One of the unintended consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on teams is that even people who have worked together for a long time are seeing differences in how they work together now. And they seem surprised by that. We’re not.
In The Long-Distance Leader, rule number 3 is this: “Know that working remotely changes interpersonal dynamics, even when you don’t want it to.” While teams that have been co-located at some point claim to have better working relationships than hybrid teams or totally virtual teams, those connections can erode at some point.
Why is that? Here are some of the reasons:
Distance limits exposure to each other.
One of the reasons it’s easier to build high-performing teams when we all work together is that you get constant visual reminders of who is up to what. You know who to turn to for an answer, or when someone is available and when they aren’t. A famous study in the 1980s showed that the frequency and quality of communication changed the farther people worked from each other… and that was happening in the same building. The less you see each other, the more intentional you need to be about contacting others and the harder you have to work to maintain those relationships.
Being out of sight and out of mind.
When we have our heads down working, we don’t have the luxury of overhearing someone coming down the hall or seeing them at their desk. And they may not be aware of us either. It’s easy to reach out to the same people over and over, or to become invisible to some of our teammates.
How often and how you communicate is what maintains relationships.
At work, we have a hundred ways of communicating: smiles, nods, waves, and actually speaking to each other top the list. When most of our communication is in writing, whether that’s email, Slack messages, Instant messages or texts, it isn’t the same. Work and the communication that makes it work can become transactional, and the emotional, psychologically rewarding interactions are less frequent.
Technology both enables and complicates communication.
Rich, face-to-face communication offers us multiple cues, both obvious and invisible, that help us read other people. Webcams can help bridge the gap, but it requires more communication at a deeper depth to give us the same amount of visible and subliminal information.
Information gets filtered.
When you work in the office and you see Sheila coming down the hall, your brain thinks of all the things you could say to her, from the personal to the fact that you still owe her something she needs. Even if she’s not your best friend or critical to your work, you interact with her and pass information almost effortlessly. When you don’t see someone, and it requires typing or pushing buttons to reach out, we begin to ask ourselves, “Do I need to send this message? Is it worth the trouble? What if Sheila’s working and this little thing is going to interrupt her?” We wind up reaching out only when there’s a “good reason,” and often give just as much information as we think necessary (which often isn’t nearly enough).
Working remotely does change the way people interact over time. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but how we communicate, how often, and how much time we spend when we are connected can dramatically alter pre-existing team dynamics.
If you’re aware of that, you can be mindful of changes and adapt. If you’re not, you may be in for some unpleasant surprises.
How’s your team doing? What’s changed? What needs to change to compensate for your new circumstances?
We have a great learning program, 12 Weeks to Being a Great Remote Teammate, that covers every aspect of working remotely together. You and your team can improve your performance, whether that be productivity or maintaining relationships.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, offers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.