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Practicing Self-Reflection to Overcome Loneliness in Remote Teams

Podcast: Helping Ourselves to Overcome Disconnection in Our Remote Team

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

In the sixth episode of the podcast, we talk through some of the ways we, as individuals, can combat feelings of disconnection while working remotely. You can catch up on the fifth episode here.

Self-reflection has come up a few times already in previous episodes as it seems to be a necessary tool in addressing these internal feelings. 

By reflecting on our own experiences, we can develop effective strategies that might actually help us, rather than wasting time trying a string of suggestions that worked for someone else. 

Practice mindfulness and ask meaningful questions

Laurel Farrer, the founder of Distribute Consulting, encourages us to sit in any uncomfortable feelings long enough to understand them — or at least ask them questions. 

“Be willing to sit in that uncomfortable zone long enough to self-reflect on, ‘Why am I unhappy?’” she says.  

“Sometimes our days and lives blur together with remote work and our environments aren’t changing as much, therefore it’s hard to identify, “‘why do I feel bad?’” 

Laurel reminds us that we often try to treat any symptoms first, thinking that they’re the issue.  But, by taking the time to really ask ourselves questions and delve deeper into thinking about our situation we may find an entirely different root cause. 

“Maybe the long commute or being in a busy environment was distracting you, covering up larger problems now you’re left alone with. Be willing to solve those problems in your life and it can lead to an even greater success in the long run.”

But it’s not always easy to think critically about ourselves. It can take a lot of practice and in some cases external help to develop good reflection skills. 

Workplace psychologist and founder of Work Life Psych, Richard Mackinnon, often helps his clients develop these skills. He says self-reflection can be learned, and that we’re probably already doing it in some areas of our lives already. It’s about transferring that curiosity to areas that may be a little uncomfortable. 

“Maybe if you use the word ‘notice’ because [self-reflection is simply] noticing [things about yourself],” he says. 

“What am I saying to myself? Am I being overly harsh or critical? What tasks do I love doing? When am I more likely to procrastinate or try to avoid completely? Who are the types of people I can’t wait to work with, who really excite me or make me laugh? This is self-awareness, learning more about your preferences. It’s as simple as that.”

Richard might also take the role of the person asking the questions to initiate that sort of thinking in his clients. 

“I start by asking them, does that work for you or are you missing something here? And what can you do about it? and then hopefully they will come up with an idea,” he says. 

“There’s no one size fits all with this – start with the individual and say what is it you want? How much social contact do you need? For many people there’s a reason they’re working in the way they are. Given your circumstances and context, what’s possible?”

Richard also notes that it’s not just asking the questions — it’s capturing the answers so you can reflect on progress and change over time. 

“If you want to make changes, it’s good to have some data to look back on,” he says

This might take the form of journaling each night, which is something Richard suggests, but there’s also apps, programs, and exercise handbooks that can all help facilitate this kind of ongoing reflective practice. 

What we can handle in the first few months of working from home might be different 6 months to a year later, which might be different even later than that. 

Unless we capture what’s happening for us regularly, we might not realise the gradual changes until we’re in a difficult position. 

Experiment and find what works for you

For Asia Hundley, one of Shield’s Customer Success Managers it took a few months before she realised she wanted to switch up some habits. At first, she was happy working from home full time. It wasn’t until she made the move to a coworking space for the Summer, as it gets too hot in Madrid where she lives to be at home, that she realised she was missing something at home. 

It’s something I didn’t realise I needed until I got here,” she says. 

“Just getting out, not being physically isolated and also getting into a routine of waking up in the morning, getting dressed and going to the office…it still feels like a community and it has networking events and all these different things you can sign up for. It definitely does give you, if you’re interested in that, a chance to engage.”

While a co-working space really helped for Asia, it might not be the solution for your situation. 

Laurel reiterates that it’s not about the specifics — rather, it’s about going through the process of finding out what you need to thrive and implementing it into your routine. 

After we reflect on some of the issues we might be having, she recommends experimenting with different options to see if it might be helpful or useful. 

“Be willing to identify the root of your problem to make changes and sometimes that takes a long time,” Laurel says.

“Be willing to experiment — this week I’m going to try and go to a gym, work from a co-working space, taking more breaks, eat different food, have a meeting in my manager, start a new slack channel…whatever it is, be willing to experiment and try and proactively find a solution for yourself.”

I know for me, I sometimes have a problem switching off at the end of the day which can turn into a bigger issue if left unchecked. I’ve found that I need to set fairly strict end times for myself and go for a walk or exercise to signify the end of the day. Something about changing clothes and doing something physical is really helpful for my brain to understand the workday is over. 

I know of people who do something similar in the morning to start work — they’ll leave the house to get a coffee or walk the dog — to simulate a sort of commute and get them in the headspace to work. 

This kind of ritual can encourage positive social interactions too, which is something Richard recommends. 

Seek out positive interpersonal interactions,” he says.  “That doesn’t need to be anything deep or meaningful, but making human connection that is positive is good for us and helps us feel about ourselves and positive about the day ahead.”

If you’re on a walk, saying hello to neighbours you pass or having a small chat with someone at the dog park all count. Maybe you ask how your barista is going or talk about the weather while waiting in line. 

We can replicate these little interactions virtually too. Shield GEOs Client Services Director, Brenda, starts every day off with a good morning message replete with a funny gif or a collection of emojis to our skype group which includes everyone within the Americas time zone. These messages not only make me smile but also provide an opportunity for further interaction and connection. I’ve seen first hand how a “Happy Taco Tuesday” text leads to sharing recipes and photos from someone making Mexican food later in the day. 

While we of course also need deep connection, Richard says these small positive daily interactions are important too. They help build up a well of positive experience to draw from which boosts self-confidence and our sense of place within our community, which can help us make more meaningful connections elsewhere. 

Reach out to others

Psychologist and researcher, Julianne Holt Lunstad shares that reaching and supporting others can actually have stronger benefits to us than receiving that support. Helping people makes us feel like a necessary player. It gives us a sense of purpose and a common goal to work towards. 

“One of the things that we can think about is that by helping others, that’s also one of the best ways to help ourselves,” she says. 

And while reaching out to others doesn’t always come naturally to people — particularly in remote settings. Teresa Douglas, author of Working Remotely, encourages us that it’s simply another skill to practice. 

It’s really important to get used to putting yourself out there,” she says.  It comes back to giving first. You’re going to toss little things out of the ether — sometimes someone is going to catch it and throw something back at you, and sometimes you’re never going to see that thing again. But, generally, people are grateful when people are friendly.”

There are of course some practical tools or strategies you can implement to help you have better conversations, but Richard often finds it’s more about fears and lack of confidence. 

This is where these well-intentioned suggestions to call a friend or start a hobby can really fall short, when what we really need is someone to listen. 

Marcus Wermuth, Manager of the Engineering team at Buffer, regularly writes on his blog about his ongoing use of therapy as a resource to understand and better himself. He’s passionate about de-stigmatising the process and often will talk about his experiences within his team in hopes that this ‘leading by example’ may encourage others to get help if they need it. 

“We all go to see a doctor if something hurts, but going to a therapist always seems like what is going on?” he says.  “[But] it is just a different type of doctor about a problem.”

Be kind and forgiving to yourself

Sometimes, even asking for help or making the choice to go see a doctor or therapist can be too much. 

“It takes energy to maintain friendships, and sometimes when you’re in that cycle, it’s extra energy to get out and it’s overwhelming,” Teresa says. 

“Some of these answers just don’t work at first. Some kindness to yourself has come into play – sometimes the best thing to do is to say that’s it and own the fact that you’re out of control.”

Within all of the mentions of everyone is different we have to find a path that works for us — it’s also true that we aren’t always the best versions of ourselves either. Sometimes we can’t manage an afternoon walk — even though we know that’s a healthy habit that contributes to our overall sense of connection — sometimes we can’t even manage to ask for help. 

In those circumstances, we need to be kind to ourselves and give ourselves space to recover and try again. 

The specifics of your solutions might look different from your co-worker or manager or friend. So, in that regard, I’m not advocating for walks or co-working spaces or sending emoji-filled messages to your workmates. What I am advocating for is prioritising listening, reflecting, and questioning. I’m advocating for trying something new and noticing whether it was enriching or exhausting, committing to practices you know you love and are helpful to you, and treating yourself with kindness on the days you really just can’t manage it. 

While you’re at it — reach out to people you work with in whatever ways you can and when it all gets too much know that it’s more than ok to ask for help. 

Thanks so much for tuning in — I hope you’ll join us for our final episode, where we’ll reflect on the series together. 

– Bree Caggiati, May 2020

Looking for the next episode? You can listen or read about Episode 7 here!

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