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Bridging the Connection Gap Between Remote Teams

Podcast: Connection and Disconnection in Remote Teams: Discovering the Barriers to Connection

We’ve teamed up with Virtual Not Distant to produce a podcast series looking at disconnection and connection within remote teams. 

As the conversation around remote work matures, we’re perhaps moving past the need to expound on the multiple benefits that it can bring to us as individuals and organizations. While the benefits are still largely true, there’s now a desire for space to share and address our struggles too. This comes, not in an attempt to downplay the positive attributes (we’re still really excited about flexibility, increased productivity and giving up our commutes) but as a way to make this well-loved model a more sustainable option, for everyone.

It’s with this in mind that we are extremely proud and excited to share our podcast collaboration with the team at Virtual Not Distant, a group dedicated to providing supportive resources, training and coaching for those transitioning to remote. Their podcast, 21st Century Work Life is one we’ve loved and listened to for a while now — our co-founder Tim Burgess has even been a guest on the show. So, when Pilar Orti and Maya Middlemiss put the word out they were looking for collaborators, we jumped at the chance to make something together. 

“There’s a lot of commonality in the way that we see remote work in particular,” Tim says of Pilar and Maya, in the first episode of our collaborative podcast — Connection and Disconnection in Remote Teams.

The episode launched a seven-part mini-series where, I, as your host, will unpack the question of what it looks like to be connected while working remotely. Each episode will see many voices coming together to discuss and consider the numerous layers involved.

For this episode, I’m joined by Tim, Pilar and Maya as we talk, roundtable-style, about our personal experiences with feelings of disconnection and introduce the series.

Understanding feelings of disconnection in remote workplaces

As remote work continues to grow, the need for more understanding around the effects of physical isolation within this community has become extremely important.

“That’s why it’s coming to the forefront now,” Maya says.

“Remote work is becoming more mainstream … it’s actually absorbing people who maybe didn’t consciously make that choice or didn’t make it in such an examined way. [They are] maybe finding that these consequences are happening because all their remote colleagues have been doing it for years… and it maybe hasn’t occurred to them then it might be a problem.”

By bringing this topic into the forefront of conversation, our hope is to normalize this for both those who are struggling with feelings of isolation and those who may not feel it themselves but have colleagues or teammates who do.

“It doesn’t have to become a problem, but it certainly will be if it’s ignored,” Maya says.

Identifying the causes of loneliness and disconnection

Feelings of disconnection can have many causes, and it’s not always easy to determine what exactly is affecting us.

And while Pilar shares that it’s not always about physical isolation, it’s clear that the unique combination of factors that make up remote work can, without proper care and attention, encourage this kind of experience.

“When you’re hiring someone remotely you are putting them in a situation where they are disconnected or where there are barriers to connections,” Tim says.

He wonders if there are responsibilities associated with that.

“It’s easier in a shared space where work provides a structure for you. This is when we go for lunch, or this is when we have a meeting, and we go to this bit of the building,” Maya says.

“In remote work, there’s more of a sense of having to foster your own sense of resilience and your mindset and skills.”

Which can be difficult when you’re struggling.

Empower remote employees with self-awareness skills 

While feelings of loneliness do have some biological basis and some researchers suggest they exist to encourage us to connect, this isn’t always a natural step to make. Particularly when we haven’t been able to recognize changes early on.

“Often there’s a honeymoon period with remote work. For the first couple of months you’re so happy to not be commuting that almost anything could happen and you’re like, ‘oh, well as long as I don’t have to get in that car and deal with the traffic,” Tim says.

This frame of mind can mean negative feelings can be hard to spot.

“It can be something that creeps up at you and then compound overtime.”

But this suppressing of ‘bad’ feelings or discounting warning signs can be dangerous.

“It’s not necessarily fundamentally a bad thing to feel lonely, it’s just telling you something about yourself and the environment that you’re in and what you should do next,” I share of the need to pay attention to these changes. 

We are perhaps more equipped to respond to these feelings within relationships and family dynamics. Still, when they’re happening at work, we find it extremely difficult to listen.

“All too often we’re accustomed to suppress them or ignore them,” Maya says. “I can’t go out for a walk now it’s the middle of the afternoon I have to sit here and tear my hair out and cry instead because that’s what I’m being paid to show up for. Its about tuning in to those messages. We do have them, but I think a lot of them have forgotten how to hear.”  

The manager’s role in supporting a remote tea

We all agreed that self-reflection practices will be a crucial part of finding positive solutions but know from our own struggles with feelings of isolation and loneliness that it isn’t always fair to assume someone will have the skills to do that.

“I think one of the most difficult parts, particularly if you think about someone who transitioned from co-located to remote, they may not have experienced this before, and you may not necessarily anticipate that it’s going to happen,” Tim says.

“In which case, being ready to recognize what changes might be going on within yourself is asking a lot.”

It’s here that we wondered where the role of managers plays in as well as company culture and structure.

“I’m wondering how many of us when we’re onboarding new remote colleagues really build that in just to see how they’re doing?” Maya asks.

“We might be very concerned with how they’re connecting in with key people that they’re going to be working with and how they’re integrating into the work but then to say how about your day, how’s that going?”

The person may need to implement a better routine or prioritize taking breaks or even eat healthier and exercise more. These changes won’t be the manager’s responsibility but maybe it’s part of their role to ask about it.

“I think it’s way easier to respond to a question than to bring it up yourself,” I share.

“Particularly early on,” Tim says. “It’s a pretty brave person that would start and say, ‘look I’m in week two I’m freaking out over here. I’m on probation, and I feel disconnected and unproductive.”

It’s not remote work vs office work 

Like any of the issues associated with remote work, it can be tempting to look at how our co-located peers have traditionally dealt with it and try to emulate that solution.

In this case, where there are certainly many instances of people feeling isolated and disconnected within office environments, as well as remote workers feeling supported and connected, we’re excited to talk about how we can approach this from a uniquely remote position. 

“Technology has been blamed for a lot of that disconnection, and I’m really excited to show how technology can be used to help with connection,” Pilar says.

– Bree Caggiati, February 2020

Looking for the next episode? You can listen or read about Episode 2 here!

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