A letter from a researcher to leaders of distributed teams
You want to know how your team is feeling about their current work reality once and for all. Totally normal. All managers, like you, who deeply care about their people and their employee experience do.
In this article, learn about:
While so many organizations shifted to remote work, leaders have been urging for ways to stay connected to their people in this new reality of working together while being apart.
A research quest
The shift to this new world of work has had many positive and negative impacts. And I spent the last quarter of 2021 conducting a lengthy research project to understand the challenges of distributed work. During this research, I had the privilege of hearing several real-life stories from team members and managers. During my interviews, they confided in me, sharing how they experienced the shift and its impact personally and professionally. It was by far the most touching, inspiring, and insightful research project I’ve conducted in the five years I’ve been with Officevibe.
With Officevibe aiming to be the very best employee experience platform for distributed teams, I was on a mission to identify the problems that, if solved, would have the most significant impact for managers and team members in this new work context.
My product team and I also needed to understand what makes a distributed work environment a successful one (and why) to help our clients succeed in this new work dynamic. And so, I combined my interviews with a literature review to find out all I needed to know. In all, I read up (for days on end!) on lessons from teams who had been working remotely way before the pandemic hit and on what several experts had to report from their studies on remote and distributed work.
My brain was full of insights and rich findings by mid-November. I was ready to report back to my team.
If I had to summarize our research findings in a tweet, I would say:
It’s that simple (well, not really, but I’ll break it down below). All in all, at the heart of my research findings, are our ties, bonds, and relationships with one another. These are the keys to solving most of the problems and challenges with distributed work.
Top 10 research findings on distributed teams
Here are the top 10 findings of my research:
1. We now bring our whole selves to work
“Your day is not your work day; your day is your life – and you work in between your life.”
This quote is from one of my research participants. I think it says it all: the good old “work-life balance” saying is out the door.
In general, many of us are content with new freedoms to integrate work with our personal lives — some calling it “the best of both worlds, now having the flexibility to be true work nomads and to work how and when we work best.” For others, lines between work and personal life remain blurry even almost two years in. In all, this new flexibility can be both positive and negative.
As people navigated unprecedented stress these last two years, balanced childcare and homeschool, worked from living rooms, and quieted barking dogs and agitated children, something changed: work became more human. We stepped into each other’s personal spaces, and having people to talk to become a way to manage it all.
Did you know that one in five have met their colleagues’ pets or families virtually, and one in six have cried with a coworker?
2. Cross-team collaboration is hard
Connections within the immediate team are good, while connections and ties across teams aren’t so great. This is cause for concern for the future as relationships are among the most critical employee engagement factors.
3. Keeping a strong sense of belonging will be a key challenge for the future
The sense of belonging to the organization and its mission is simply not what it used to be, and we see the repercussions of that with the Great Resignation. My research interviews and literature review revealed that this would also be a long-term challenge of distributed/remote work. There’s a lack of process for building relationships and communication funnels within the organization remotely, severely affecting the sense of belonging to the organization and its mission.
4. The way we onboard new employees must change
Redesigning the onboarding process is key to succeeding in the distributed work model. Unsurprisingly, it must have a strong focus on building an internal network of organizational connections, within AND outside the immediate work team.
5. Human emotions are deluded by screens
Remote work has made people, their emotions, and work less visible. This affects relationships in the workplace and has a negative impact on well-being, employee engagement and performance, and opportunities for development and career advancement.
6. Generational clashes will feel stronger
We must be on the lookout for generations entering the workforce and for generational clashes ahead. Some younger workers are worried that senior staff will be reluctant to return to the office, leaving them without guidance and unable to build contacts and social capital.
7. Gender equality in the workforce might see some setbacks
One particular worry is that hybrid work patterns might intensify gender inequality. The fear is that it could reinforce existing disparities in the labor market. There is also a concern that women who chose remote work for the long run will pay a career penalty as old habits of presenteeism reassert themselves with a partial return to the office in the hybrid model.
8. Communication, communication, communication
Communication is the #1 problem for distributed teams: good communication is at the heart of collaboration and trust. Together, they form the essential elements of solid work relationships, one of the pillars of employee experience.
As such, defining clear and inclusive communication & collaboration principles is key for teams to succeed in this working reality.
9. Nothing will take the place of in-person interactions
One thing’s for sure: in-person human connections create ever-lasting bonds, and no number of virtual meetings, games, or conversations can ever replace that. That’s why thoughtfully investing in moments for teams to come together for in-person workshops, bonding experiences, and strategy sessions (when possible) will be a budget and coordination challenge for sure. However, they’re critical in creating company ambassadors, driving engagement and performance, and mitigating employee attrition.
10. We’re craving for connection
There’s a common thread through my research findings: Our internal network and these meaningful connections hold a heavy hand in solving some of the downsides of shifting to distributed/remote work.
With the drastic reduction of social interactions, spontaneous run-ins, and human touch, we all miss so much from our old in-office life; we’ve had to find ways to develop and nurture these connections while being apart. What’s encouraging, though, is that the team members and managers I spoke with during my research now feel very optimistic about the transition. They rose together from the challenges and succeeded in making it through the shift feeling stronger and more connected than ever before.
Let’s remember this.
Many organizations and teams successfully worked remotely long before the pandemic hit. Distributed work has been proven to be possible and effective for many. The right conversations and rituals just need to be put in place for all of it to work. Ultimately, many of the same considerations that apply in an office work environment also apply to a remote setting, and it’s just a matter of implementation.
As a leader, you’ll for sure need to be deliberate in creating a remote-first culture. You can do this by asking your distributed team members for their input about what they need to be successful on a regular basis, and by sharing distributed work best practices for creating new rituals and habits.
As I mentioned above, team/organizational principles are a success factor of distributed work – the action of collectively defining and communicating clear and inclusive communication & collaboration principles is a must in making remote teams work. Many of my research participants talked about how communication over Slack and emojis have in many ways become substitutes for in-person conversations. Never have they been more present and important! Discussing this as a team is vital to avoid misunderstandings and unnecessary stress.
Embodying the company culture and values is also a success factor – all of it needs to translate into concrete actions and behaviors, encouraged and practiced by managers and team members daily. Team members need to feel that they belong to a team and organization through rituals that combine face-to-face and virtual.
Last but not least, uncovering every team member’s strengths, ensuring members know who they can lean on for what, and creating a space to do this with courage and vulnerability is crucial to building a highly engaged and performing team. It was true before, and it’s even truer now as we work apart.
Now back to our burning question…
How’s your team doing? Has their employee experience improved with the shift to distributed work, stayed the same, or gotten worse?
Almost two years into remote working, how has your team culture evolved and adapted? What’s working, and what’s not?
What if it isn’t a black and white answer? It’s all in the details and nuances, and you’ll need to ask questions to pull these out.
So, how do we go about getting answers to these questions? Worry no more. I will give you my professional advice as an Employee Experience Expert that I hope brings your team to a glorious age of distributed work.
Ask questions. But how you ask will determine what you’ll uncover.
An idea was born after spending a few months conducting this research and presenting it internally to our Officevibe teams. How might we make it fast and straightforward for managers to get answers to all these questions?
Everything starts with knowing what and how to ask. To help, I’ve personally designed a custom survey template for distributed teams to help managers get the answers they need.
What is Officevibe? With our Pulse Survey results and anonymous feedback conversations, we provide signals by giving you visibility into what’s working well within the team and their employee experience, and what isn’t. It’s what our rotating 122 Pulse Survey questions are all about.
But the secret to real change is not to stop there. You’re just scratching the surface if you are.
What’s the purpose of measuring something if we don’t do anything with the results?
That’s what your next steps are about—making sense of the information you get from Officevibe with the help of your team by digging deeper to understand what’s behind these signals. And the very best way to do that is through your one-on-one and team discussions.
Running remote one-on-one and team discussions like a pro
Common challenges of distributed teams are many. While some solutions make sense for most, nothing can ever replace the impact of involving your team in understanding the issues and committing to solutions together.
Here’s a framework you can use to dig into your Custom Survey results with your team members.
How to discuss the team’s remote work experience in a team meeting
Discussing results around team culture and values:
- Take a moment to discuss what came out of the Custom survey and list what’s working well and what’s not, perhaps using a whiteboard tool like Miro.
- Then, move on to brainstorming: discuss what you need to continue doing and what you need to start doing moving forward to improve team culture and dynamics. Some areas may require more reflection and adaptation. You can put these in a “parking lot” section of your brainstorm board and discuss them in a later meeting as needed.
- Vote and commit to one to three things you want to do as a team to improve your culture. You can add these to your team principles or even make it a team goal in Officevibe!
Discussing results around issues the team has experienced working within the team, across teams, or higher up within company guidelines, and work relationships.
- Discuss the issues and find common patterns with the team.
- Solicit your team’s advice about how they would address these issues.
- Commit to one concrete action you can take as a first step and assign a person responsible for making it happen (could be you as the manager or one of your team members)
🌟 BONUS: If you are using my Custom Survey template, bring back some of the high-level findings from questions 2 and 3 (be careful in respecting anonymity) to get the conversation started.
Discuss your team rituals and tools at a quick round table. These questions can spark conversations:
- What would you change to improve our remote team experience?
- In what area do you think a new tool or software could help the team?
- What would you recommend if you had to choose our communication frequency/model?
- What are the best channels for communication?
- What are your expectations on response times?
How to discuss your team member’s remote work experience in a one-on-one meeting
How about dedicating your next one-on-one to discussing how your team members feel about the distributed work context?
Officevibe makes it super easy for you to plan and run your virtual one-on-one meetings. An added plus is that the meeting agenda is collaborative, so both you and your team member can add topics you’d like to cover in the one-on-one. What’s more, the agenda is shared, making it easy for both of you to prepare ahead of time.
Here are some talking points to get you started. They’ll help you follow up on your Custom Survey results easily and in a conversation-like fashion.
- Tell me a bit about how you feel in our distributed work context.
- How do you feel personally about our team culture?
- What’s your advice for me when it comes to supporting you and the rest of the team in the work that needs to be done?
- Are you able to prioritize your work? If not, what’s getting in the way? How can I help?
- Do you ever feel that you need to work overtime to accomplish your work? Why?
- What practices do you think we follow that allows you/don’t allow you to disconnect guilt-free?
A work in progress
I know I’ve covered a lot of ground in this article and that some may feel overwhelming to you. That’s OK. It’s very normal—our research on distributed work shows that the shift to distributed work has put a lot of weight on managers’ shoulders. Employees are feeling less connected to their peers and organization while remote. Now more than ever, the responsibility has fallen on the manager to bring a sense of community and belonging to each team member and drive and sustain culture. That’s a lot, on top of all your other gazillion responsibilities as a manager.
Remember this: no one expects you to be perfect. What matters most is staying connected to your team. Your best bet? Lead with empathy, care, and curiosity. The rest will come naturally!
At Officevibe, we like to see this new world of work as nothing more than a work in progress. Nothing needs to be perfect right at this moment. We’re all figuring it out as we go, and the beauty of it is that we’re doing it together.
Ask your team the right questions consistently and frequently. Dig deeper and work on solutions together. Embrace this process as you navigate the year and its different moments (busier times, more stressful months, holidays and celebration periods, changes in the organization, etc.). Implement a process that makes the work easy to generate positive shifts with your team. That’s the Officevibe method.
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