The Hidden Anxiety of Remote Work

Anxiety is inherent to remote work. Building successful remote teams requires fighting against it.

At Tortuga, we are huge believers in the value of remote work. We believe it presents the opportunity for a more human way of life and for a dramatically improved work culture.

We believe that the way most of us work in the US is fundamentally flawed and thoroughly fucked up. It’s unscientific, inhumane, discriminatory, and definitely NOT merit based. We believe remote work has the potential to alleviate many if not most of the problems that pervade professional culture in the western world.

You can read more about our feelings about remote work here. The team from Basecamp has some really interesting insights on remote work here. I don’t agree with everything they suggest, but the overwhelming majority of their insights are solid.

We understand that for every benefit of remote work(E.G. prioritizing value over attendance), there is a challenge. One of the biggest challenges that we encounter is anxiety.

I’m inclined to say that anxiety is the default setting for remote work. This is true for companies who manage remote work effectively and those that do not.

In some ways, this shouldn’t be at all surprising. Humans are social creatures. We have evolved to live successfully in small tribes. We rely on social, behavioral, and cultural cues to navigate our lives. We innately understand how to react to people based on tiny, almost imperceptible, behaviors. We often can’t explain why we behave the way that we do. We don’t think about what we are doing. We just know what to do.

These social behaviors are reliant on sharing space with those around us. The information that guides our interactions cannot, to date, be recreated through technology. Text is terrible. Video is better. Neither is sufficient.

The result is that remote workers often experience an incredibly high level of anxiety. Remote work requires a high level of trust to be successful, yet, in remote work, we’ve eliminated the social cues human require to develop trust. It’s relatively easy to trust someone you’ve spent years sharing a physical space with. It’s much harder to trust a digital avatar.

In order to build successful remote teams, leaders must actively work to dispel the anxiety of their teammates. Team members must also work to reduce the anxiety of the people they are working with. If both do not happen, your remote team is unlikely to be successful over the long term.

Over Communicate Strategically

This probably sounds strange. Isn’t the entire point of remote work based on the idea that we can get more done because we spend less time talking and more time working? Yes and no.

I know remote workers who are in near constant communication with the members of their teams who experience a very high level of anxiety.

That’s because their teams are communicating poorly.

These teams over communicate to avoid working. Successful remote work requires that each teammate take responsibility for her own actions. You have to “own” your job. In poorly functioning remote teams, people communicate instead of taking responsibility for their work.

Instead of doing the work, they ask other people to do their jobs for them. They push their responsibilities up and down the ladder to avoid making a mistake or a decision.

Adding unnecessary layers of decision making increases the time it takes to complete a task. This turns every task into an emergency. High functioning remote teams remove layers of decision making, thus empowering each individual team member.

Sometimes high stress, demanding situations bring out our best work, but it is not a sustainable way to live or work. Most of the work we do is neither urgent or critical. Remote teams must acknowledge that fact to function well.

Leaders of successful remote teams make sure that each teammate is taking responsibility for her own work. They eliminate layers of bureaucracy and decision making. The do not add to it, nor do they allow members of their teams to do so.

Instead, we need to focus on over communicating about the decisions we are making. We need to make sure the members of our team have access to these decisions and understand why they are being made. For the most part, this should be passive. We don’t need to waste time on a Skype call to make sure people understand our work.

A passive, carefully worded email is much better. An email is passive because the members of your team can absorb the information when and how they need it. If more information is needed, your teammates can and will ask for it. If your work is not important to your teammate at the moment, she can ignore it until it is.

I’ve found communicating in layers or information to be extremely beneficial. Most of the members of your team only need the TL;DR version of your work. Give it to them. Don’t make them work for it. Often, they will need more detailed information about 1 or 2 aspects of the work you have done. Rarely, they need to know everything.

Think of this in terms of a website. What is the headline? What is the 3 sentence summary? What is the whole story? If you provide your team with information in this manner, they will be able to do their jobs without having to interrupt you. When your teammates need more information/clarification they can ask you for it, but doing so should never be an excuse for not taking ownership of their own work.

In a remote team, communication is about providing people with the information that they need to do their jobs before they need it. It is not about avoiding tough decisions or a challenging tasks.

Give a Fuck About People

American workplace culture often takes a very Machiavellian approach to people. People are treated as an means to an end. Companies pay lip service to the value of their employees, but their actions present a much different reality.

If you look at how employers actually treat the majority of their employees, it is clear companies feel employees are largely expendable. They are treated a number on a spreadsheet… a number that should decrease in size as much as possible in relation to the of a firm’s revenue. Employers demand loyalty of their employees, but offer none in return. Bosses are tyrannical dictators with far more power than is healthy in a republican society.

Overall the message most firms give to their employees is clear: We don’t really give a fuck about you.

It should be no surprise then that most workplace cultures are fundamentally broken. Leadership is so poor that basic managerial competency has become a competitive advantage. Workplace cultures are cutthroat, misogynistic, discriminatory environments that reward exactly the type of behavior that should be shunned.

In the US, with its consumer culture and appalling social safety net, this puts employees in a really difficult situation. We need our jobs to survive, but we are at the mercy of the whims of our bosses. Even the highest performers can, and often are, fired for little or no reason.

If that’s not a recipe for high anxiety than I don’t know what is.

Because remote workers face communicative social deprivation, this sense of anxiety is heightened. It is incumbent upon leaders and members of remote teams to actively work to perform one of the most basic of human behaviors: showing those who work with and for you that you care about them on a human level.

On the bright side, remote work, when done well, is setup to do just that. Remote work removes the need for many of the most dehumanizing aspects of work. Remote workers can work when, where, and how they want. They can dress as they see fit and are empowered to take responsibility for their work.

Managers of great remote teams demand that employees perform at a high level and actually give their employees the power to do so. Showing that you trust, really trust, the people you work with goes a long way to show that you value someone.

Leaders must also show that they believe in the policies they are promoting. If you say you want your employees to take time away from work(because you realize doing so is in everyone’s best interest), you should be taking as much or more vacation time than you expect your employees to take. If you believe that employees should work the schedule that is best for them, a leader should occasionally work odd hours. If you believe employees should be able to put their families first, you should do so as well. You increase trust and decrease anxiety by living as you suggest your employees should. Double standards are toxic to developing trust within remote teams.

Another really, really important way management can reduce employee anxiety is by making sacrifices for employees. It is very common for employers to ask their employees to make sacrifices for the good of the firm. It is very rare for the firm to make sacrifices for the team.

If you are not willing to make hard, painful sacrifices for your team, they will not trust you. If they do not trust you, they will not perform to the best of their abilities. If your firm hits hard financial times, leadership must be the first group of people willing to make a sacrifice. If an employee is struggling for almost any reason, they should not be punished. They should be supported. Leadership must take ultimate responsibility for both the good and the bad things that a company will inevitably experience over time.

Remember, people leave managers not companies. Replacing high performers is expensive. High performers are the most likely to leave a shitty situation. They have the most opportunities. If you create a work environment where your employees feel a high level of anxiety, they will leave as soon as they can.

Deliver Timely Feedback + Positive Reinforcement

Great feedback is one of those things that everyone values, but virtually no one does well. To perform at a consistently high level, we need timely, easy to understand feedback. We need to understand both what we’ve done well and what we need to improve upon.

Communication in workplace culture is overwhelmingly negative. We are constantly looking for ways to improve everything from efficiency to revenue and profit. We want everything to go up and to the right as quickly as possible. We spend a lot of time talking about ways to improve. We spend far too little time reinforcing and rewarding the things we have done well.

In some ways, that’s not surprising. It is far easier for problem solvers to identify and diagnose problems. This is probably human nature. We are really good at identifying and describing all of the things that are going wrong. We are also really good at noticing large changes, especially if those changes are negative. It takes a much more concentrated effort to regularly identify the things that are going well. This is especially true if the positive behaviors are consistent or are improving on a consistent trend line.

If we want to have low anxiety, high performing remote teams, we must work to acknowledge the positive. We have to recognize that employees do not occupy the same physical space as their employers. As a result, we do not have the same subtle cues to recognize if our bosses are happy with the work that we are doing. In the absence of positive reinforcement, it is only natural for the creative mind to turn to dark places.

Inevitably, that creates a cycle of anxiety that has a negative effect on an worker’s performance. The irony here is that the failure of a leader to provide timely feedback and positive reinforcement will lead to very behaviors they are trying to avoid. If the people you manage are not performing at the level you expect, you have no one to blame but yourself.

You may be thinking, “Hey, every quarter we evaluate the team’s goals. We celebrate when we succeed and identify the root causes when we do not.” Cool. That’s not even the bare minimum. Employees need to understand what they are doing well on a weekly, if not daily basis. They need to know what specific behaviors are working and understand what specific behaviors are not. They need to know this in as close to real time as possible.

Further, we can’t be solely focused on the result or output of a behavior. Often the results we are striving for have little to do with specific behaviors. There are too many variables and too much luck at play for that to be the case. Measuring results is great, but not enough. Employees need direct feedback on the specific inputs. If an employee is behaving in the way a manager encourages, but the resulting effect is not up to par, that is not the fault of the employee. It is the fault of bad strategy or, more likely, a set of variables outside of anyone’s control. Remote workers should be taking ownership over their work, but they still require guidance and support from their leaders.

Managing Emotion is Your Most Important Job.

It’s really easy to pass of the responsibility of managing an employee’s anxiety to someone else. It often feels unnatural to manage an employee’s emotional state. Many managers incorrectly feel that they are too busy to do so. That managing emotions is not a part of their job description. They are dumb. Managing emotions is the most important job any leader has.

We like to believe that we are rational. That emotions have little effect on our ability to perform. More and more, science is finding the opposite to be the case. We are not rational beings, we are emotional beings. We are such biologically driven creatures that some leading neuroscientists believe that we don’t actually have ANY control over our behaviors. We just rationalize our behaviors after the fact.

If that is the case, it is incumbent upon those who hope to lead high performing teams to dedicate substantial resources to managing the emotional health of their teammates. This is even more important in a remote environment where we do not have the social cues we need to interpret the emotional reactions to our leaders. People perform better when they are not anxious. Leaders must work to make sure the members of their team are calm, composed, and confident. The success of your venture depends upon it.