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The Responsibility of Building Connection in Remote Teams

Podcast: Connection and Disconnection Beyond Work: Who’s Responsible for Connection in Remote Teams 

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

In the fourth episode of our collaboration series: Connection and Disconnection in Remote Teams, I take a look at where the responsibility lies when dealing with connection within remote teams. If you haven’t already, I recommend listening to the third episode before this one.

Should organisations and employers do all the work in ensuring their teams feel connected? Or is it up to the employee to self-monitor and seek out connection points outside of their work?  

If you are yet to catch up on our previous episodes, you can listen to them, here and while you’re there check out the other 21st Century Work Life episodes.  

As always, I spoke with a range of voices to grapple with this really hearty topic.  

We heard Laurel Farrer speak about the challenges freelancers face in comparison to more structured company based positions which showcased just how vital managers can be in an employee’s overall career.  

“We see a dangerous level of career stagnancy in freelancers specifically because they don’t have that person overseeing their work-life in general,” she says. 

She went further to say that if workers are isolated without manager input, only focussing on getting their tasks done, they miss out on so much of what makes up a healthy, sustainable career. 

“When you’re isolated as a remote worker and zeroed in only on that tangible work, you’re missing out on that self-management, your career, life, and personal health is taking a hit because of that.” 

In previous episodes, we had talked a lot about self-reflection practices. We encouraged everyone to spend time learning about their own limits in order to safeguard themselves against the pitfalls of loneliness that can come from prolonged isolation. And while we still advocate for these practices, it’s clear that managers have a role to play too. 

Teresa Douglas calls the question of responsibility ‘nuanced.’

“It’s also on a sliding scale, of where the problem is and how we need to combat it,” she says.  

But figuring this out can be difficult. The problem of disconnection can often lay in various places at once, which makes it impossible to pin the responsibility on just one player.  

The duty of the employer

Our co-founder Tim Burgess argues that employers have a duty of care to ensure their employees remain connected, regardless of whether they work from home or in an office. 

“As an employer, when we’re hiring people, we’re hiring them into a circumstance that we create – not them, “he says. 

“If they’re not going to have colleagues sitting next to them, it is our responsibility to acknowledge that we’re putting someone in that situation.” 

Psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad agrees, saying that while we all have a personal responsibility to take care of ourselves, it’s impossible to look at this situation without acknowledging the environmental factors that actually make it harder to connect.  

“When there are factors in the environment that systematically put people in situations that increase potential risk either in policies or practices or our physical environment creating barriers that make it more difficult [it’s not as simple as just reaching out],” she says. 

“We [now] have to think about how to overcome those barriers.”

This example goes to show that we can’t just fall into remote work. That how we set up our remote companies, the policies and initiatives that we put in place all actually really matter. 

Laurel’s been speaking about this for years, and in fact, that was one the main motivators for her to set up her company Distribute Consulting. 

“Most people are going into this change completely organically, incorrectly assuming that sending someone away from the office makes them a remote worker. That’s exactly why we see the social isolation, discrimination, career stagnancy…because they’re not intentionally building the infrastructure for this change,” she says. 

This is why services like what Laurel offers at Distribute Consulting are hugely important and beneficial. 

Isabel Collins, the founder of Belonging Space, an organisation that aims to foster a sense of belonging within companies, offers similar support. She argues that psychological safety is every bit as important as physical safety when thinking about the duty of care. 

As duty of care seemed to come up in a few of the conversations I was having with guests, I reached out to Tara Vasdani the principal lawyer at Canadian law firm, Remote Law Canada to explain it in more detail. 

She says that “Duty of care relates to the proximity between two individuals or an individual and corporation – two parties and — figuring the proximity to if there’s a cause and effect relationship.” 

So, if a cause and effect relationship can be established (like that of an employer and employee), there could be grounds for a liability case where damage has occurred. 

“Employers have a duty to create a safe workplace and to maintain a safe and healthy workplace. That duty extends whether that employee is at the office or at home. Employers tend to think when their employees are at home ‘oh they’re in their own space, they don’t need to be cared for’. It’s a misconception and shouldn’t happen,” she says. 

The role of the employee in building connection

But does this actually mean all of the responsibility legally lies on the employer? 

Isabel doesn’t think so. 

“Belonging is multiway. You can’t tell someone to belong,” she says. “The responsibility also does sit with the individual to share when they need care.” 

You can see how this loops back to our arguments for self-reflection and understanding your own limits.  

Interestingly, Marcus Wermuth sees even these individual practices as something related to how a manager leads. 

“You, yourself, have to be vulnerable, that’s something you have to work on yourself,” he says.

But, he argues, it’s a manager’s role to create a safe space to share this, which can happen by being vulnerable themselves — leading by example. 

Why it matters

Courtney Seiter, the Director of People and Culture at Buffer, reminds us that there are no downsides to taking care of your employees.

It can help ward off some of those potentially really serious impacts that we talked about in the last episode, including health concerns, economic stress and of course team dynamics and productivity too. 

“Burn-out is a very real part of the tech eco-system right now. From a strictly business point of view, your people are what makes things happen for the company, so if you don’t take care of them your long-term success is very much in peril,” she says, adding that Buffer are also morally motivated to care for their employees. 

“The team-mate experience is very important. Life should be full of stuff besides work and we want to keep that central. You can get tunnel vision as a remote worker…it’s hard to break out of that once you’re in that pattern that you’re in that bad spot. Sometimes you almost need that outside help to make that happen.” 

Technology encourages connection, if used correctly

While remote workers are more susceptible to feelings of disconnection from their teams and workmates because of the barriers created from an isolated environment, with planning and policies, the technology we use every day to do our work can actually be utilised to create connection. 

Our collaborator Pilar Orti shares how visible teamwork and having asynchronous communication in the open could have helped her during a time when she was working as a part-time drama teacher. Sometimes, her classes would be cancelled, but no one would tell her, and she would only find out after arriving at school. 

“I think that technology allows us to not have to think as much – people can look up and have access to the information about the work.”

She goes on to say that it’s not actually the tools, but the ways in which we use them that matters.  

With all of this in mind, we can see how there are no real clear cut answers here. The proportion of responsibility is likely to look different company to company, but this doesn’t mean it should deter us from the really important work of discovery. 

We know that self-reflection is essential, but it’s equally important for managers to create safe environments to share. 

Systems can help provide structure, but every individual has different needs. 

And while this is potentially really messy — I think the wrestling to work it out is incredibly worthwhile. 


– Bree Caggiati, March 2020

Looking for the next episode? You can listen or read about Episode 5 here!

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