David Burkus on Creating Real Relationships in a Virtual World

By Mo Bunnell

Show Notes

David Burkus shares extremely timely strategies for deepening your relationships in a virtual world, whether that’s within your team that’s spread across the globe or with prospective clients that are just getting to know you. Learn how to create a system for communication that makes your remote team more effective, how to recreate the white space online where bonds and trust are built, and how to ask better questions to really get to know someone.

Mo asks David Burkus: How do you develop relationships with your clients virtually?

  • The future of work is working from anywhere. The truth is that we are not going back to the office. Even before the pandemic, studies were showing that people are more engaged when they are out of the office 40% to 60% of the time.
  • We need greater flexibility, trust, and autonomy with the people that we collaborate with in a remote environment.
  • Communication is actually more important now that it was before. We can’t take as many non-verbal cues as we could when we were working together, so we need to be more deliberate and empathetic in our communication.
  • One of the first things we need to be doing with prospective clients is talking about how we are going to be working together. This is now part of the process of closing the deal.
  • One major tip is that eye contact is not eye contact when you’re communicating online. You have to look into the camera lens to recreate the experience and connection of eye contact. The other thing to realize is that communication is more asynchronous than ever before. Make sure you have clear writing and thinking in your written communication. You also have to be clear about what each method of communication is meant for.
  • To enroll clients, the easiest way is to have an established communications system within your team already. Create a team-working agreement and then use that to create the framework of client communication. Schedule a meeting to create your team-working agreement, and get answers to all of the questions written down into a shared document. Then get every team member to agree.

Mo asks David Burkus: How can we create demand and get deals done virtually?

  • The traditional method of closing a deal usually involved meeting clients in person but it wasn’t the activity itself that determined the failure or success of the deal. It was the whitespace around the meeting that built the bonds that led to trust.
  • Most people don’t build that into their virtual meetings, which is something that we really need to do.
  • You build trust and bonds in the unstructured, open space around the meeting time and you need to build that into remote environments.
  • What are the white space moments that built relationships in person and how can you recreate those experiences in your remote working environment?
  • To allow people to get to know each other, give them space to ask questions and get answers. Structure some questions to allow people to learn about each other and in a way where everyone has the opportunity to share a problem they are facing.
  • One of the best questions you can ask is “If you and I are meeting again a year from now over a bottle of Champagne, what are we celebrating?”

Mo asks David Burkus: How do we develop and deepen relationships when everything is virtual?

  • A study showed that the average person’s network shrunk by 25% to 30% over the first half of 2020. That decrease was almost entirely driven by males because of the general tendency for men to bond over activities. We tried to recreate these activities virtually but it doesn’t work the same way.
  • When you’re looking to use a tool like Zoom to deepen a relationship, it requires more structure. You have to show up with questions and a level of conversation designed to deepen the relationship.
  • Work sprints are another option, which are scheduled times where you complete your work in a meeting environment to emulate the coworking space.
  • In addition to these activities, you can also introduce rituals into your team communication to deepen the connection.
  • Between structured conversations that explore non-work topics and physical things like rituals, we can go pretty far in deepening relationships in a remote working environment.
  • The questions don’t matter as much as having a plan and being intentional. Asking questions that are open-ended and answered in a work or non-work context is a good start. One of David’s favorite questions is “Who is your favorite superhero?” No matter what the answer is, you will learn something interesting about the other person.
  • The more you know about someone, the more reason you have to follow up with them and find you have something in common.

Mo asks David Burkus: How can we keep focused on doing the right things when we are constantly distracted in this virtual world?

  • The short answer is to not focus on it. Studies have shown that when timelines are too far away we tend to think that it’s going to be too difficult to accomplish. This applies to health and investing, as well as career goals. The key is to make the long game into your short-term goal.
  • You will always default to the short term. Think about your long-term project and identify the milestones that will lead up to it, then focus in on those. This is especially important in a remote environment where no one is actively looking over your shoulder to make sure you’re getting things done.
  • Milestones have to be co-created with the client. Your team also needs a regular check in process where you cover three key things for each person involved: “What did we just accomplish?”, “What are we focused on now?”, and “What is blocking our progress?”
  • The real challenge in a client engagement is when nobody wants to admit they need help. If you take the time to record those regular check-ins and address the obstacles to progress, you can avoid that situation.
  • Without a regular cadence of communication, you can end up with a client that is really angry with you and you may not know the reason why.


Mo shares his insights from the habits of David Burkus.

  • Figuring out how to work and thrive in a virtual world is only going to become more important going forward.
  • We need to have an agreement with our internal teams and our clients regarding how we are going to work together and communicate with each other. You need to know which platforms are meant for what kinds of communication so that you can be more efficient and effective.
  • Once you work it out internally, you can share it with your clients and give them an idea of how you can work together while also giving them a model to implement in their own businesses.
  • White space built into your remote meetings is crucial. The white space around traditional in person meetings doesn’t happen anymore and that was where the informal chat occurred that allowed relationships to develop naturally. Add space to your calendar to have the meeting before the meeting to make this easier.
  • Be more intentional with your questions. In a virtual world it’s even more important. Being general upfront and asking questions that can be answered either personally or professionally are great for opening up the possibility of getting to know the person.
  • The Champagne Question is a great first step to helping a client craft a future that’s better for them. People need positivity and optimism in their life and  you can add that to their life by asking them the right questions and exploring the answers.

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