Working at a distance and feeling it
Updated: Jul 20
As I help people, both individual contributors and managers, get used to the new reality of working at a distance from each other, I am reminded of the three ways people can see distance between employees even on the same team. The current experience we are all sharing in working remotely and trying to conduct business as usual in unusual circumstances will make many pause and reflect on what it means to be ‘distant’ from our team, our organization, and our closest work allies and friends.
Three types of distance
Physical and temporal distance
When I worked in a downtown office location I commuted just over an hour each way on the train. It was pretty far but it was with a pretty fantastic team and we made some pretty fantastic learning products. I had some team members in other time zones and some development partners who
were in a different country. Although the space we occupied wasn’t the same either in time or in geography, we all felt aligned. We worked, talked, shared, and collaborated as if we were in the same building sharing the same room! The distance wasn’t huge even if we did have to accommodate for shifts in time and location. Granted, the majority of people I worked with were in the same physical building on our internal network and we did get together face-to-face the majority of the time to get work done.
In other roles, by contrast, I have worked in places with other people who shared the same floor and spoke the same language but didn’t have any more than working and transactional conversations with each other. People worked very hard, and very well together. There was a definite sense of cooperation and general well wishes but it would be a stretch to say they were a team.
Physical and time-based distance are difficult but not unmanageable in this new remote working reality. They are necessary but feelings of isolation and lack of cohesion can be overcome by working over established communication networks such as text, chat, phone, and email. Research on successful remote teams goes back at least 10 years which means that teams have been successfully overcoming geography and time and working together for at least 15 years. This small time period in which you and your coworkers find yourselves in today can easily be overcome with a concentrated will to communicate when and where each finds ease of use. Your organization has communication solutions for you and you can work with your team to establish protocols for communication where accommodation is the key to selecting and using the right tool for the right purpose. If you put your head to it, you probably already did this with some people because almost everyone who does at-home capable work has done so at some point for a short time.
Operational Experience Distance
The second kind of distance almost everyone in today’s modern workplace experiences is the distance you feel between those with greater and lesser experience. Easily seen in the difference between an apprentice and a master, this is also true for those who have a greater breadth of experience having worked in different industries, different countries, or at different levels within a single organization.
Additionally, tribal knowledge and experiences working for a longer time with a single organization can make you feel more or less distance with people. In one organization I worked, some people who had lived through the downturn in 1987 were less phased by the downturn in 2008 because their shared history with the organization and their tribal knowledge of how the organization typically responded to global events helped them to feel more grounded and secure.
Certainly every team and organization has a mix of people who have worked in different places, in different circumstances, and with different obstacles. Leaders who can acknowledge and capitalize on the diversity of the team will help them build resilience in time to meet changes of circumstances like the global efforts to curb this virus. As a leader, your role is to be transparent in your communication, honest in acknowledging the challenges, and calm in accepting a new way of working. Leaders who can change their default style of communication to meet the needs of different levels of team members based on the team member’s needs will weather this storm of working remotely better than those who insist that everything is ‘perfectly normal’ and ‘business as usual’.
It is not business as usual.
Changing times require accommodation, more communication, and adjustments to tools and deliverables so that everyone feels connected regardless of their role or history. It is very easy for new employees or those who don’t have experience working in ‘non-standard’ circumstances to be shaken and feel like they are victims of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. It is up to leaders to acknowledge these feelings and let these team members find their way with more discussion and contribution acknowledgement.
It is likely, in a couple of weeks when everyone starts to adapt to this remote working situation, that people will start to report emotional or psychological isolation from their workplace and team members. It will be more likely in team environments that were distant from each other in the first place than those who have tried to really build affinity.
Affinity distance isn’t related to being physically apart, or being more or less experienced and unable to relate. Affinity distance is seen in the coworker who sits next to you but only communicates via email. It’s the manager who only answers, “we’ll see” when asked about future organizational or department plans. Affinity is the feeling of teamwork, connectedness, and collaboration between people who make up a team. Affinity distance is lowest in high-performing teams and in teams who show high levels of emotional intelligence and connection to organizational culture.
Research has shown time and again that any team can work remotely if they have the tools and the capability to carry out the work in a semi-autonomous environment. Conversely, teams that do not trust each other or management, who don’t buy into the organizational culture, or who don’t have a common purpose or bond to bring them into a collaborative environment will not hold together. This is true no matter when (or when) the teams are located.
Solutions for Trying Times
So what does this mean for those who are now having to work from home and get their teams to perform? It means that your team can indeed survive and thrive in this atmosphere as long as it was working as a team in the first place. This doesn’t mean that you should give up now because it wasn’t when you were physically located together. It means that you have the opportunity to strengthen and build your team’s affinity and resilience in addition to getting your organization’s work done. It means you get to try some experiments as a leader with being more transparent, more adaptable to different leadership styles, and more communicative to bring the team what they need.