How to foster psychological safety on a remote team

John Quinn
Jun 6, 2018 · 9 min read

Few articles talk about the human aspect of remote teams. Most focus is on tools, tasks, and schedules. Intangible traits like psychological safety, motivation, and shared knowledge are rarely discussed but are especially critical for dispersed employees. A scattered group can be unproductive and exhibit high turnover if leaders do not actively manage the human factors affecting a remote unit. Product managers need to find creative ways to apply organizational behavior practices to a multi-time zone setting.

Photo by Kelsey Knight on Unsplash

When teammates are physically separated there are no impromptu interactions; teammates schedule meetings and initiate conversations with the intent to work. Allocating time specifically for team building is a challenge because it keeps team members late or distracts from their work. To avoid burdening the team, I start conversations directly before formalized meetings and create a slide deck with team biographies. These small touches replenish team connection in an organization, devoid of casual interpersonal discussions.

Arriving early to meetings is an excellent way to start non-business conversations. Team members occasionally sign on to calls ahead of schedule, and if you join 5–10 minutes before the start time, you can catch your team when small-talk is welcome.

Small talk is harder to have with a remote team than it might appear if you are about to start a remote unit. When the team is remote, there are no longer serendipitous opportunities to catch up with each during a coffee break. Conversations have to be started with a clear intention because employees have to schedule conference calls to make any contact.

Stopping by another’s cube to start idle chatter feels natural by comparison. I would not think twice about strolling by my engineering leads desk to say, “I thought I would see how it was going.” But, to start the same kind of open-ended conversation with my offshore QA lead in India feels intrusive.

I know that the team’s morning meeting marks the end of the workday for my teammates in India. They are wrapping up to go home, finishing up urgent work, or attending additional meetings. In short, they are not in the office late by choice, so starting idle chit-chat would most likely be a nuisance and unpleasant for them.

Even if I were to wake up early so that it was not after 5 pm for India, my team members could be deep in the midst of their work or be extremely frustrated. There is no way to know because I have not seen them in person like I would if they were in the same office. The person not even be in the office, they could be out running last minute errands. Without being able to see the person, there is no way to see their emotional state.

The challenge with team-wide calls

Rather than messaging people spontaneously, another option is to set up a team-wide call specifically for interpersonal conversation, a kind of online happy-hour. But, casual conversations on a conference room phone can be tricky. When the group has more than three people on each end, everyone is forced to try to communicate through a single, somewhat muffled microphone with minor lag time.

At Nielsen, there is a 50% onshore and 50% offshore group. When the two groups sit together in separate conference rooms, it is easy for someone to say something which the person next to them hears, but those on the phone miss. The problem is like when you are in a group of friends, and someone says a quick quip that you miss, but everyone else laughs. The witty jokes that break social tension are lost across conference phones because often people have to ask the other person to repeat what they said. It makes for a slow, strained social interaction.

It is almost as if the two groups have to effortfully enunciate into the conference room phone, then stay silent long enough to hear what the other side of the team replies. I am exaggerating the issues with conference calls, but in social interactions, smooth and flexible communication means a lot more than on business-related calls.

When discussing business, everyone is okay with listening to one person speak at a time, because the intention is to gather information and make decisions, not to get to know each other. Business conference calls and team-building conference calls are akin to public speaking events vs. cafeteria conversation. In public speaking, the audience accepts that only one person will stand up and speak at a time, while everyone else listens. But, this type of conversation is hardly conducive to building relationships. Relationships take cafeteria-type mingling where everyone can either hear from a single individual or break off into side discussions.

On a conference call, it’s impossible to have multiple conversations going at once. Most people on conference calls are forced to stay silent while one person speaks at a time. The quieter individuals tend to get bored. Once their mind starts to wander to what they are going to have for dinner or what errands they need to run after work, you have lost all hope of meaningful conversation.

Since group conversations will not work, another option is to set up sequential one-on-ones between team members. The meetings can specifically be to get to know one another on an individual level, a bit like speed dating. The one-on-one interactions can work well because everyone can have more in-depth conversations, but they require everyone to sacrifice either work or personal time.

Relinquishing personal time is doable. Afterall, employees forgo time at home to stay for happy hours. But, it is extra painful when the team is in opposite time zones.

Nielsen’s team is half in Hyderabad, India and half in the Eastern United States. That means that both sides have to arrive early and stay late to meet with each other. The team uses this time each day to exchange all the information needed to continuing working throughout the upcoming day. Since the team cannot function without some time to debrief about what happened while the other side was asleep, any team building meeting would have to occur as an additional meeting, not a replacement. India would have to stay extra late, or the US would have to arrive extra early. Few teams are thrilled by the prospect because the interaction is less fulfilling than an in-person conversation.

Group or individual team building conference calls can be employed, but at best they will happen more infrequently than a typical in-person happy hour. Because of the challenges posed by conference calls across time zones, Product Managers need to find novel ways to recreate the serendipitous conversations that would happen in-person.

How pre-meeting chats can be beneficial

At Nielsen, I found that if I showed up to meetings with the offshore team 5–10 minutes early, I was bound to catch another team member who also joined sooner than expected.

Team members join conference calls early for a variety of reasons. They might get 10-minute warnings on their calendar, and join immediately, rather than risk forgetting over the 10-minute span. He or she might finish their work early and not wanted to start a new task with only 5 minutes to go. No matter the case, by joining the conference call a few minutes before it starts, Product Managers have a rare unscheduled opportunity to talk with their team about trivial topics. Trivial chit-chat does not seem like a waste, because neither party scheduled the time for any urgent work.

When others join the call, they naturally integrate into the conversation, and the team gets a chance to hear how each others days have been. The friendly discussion set an interactive tone for the rest of the meeting and make everyone more productive.

Get to know teammates without worrying about time zones

One way to catalyze conversations that are more meaningful than the weather is to learn about each team members interests in advance. It is more engaging to discuss personal projects and hobbies for 5 minutes before a call than it is to squeeze in a conversation about local politics. Although it is essential to know each team members personal interests, it is difficult to uncover these when the time for small-talk is sparse.

At Nielsen, I started to leverage asynchronous means of getting to know one another. This way everyone could skip the small-talk and jump right into what is most interesting in the few minutes they have before meetings. At the onset of our group formation, I sent out a slide deck and asked everyone to fill out a slide about themselves. I started with mine as an example, and let everyone choose how they wanted to format theirs. People included photos, text, and videos to help add texture.

I imagine some companies use Facebook for this type of introduction, but there can be a few drawbacks to using social media as an introduction to a co-workers personal life. The teammate might not feel comfortable sharing their whole lives with their co-workers on day one. The office might cultivate a delineation between work and private life. Facebook can be counterproductive when it highlights socio-economic discrepancies that breed jealousy or resentment.

The Google Slide deck provided a chance for people to craft an identity they wanted their co-workers to see. Not in a false way, but in a way that highlighted what they wanted to talk about with others. Rather than a picture of their family at Thanksgiving which would be on Facebook, they might prefer to share their secret love of board games.

Google Slides are small enough to put together without much thought but are detailed enough to kick-start conversations among teammates. The slides can be filled out during regular working hours and don’t require the individuals to stay late. At Nielsen, the slides were a success because everyone learned things about their coworkers, which they had not on previous teams.

The surprising benefits

Many individuals feel comfortable being silent on group conference calls. Like many group discussions, some people primarily speak, and others prefer to listen. Unless you have a perfectly balanced team, quiet individuals become even more silent on group conference calls than they would otherwise in real life.

By getting individuals to talk more readily at the start of a meeting, it is more natural for them to continue speaking during the call. Logically, small-talk at the beginning of a session should not change the amount of conversation in the meeting, but it does. Unconsciously once people start talking, they feel more comfortable continuing. They also know what kind of mood the other individuals are in, and can assess responses to their ideas more effectively. The pre-meeting conversation gives a starting point from which to gauge the rest of the meeting. Everyone wants to feel like their ideas are good or at least welcome and well-received. If there is no indication that others would like to hear from certain individuals on the team, it is possible for those individuals to err on the side of caution and not speak up.

The notion that not all input is welcome might sound silly to optimistic extroverts, but it might seem plausible to cautionary introverts. Unless introverts are explicitly encouraged to join the conversation, they could easily stay silent the entire conference call. The unpressured discussion at the beginning of the call helps everyone to start speaking and sets the bar for the rest of the meeting.

Photo by Igor Ovsyannykov on Unsplash

Finding ways to foster casual conversations when the teams are remote takes a lot of thought, but joining meetings early and finding asynchronous means of communication can get you off on the right foot. Ensuring that everyone talks the same amount in each gathering is an indicator of psychological safety. Google asserts that this is the leading indicator of a healthy, productive team, based on its project Aristotle. The benefits of applying business principles, when managing employees from a distance, are Part 2 of this series on shaping strong remote teams.