Communication is vital when remote working to prevent isolation and helplessness

As distributed teams are geographically separated, they rely heavily on digital communication which, although has its benefits, also has drawbacks, according to Sut I Wong and Gillian Warner-Søderholm

Rapid development in technology has increased attention placed on the realities of working from home, with some team members now even distributed across continents, and the use of remote working teams to improve work efficiency is only expected to continue growing.

The rise in remote working has motivated researchers to attempt to understand what works and what doesn’t when teams rely heavily on communicating through technology, such as video and messaging. Previous research on distributed teams suggests that physical distance among team members can be problematic to the team functioning efficiently, leading to digital teams being less productive than teams who work in the same physical office. This is even more problematic for organisations that are not prepared for operating remotely, such as those which are now forced to operate online due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, with little knowledge about what it takes to function digitally.

Being cut off

To understand the effects of remote working fully, we investigated when remote teams would feel most isolated and the impact this would have using two studies: a longitudinal diary study and a time-lag study. We defined isolation as the feeling of being cut off from others and occurs when the human need for support, understanding, and other social and emotional aspects of interactions are not met. Isolation has previously been linked to low job performance and high staff turnover.

For the diary study we sent surveys to participants every second day for two weeks; a total of five questionnaires. All 150 participants were full-time employees located in the United States who worked a minimum of 36 hours per week with a mix of remote working employees and employees that worked in an office. In each survey, we asked participants how often they communicated with their team members, whether they were working at home or at the office, how confident they felt about their work on that day or ‘role ambiguity’, and how isolated they felt, as well as measuring feelings of helplessness; a state of feeling unable to help yourself.

The risk of feeling isolated

We found that where team members work and how often they communicate with each other contributes to the degree at which individuals may feel isolated that day; members working in the office felt less isolated than those working remotely. So, while the digital revolution has introduced new ways of working, this type of work enhances the risk of feeling isolated. However, remote workers were less likely to feel isolated when they communicated more often with fellow team members. This demonstrates that feelings of isolation can change from day-to-day and are influenced by team members’ work location and how often they communicate with each other. It was also found that high feelings of isolation, combined with feeling unsure about one’s work, led to feelings of helplessness.

The time-lag study collected data from an international organisation that employed teams from around the world. We distributed questionnaires to digital team members twice; once asking how they communicated with their leaders and team members, and three months later we asked them how they experienced working digitally, how they coordinated with their teams, and how they felt about working alone. All 107 participants were highly skilled IT engineers working with software development projects from 42 teams distributed across 15 different countries.

Isolation and helplessness

This study examined how remote team members feeling isolated can lead to feelings of helplessness and be detrimental to how remote team members coordinate. We found that feeling isolated when combined with high ambiguity around your work would lead to feelings of helplessness. This feeling of helplessness when it came to their work would subsequently impact team coordination and, ultimately, the effectiveness of the team.

Both these studies show that feeling isolated at work has severe consequences for employee functioning, with employees who felt isolated due to remote working also at an increased risk of feeling helpless when unsure about their role. This leads to deficits in communication and coordination between team members, hampering job performance.

The challenge of informal communication

The lack of communication amongst remote teams is due to the fact that being in vastly separated locations makes spontaneous informal communication more difficult, reduces social interactions, and is dependent on digital platforms which can lead to some members feeling out of the loop. When members of a team are all working in the same office it means everyone can easily interact and all members can feel part of the work.

When communication requires video calls or messaging, some members may feel more distant than others as it takes more effort to communicate. Due to this reduced frequency and quality of interaction, the amount of effort employees put into coordinating with colleagues also decreases. Team members begin to show higher task conflict, and decreased knowledge sharing and cooperation, with individuals ending up feeling lonely and lost about their work tasks.

From our findings, we see that we tend to communicate less when we are working from home than at the office even for those who are already working in digital teams. Without the environment of a physical office, we are less able to relate to others at work which leads to us communicating less. We recommend arranging a routine within the team to remind each other to stay connected while working digitally. This communication is key to preventing employees from feeling isolated and to improving work performance.

Maintaining digital presence

For organisations, it is important that leaders make expectations, structures, and work routines clear for remote employees to follow in uncertain times, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic. Business leaders should be conscious that they maintain a digital presence so that employees know they have a support system there. There should also be a balance between formal and informal interaction, as you would have in an ordinary office; you wouldn’t normally spend a whole day at the desk talking about work. The most successful digital teams have natural spontaneous communication, group chats or video catch-up calls, in place of the informal conversation you would normally have when in the office kitchen making a coffee. This informal non-work-related communication between members is critical for teams to build a strong connection. Employees can also set up regular short meetings with each other which are more beneficial than long, infrequent meetings.

Our two studies ultimately show that working from home leads to less frequent communication with team members, leaving individuals feeling out-of-the-way and unsure about their job role. This also leads to a feeling of helplessness which can negatively impact coordination between team members and ultimately be detrimental to the effectiveness of a team. But organising frequent and regular catch-ups among team members can help them feel connected and alleviate these feelings of separation, which will have a positive impact on their work and the employees themselves.

Sut I Wong is Professor of Communication and Leadership in the Department of Communication and Culture for BI Norwegian Business School. She is currently co-Director of the Nordic Centre for Internet and Society looking into new ways of working.

Gillian Warner-Søderholm is an Associate Professor at BI Norwegian Business School teaching on intercultural communication, international business, and Scandinavian culture. She is also head of the department of Communication, Culture, and Languages.

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