Building stakeholder relationships remotely

Throughout my government technology career, I’ve worked with all kinds of stakeholders on state, local, and federal projects. As both a civil servant inside the government and as a contractor, I’ve had the pleasure of working with stakeholders who range from being committed to the project's success to checked-out and indifferent to the work of the team. Stakeholder challenges can stem from work culture differences, interpersonal dynamics, and previous experiences, to name a few.

Building a trusting and engaging partnership with stakeholders can be like building any relationship. What you put into it is what you get out of it. Engaging with your stakeholders from a place of compassion and caring can go a long way to help strengthen and grow working relationships.

This can be difficult when working remotely because you might not have as much direct access to your stakeholders as you would in a typical office setting, and building trust can be especially difficult. Here are a few things I’ve found that help.

Ask all the questions

Asking questions when you don’t understand something does two important things. It shows that you need your stakeholder’s help to move the project forward and that it’s OK to get more information to make the best decision. Asking questions also shows vulnerability, which is good for team dynamics. If you can be vulnerable it can open doors for your stakeholders to feel comfortable being more vulnerable as well.

Call out blockers

Waiting on stakeholder decisions to move forward can be agonizing. To keep things moving, you might need to call out what’s blocking you from time to time. It’s important to remember to be as blameless as possible when describing your blocker. If necessary, it can be helpful to schedule a meeting to talk through the blocker with your stakeholders. Explicitly state that the goal of the meeting is to unblock the issue or have clear next steps on how to get it unblocked.

Invite stakeholders to meetings

I’ve found that involving stakeholders in conversations and meetings can help bridge any disconnects between what we’re working on and how we plan on getting there. Invite your stakeholders to planning meetings, demos, retros, and other co-working sessions. Involving your stakeholders early and often gives them a window into team processes and room to ask questions along the way. If things come up, you can course-correct, and if things go smoothly, then you’ve ensured the team is on the same page and going in the right direction.

Sometimes when trying to invite stakeholders to more meetings we hear things like “That’s too many meetings” or “I don’t have time.” This can be a valid point as many stakeholders are juggling things other than the application you’re redesigning. If that’s the case, let stakeholders know the goal of the meeting and why it’s important for them to be there. For example, “During Wednesday’s meeting, we will be finalizing the color scheme and need your input to ensure we are on the correct path and can continue to move forward.”

Turn on your video

Seeing a person in their environment makes a much stronger human connection than seeing an image of a phone or a random icon. You can see facial expressions and reactions to what is being said and it gives the feeling of connection. We’ve all been in a video call where everyone has their camera off. It’s not very engaging and feels much less personal than a call with everyone on video.

Transparent communication

Have inclusive conversations in as transparent a way as possible and avoid private chat messages unless necessary. Having conversations in the open allows folks to see what’s being talked about and chime in with additional information or context that’s helpful for productivity. At first, this can be hard. You might feel like all eyes are on every word you type. This also can make you feel vulnerable to people judging and critiquing what you write. Both of these feelings are normal and expected, but if you can work through them, sharing in the open can help a team communicate and collaborate more efficiently.

Do a retrospective

Taking a look back at how the team worked together in the past and calling out opportunities for improvement is a great way to help the entire team, including your stakeholders, get on the same page. If your stakeholders are new to retros, help them understand retros are important for overall team health and communication. They allow a place to propose changes that can help the team collaborate better in the future. Retros should be blameless and strive for honesty, positivity, and to keep the focus on outcomes and not individuals. The retro platform also gives a place for stakeholders to propose ideas that might help the team improve.

Invite stakeholder to collaborative research meetings

If you’re planning on doing user testing or research sessions, invite your stakeholder. This can be a great opportunity to align on and reaffirm team goals by hearing participants echo what you’ve been saying. On the flipside, it can provide context for further discussions about why something is not working and how you might try and address the issue.

Building trust and encouraging active participation from your stakeholders is like building any relationship, you need to have goals and create a true partnership where ideas can be shared openly and honestly without fear of asking the wrong question or not knowing all the answers. Building trust takes time, and it’s something that will develop as you engage with your stakeholders in various ways. By putting your partnership and project first and checking your self-doubt at the door, you can build a lasting and trusting relationship where your stakeholders are eager to participate and collaborate.

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