop empathy for each other.

These can be very subtle effects, but they're real. That said, here are a few specific tactical habits:

First, try to create a pleasant, calm view in most cases. That means looking professional and respectful--and if you can avoid it, getting rid of clutter around you on-screen.

You don't need to look like a fashion model, but at least display respect for others by not looking as if you just rolled out of bed and would rather be at a dozen other places than in a meeting with them.

Next, let's put an asterisk on that idea of having a "pleasant, calm view." Be wary of lording it over people.

Imagine you're the boss, doing a video call from your multimillion-dollar beach house with the view of beautiful waves behind you, while your employees are stuck at home in lesser accommodations. Put yourself in their shoes: Think about the message that view sends them and how they might naturally perceive the disparity. 

Finally, especially if you're in a position of authority over others with whom you do video calls, consider inviting others to turn off their cameras if need be, without feeling like they're at a disadvantage.

This goes back to the vulnerability issue--and it also sends a message that you trust them enough to stay engaged.

Finally, respect people's time. Even though video meetings run shorter in general than real-life meetings, they somehow seem as if they're just as long or longer. Take a page from Mark Cuban's book: If you can handle business with an email or even a text, consider whether meetings are even necessary.

Admit what you don't understand.

If you're the boss, there can be a tendency to assume that you're expected to know all the answers. It's understandable; you want to project confidence and you want to reassure your employees.

However, right now might not be the best time for that. There are two specific habits I'm thinking of:

  1. Get in the habit of admitting that you can't know the future.
  2. Get in the habit of acknowledging that you can't understand the challenges other people are facing.

Suppose you're running a business and you're married with young children. You've got some challenges built right in: virtual school, perhaps two spouses both trying to work, a home setup that just wasn't designed for this.

Suppose you're in a different position. Maybe you're an employee who's younger, single, cooped up at home for months--either literally by yourself or with roommates--or you've had to move back in with parents.

There are many other family situations too: some objectively harder, some perhaps not. To paraphrase Tolstoy, all happy remote workers are alike, but all unhappy ones are unhappy in their own way.

In practice, I think this means giving people the benefit of the doubt.

Almost everyone you're dealing with while working from home is also working through challenges that might be foreign to you, but are still very much real. The more you admit what you don't understand, but profess respect for the situation, the better.

Find more habits.

I don't want to get too bogged down with specificity here. The point of adopting these kinds of habits is to train yourself to react with greater emotional intelligence in the moment.

  • Maybe you'll learn that you should make a practice of taking deep breaths, or just counting to five before speaking, to alleviate your personal anxiety and avoid saying things out of frustration or lack of thinking.
  • Perhaps it means scheduling time to check in with employees, so they know they're being cared for. Or scheduling private work time, either for yourself or for colleagues, during which you and they can be assured of working uninterrupted.
  • It could also be a matter of literally writing down the kinds of things you should remember to say on video calls, and keeping it close by your computer so you don't forget. I've come up with two lists of these kinds of phrases, here and here.

All other things being equal, the key is to think a step ahead: How are the words I'm using, or the things I'm doing, likely to land on other people's ears? How will they perceive me as a result of the habits I practice?

Also: Am I asking enough questions? Am I sending a message that suggests I'm truly interested in others, or just out for my own ends?

The pandemic won't last forever. The ways we work will continue to change. But right now, the specific challenges of working from home call out for these kinds of practices.

People who adopt them won't only be doing something good for others. They'll also be doing something good, and valuable, for their own relationships and goals.