Unpacking the Two Biggest Struggles of Working Remotely: Collaboration and Loneliness

In this article

(Image from Jason Rosewell)

“Why do I have to wait to go home to be myself?”

My friend said this to me many years ago when complaining about his job. 

His company had a withhold culture. 

With his colleagues, he would don a work-face and avoid conflict. Especially with his leaders.

He would withhold his honest thoughts and feelings, authentic self expression, information about his personal life, critical feedback, and creative ideas.

As a result, he felt lonely with his colleagues and did not fully contribute his strengths to the team. 

Withholding was likely a common behavior among his colleagues, covertly eroding social connection, productivity, and innovation. 

Withhold culture is an underlying issue to the two biggest struggles of working remotely

The State of Remote Work 2020 report indicates that the two biggest struggles with working remotely are collaboration and communication and loneliness.

One of the root issues to both of these struggles is withhold culture which is already pervasive in the co-located workplace and exacerbated in remote companies.

The solution to these struggles that erode shareholder value is moving towards a candor culture by increasing psychological safety and human connection. 

In candor cultures, individuals don’t hesitate to share their honest thoughts and feelings, authentic self expression, information about their personal life, critical feedback, and creative ideas.

Loneliness rises when people don’t feel seen

“When we’re lonely, we feel invisible. One of the most powerful ways to fight it is to help others feel seen.” – Adam Grant

To reduce loneliness, leaders are responsible for creating time and safety for team members to feel seen by each other.

Thought leaders like Dr. Brene Brown, Adam Grant, and Dr. Vivek Murthy all seem to agree that an essential factor to experiencing human connection and reducing loneliness is for individuals to feel seen.

We feel seen when we get the sense that someone else understands what it’s like to be us. You can be surrounded by people all the time and still feel lonely, often because your authentic and real internal experience is being hidden or misunderstood.

Remote teams spend nearly all of their conversation time in productivity mode, with their work-face on. Even most virtual team building exercises are still done without intentionally removing the work-face to know what’s really going on in each other’s lives. 

If I show up to all conversations with my work-face on, my colleagues won’t get to acknowledge our common humanity. They won’t get to know if I am feeling grief from breaking up with my romantic partner, feeling depressed, having relationship conflict at home, excited to be going on a date this weekend, or fatigued from my kids that are now home all the time. 

Knowing this personal information about each other is important to fostering empathy, support, and seeing the common humanity in each other. 

Individuals often do not feel seen because they withhold their authentic self expression, honest thoughts and feelings, and what is really on their heart. You cannot feel seen if you do not let yourself be seen. You won’t let yourself be seen if you do not feel safe to be seen. 

Collaboration breaks down when people don’t speak up

“True collaboration is impossible when people don’t trust one another to speak with candor” – Keith Ferrazzi

To improve collaboration and communication, leaders are responsible for helping team members feel safe to speak up.

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Thought leaders like Amy Edmondson, Dr. Timothy Clarke, and Keith Ferrazzi all seem to agree that one of the most debilitating forces to collaboration and communication is the fear of speaking up.

The attached graphic shows an often familiar experience for individuals during virtual meetings or any asynchronous communications -— avoiding speaking up about concerns, conflict, new ideas, critical feedback, or mistakes. 

This social behavior called withholding is detrimental to productivity and innovation.  The correlation between withholding and impact on shareholder value is highest when the nature of work is interdependent, complex, and relies on innovation as a key economic driver. 

Withholding decreases productivity

“Lack of candor contributes to longer cycle times, slow decision making, and unnecessarily iterative discussions.” – Keith Ferrazzi 

Withholding is a waste of time. Teams with a low capacity for candor are often on different pages and have a distorted perception of reality since individuals are keeping their cards close to their chest. True information is slower to reach management (if it ever does), resulting in slower and lower quality decision making.

Teams with a high capacity for candor get straight to the point and lay all of their cards on the table. Managers receive more accurate information faster. The result is faster and higher quality decision making. 

Withholding decreases innovation.  

“Where there is no tolerance for candor, there is no constructive dissent. Where there is no constructive dissent, there is no innovation.” – Dr. Timothy Clark

My friend was a software engineer for a startup in San Francisco that folded due to fundamental technical issues that were well known by the lower level staff over a year earlier, ignored by management, and unknown to investors. It was common knowledge that there was no point in discussing any of these problems with management, because they would likely respond with defensiveness, hostility, and question the team member about whether they’re bought into the vision of the company. Clearly, this is a withhold culture. 

If there was a candor culture, then constructive dissent would have been celebrated and perhaps innovation could have saved the company. The result of this lack of candor was $20 Million of investor’s money wasted and 100 jobs lost. 

Jim Dethmer, Co-Founder of the Conscious Leadership Group, attests that “underneath all withholding is fear. We choose to withhold because we’re afraid of losing approval, control, or security.” In my friend’s case, there was a fear of losing job security. He recalled someone being fired due to speaking up about some issues and management accusing him of not being bought in with their vision. 

How can remote leaders improve loneliness and collaboration?

“The more we create psychological safety, the more we enjoy the rewards of rich connection, belonging, and collaboration.” – Dr. Timothy Clark

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Answer: Build a candor culture where people are safe to feel seen and speak up.

The most powerful companies in this next era of work will develop mastery in fostering candor culture. They know that there is a strong profit and wellness case for doing so. Google and Microsoft both know that making teams feel safe to speak truthfully is not only a competitive advantage, but also an essential means to surviving. Teams with a high capacity for candor are more innovative, productive, and have higher talent retention.

In candor cultures, individuals don’t hesitate to share their honest thoughts and feelings, authentic self expression, information about their personal life, critical feedback, and creative ideas.

To shift towards candor culture, your leadership team must make it a strategic priority to increase safe connection (psychological safety and human connection).

To increase psychological safety and human connection on remote teams, start here:

  1. Cultivate Meaningful Relationships – Help team members build meaningful relationships with each other. Stop wasting valuable social time on team building activities such as virtual happy hours that don’t give team members a chance to reveal their authentic selves and feel seen. Start creating safe, authentic, and personal conversations to reduce loneliness, increase trust, and get to know the other human beings on a personal level. The best virtual solution available for this is Social Connection Games
  2. Develop Conscious Leadership Skills – The Conscious Leader is the most in demand leadership archetype of the 21st century. Conscious leaders have high emotional intelligence, social awareness, and capacity for vulnerability. They have strong communication skills such as empathetic listening, emotional literacy, and speaking honestly. 
  3. Celebrate Candor – Dr. Timothy Clark, author of The Four Stages of Psychological Safety suggests that leaders reward vulnerability. He suggests that “if you assign specific members of your team to challenge a course of action or find flaws in a proposed decision, you remove much of the individual’s personal risk and replace it with institutional permission.” Keith Ferrazzi recommends tools that serve similar purposes called Yoda in the Room and Candor Breaks.

Let’s create a more safely connected remote workforce

Remote leaders are responsible for combating the struggles of loneliness and collaboration by building a culture of candor where people are safe to feel seen as their authentic selves and speak up honestly. 

Withholding is a behavior that results in lower levels of productivity, innovation, and talent retention. Leaders that tolerate a culture of withholding are stealing from shareholder value and contributing to a less loving world.

It’s time to bravely embrace a more safely connected remote workforce. 

About the author: 

Garrett Rokosh is a Managing Partner, Conscious Leadership Coach, and Workshop Facilitator at Social Architect. As a coach and facilitator, he challenges distributed teams to attain extraordinary levels of candor, psychological safety, and social connectedness. 

Based in Victoria, Canada, his work is driven by the belief that safe connection will make business the most powerful force for good in the world. His mission is to build a more safely connected distributed workforce. 

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