Belonging & Psychological Safety in Remote Teams
20 min read
Table of contents
- Culture: Safety and Belonging
- Strong Signals in a Remote Workplace
- Speedy handovers: Leave your mic on
- Leaders, Highlight Your Fallibility
- Embrace The Messenger
- Over-the-top Gratitude
- Manufacturing Collisions
- Pick Up The (digital) Trash
- Leverage Threshold Moments
- Bringing It All Together
Much of the existing literature regarding team culture assumes a co-located team. It’s not that hybrid or remote teams didn’t exist before the pandemic, but they certainly weren’t the norm. Existing studies consider facets such as desk position, building architecture, meeting rooms, seating arrangement, body language, physical contact, and team outings. How do we make the existing research relevant for a remote team?
When I joined SKUTOPIA in the middle of the pandemic as a fully remote Tech Lead, I had to figure out how to lead a team on the opposite side of Australia, over 3,000 km away. As the first remote team member, I began growing our Engineering department from 3 to 14. Along the way, I also added Product, UX, Data, and IT departments. Distributed across six cities and three countries, figuring out how to foster psychological safety and belonging on a remote team was not optional. It was do or die.
Culture: Safety and Belonging
Let’s take a minute to define the most important parts of team culture. Just two things are the primary predictors of both team success and staff retention. It isn’t average intelligence or training; it isn’t free food, foosball machines or ping-pong tables. It’s whether psychological safety and a sense of belonging are prevalent among the group. That’s it.
You will need more than those two things to succeed, but success is not probable without them.
What is psychological safety, and why is it so critical to performance? Psychological safety is whether you consider your social environment to be a hostile one or a safe one. In the workplace, this means we feel like we won’t be punished for speaking up, voicing concerns, suggesting ideas, making mistakes, or asking questions.
Similarly, a sense of belonging is the feeling that we are wanted and accepted in our group, now and into the future. That we can contribute to the group, be recognised for that contribution, and thus maintain our place in the group.
In short, you can’t have psychological safety without belonging, and you rarely find belonging without psychological safety. You must have both for your team to succeed.
Our brains are wired to live in groups; we die on our own. Our amygdala is constantly scanning our social interactions for signs of a threat to our status in the group. If we perceive a threat to our status, our prefrontal cortex is hijacked by the amygdala while our entire focus becomes reaffirming our status.
I can tell you from experience, a perceived threat to your continued place in a group sucks shiitake (that’s the totally scientific term for it). Ironically, this undermines our ability to perform, and in a modern workplace, further weakens our status in the group. When groups cannot offer their members psychological safety, their culture becomes pathological, meaning:
- People cease cooperating (someone else’s success is a threat to your position)
- Those who deliver bad news are punished for it
- People attempt to do as little as needed to remain a small target: “It’s not my responsibility!”
- Communication and cooperation between groups ceases, and territorialism takes its place
- Failures lead to scapegoating and punishment rather than inquiry and learning
- New and novel ideas are rejected, and innovation stops completely (too risky)
The bad news is that psychological safety and belonging are both temporary. It requires a constant stream of affirming signals, not just an absence of threats. What serves as an affirming signal, then? In short, anything that fosters a sense of belonging. But what are the ingredients of belonging?
First, is that our role in the group is likely to continue, called future orientation. These signals indicate that our inclusion in the group is expected to continue into the future. This is why career development plans can help increase retention, but they are a rather clunky belonging signal. We will consider others later in this article.
Second is energy. These signals occur when people show enthusiasm for us. If you’ve ever had a boss who avoids one on ones or checks his phone during them, you’ve unfortunately experienced the absence of energy.
Third is individualisation, which occurs when we are treated as unique and individual. This is commonly referred to as “feeling seen”. It happens when people have bothered to notice traits that are our own. It could be something as small as your boss asking about your kid’s dance performance over the weekend and remembering their name.
What about the affirming signals for psychological safety?
First is vulnerability. A signal that we’re in a safe environment is that others are comfortable being vulnerable. This means we see people freely admitting their mistakes and being supported rather than humiliated or punished. For leaders, it is especially important to model vulnerability.
Second is embracing bad news. In a safe environment, bad news flows freely. People don’t have quiet conversations about how to avoid bringing bad news to their boss; they go to their leaders for support.
Third is that everyone has a voice. In a safe environment, senior people aren’t expected to talk more than junior people. There aren’t rules governing who can ask questions or offer suggestions.
With all of these signals, frequency matters more than intensity.
Strong Signals in a Remote Workplace
Creating these signals in a remote environment is challenging but not impossible. It requires a little more intentionality; things that may have been intuitive in the office require conscious effort in a remote team. Although, for some of us neurodivergent folk, none of this was ever intuitive. Learning to consciously build the habit of using a particular communication style is a process we are very familiar with.
Let’s run through some of these habits and considerations that foster a great remote culture.
Speedy handovers: Leave your mic on
The human brain is wired for conversation. It is one of our most extraordinary evolutionary feats, and we take it for granted every day. While turn-taking time between cultures ranges from 200ms to 1,000ms, the processing power our brain devotes to the art of gracefully coordinating conversations is immense.
When we switch speaking roles in under a second, this includes the time it takes our brain to prepare our vocal muscles, change our expression, and begin to speak. Before that, it has to begin planning what we are going to say, which means it has already parsed and processed not only what the other person is saying and what it means but also what the other person is likely to say.
This means our brain has already predicted when the conversational handover will occur long before the person speaking finishes their sentence. As this happens, we begin giving the speaker cues that we are about to take a turn speaking. This can be small sub-vocalisations such as “ah” or “eh” (in all cultures, these are open-mouthed vowels as these take the least effort to form), but we also use facial expressions and body language.
Now consider this in the context of a video call. The participant cannot see all of your body language. The signals they do receive are delayed 300 to 800 milliseconds. If your microphone is muted, they miss the sub-vocal signals. Plus, without conscious effort, you will probably unmute your microphone when you should already be talking, further delaying handover.
All up, we’re adding about 2,000 milliseconds to a process that usually takes 200 milliseconds. Yikes! This is one of the reasons it can feel so exhausting to be in video calls all day.
We can do a few things to improve turn-taking in a video call, but the most effective one is the simplest: leave your microphone on.
There are typically two reasons we mute our microphones, either because we’re doing something else, like checking Slack, and don’t want people to hear us, or because we’re not using headphones and our speakers are causing some feedback.
Both of these issues are easy to solve. First, if you’re going to be in a video call, either be present or get the fluck out. I’m prone to distraction myself, so I make my video calls full-screen and mute notifications.
Secondly, if you will be making video calls from your workstation a lot, then invest in good equipment. Buy a decent pair of headphones or earphones and a microphone. Trust me, being understood is worth the effort.
And finally, if the acoustics in your home office are problematic, buy some acoustic treatment or add some large soft furniture. Acoustic treatment is about mass, airflow resistivity, and positioning. The goal is to absorb air particle movement at the point where particle movement is greatest and turn it into friction. This means you want to place acoustic treatment at a one-quarter wavelength from the wall at your lowest target frequency. For speaking, this is 1 kHz, so you want your acoustic treatment at least 8 cm (3 inches) off the wall if possible. I use acoustic insulation mounted in timber frames and covered in cloth, with spacers behind the frame.
Lastly, you want your “active listening” body language to work effectively in a video call. This means ensuring your camera is placed on the screen with the other participants. There’s nothing quite so disconcerting as talking to someone who looks away when you’re speaking because their camera is beside them. I, personally, try to keep the video as close to the top and centre of the screen as possible so that it is as close to eye contact as possible during a video call.
And it almost goes without saying, but include as much of your upper torso in the frame, from an eye-level camera, with good lighting. I’ve never felt terribly connected to disembodied eyebrows or looking up a hairy nostril.
Leaders, Highlight Your Fallibility
This is relevant in co-located and remote teams, but remote teams need a little more consideration regarding who has witnessed your fallibility. Showing vulnerability is the first step to forming trust; psychological safety cannot exist without trust. For leaders, this means highlighting your mistakes and making others aware of them when they otherwise wouldn’t be. This can be as simple as a Slack message in a team channel announcing that you made a wrong decision on X, and thanks to feedback from person Y, you are now going to do Z. I cannot overstate the effectiveness of broadcasting your failures publicly.
Embrace The Messenger
Getting bad news flowing in a co-located team is hard, and bad news is critical to success. It’s even harder in a remote team but simpler in other ways. The key is to set up multiple streams of bad news in different formats. A mixture of pull and push, weekly, fortnightly, bi-quarterly, one-on-one and group, anonymous and identifiable. Each of these different formats brings forth different types of bad news from different people. I’ll run you through each practice I use.
One on Ones
fortnightly, pull, individual, identifiable
This is the most common approach to seeking out bad news. Make sure you specifically ask your direct reports about the challenges they face, their concerns, the things they have learned, their opinions of their teammates, and their suggestions for improving the team. The people you need to listen to most are the ones who are most reluctant to bring up issues, especially regarding other team members. You need to give them a non-judgmental way of speaking about these topics with open-ended questions.
fortnightly, pull, group, identifiable
This is almost the group equivalent of a one-on-one. While we don’t use Scrum anymore, we kept the fortnightly retrospectives because it is great for the team to discuss their issues and concerns. I try to stay quiet in these meetings. Our job as a leader in a retro isn’t to solve problems. It is to understand them. The team will come up with actions to solve the short-term problems. You need to pay attention to the systemic causes. Solving these issues goes beyond the retro.
My rule of thumb during a retro for anyone in a leadership position is that they must ask at least two questions before offering a solution for a given topic. And be very cautious offering any “solution” that isn’t a concrete action anyone on the team could accomplish before the next retro. I’ve seen too many aspiring leaders completely undermine themselves in retros by offering a so-called “solution” that really was a suggestion that the complainant themselves are the problem, and they should adjust their expectations. Not good, at all.
(If someone really does need to adjust their attitude, the retro is not the place for that conversation.)
Keep an eye on who is contributing the most to a retro, and who isn’t. It’s worth explicitly asking for input from quieter participants from time to time. One cause of an imbalanced retro is that the most frequent speaker is actually speaking on behalf of others. A large imbalance implies there is a trust issue in your team. One person is exceptionally safe, and quite likely, one person in particular is making other people feel threatened. People are afraid to speak up in front of the threat, so they channel their concerns through the safe person. This is a big red flag for an imminent issue that could otherwise fly under the radar on a remote team. Start investigating!
bi-quarterly, pull, group, identifiable
Every six weeks, each of our squads runs a health check session. The metrics we use for the health checks are factors that the team decided were critical to their success. It is their opportunity to hold leadership (me) accountable for giving them what they need. I reiterate that at the start of every session, and then shut my mouth, letting someone else facilitate the session.
We also make a point that the score we record for each factor is the lowest score, not the mean or mode. We’re a team, and that means that any one person suffering is a loss to all of us. We’re all responsible for helping each other; we can’t let our teammates set themselves alight to keep the others warm.
ad-hoc, pull, group and one-on-one, anonymous
I will regularly put together anonymous surveys on hot topics for the team. This might include communication preferences, tooling state, psychological safety, etc. Anonymous surveys let the team be more candid than they otherwise might be. Be careful; if your anonymous surveys are a lot more negative than your retros or one on ones would suggest, it is likely that your team don’t feel safe speaking their minds.
If your team uses Google Workspaces, these are easy to run using Google Forms with a single response per person while maintaining anonymity.
I refer to surveys as a group and one-on-one channel because the quantitative data is group, while the qualitative data can be individualised. Include a mix of both in your surveys, through Likert-style questions and open-ended questions.
bi-quarterly, pull, one on one, anonymous
I will regularly have a peer on the team conduct one-on-ones with the team members themselves. By speaking among equals rather than with their direct manager, they may feel safer raising other issues. This can be especially true regarding interpersonal conflicts. The time to resolve interpersonal conflicts is as soon as possible, but people generally want to avoid conflict and are particularly averse to going to their manager with “petty” issues.
I will then have my insider report back to me with the general zeitgeist of the team. This is about discovering the issues, not who said what. Confidentiality is essential for the team’s confidence and the ongoing success of the insider.
Guild Slack Channels
continuous, push, group, identifiable
We have guild channels for engineering, product, and design. In many instances, people will raise concerns they have about process, tooling, or workflow. We also have team channels. The hard part is getting the ball rolling with suggestions. If the team doesn’t have people who feel comfortable doing this already, then you need to ask questions and solicit feedback. After doing this enough times, people will begin raising their questions, concerns, and ideas.
The Missing Element
Astute readers will notice a missing combination: continuous, push, individual, and anonymous. This would be the digital equivalent of an anonymous suggestions box. I haven’t personally implemented this combination myself, but it could be feasible with a repeatable anonymous form and a regular Slackbot reminder to solicit contributions. If you try it, let me know how it goes!
Now, that’s enough on the topic of soliciting bad news. Let’s get back to our contributing factors for a healthy remote culture.
Showing gratitude and appreciation on a remote team can be as varied and fun as it is with a co-located team. But as with anything remote, it requires a little more conscious effort.
Everyone has different ways they like to receive praise. I ask new direct reports if they are comfortable receiving praise in public. Occasionally, someone will prefer not to be called out in front of the company for their awesome achievements!
There are a few things to consider when giving praise remotely, they are:
The mediums being chat, email, video call, voice call, pre-recorded or live. Tone is a question of formal or informal, and audience is, well, the audience.
For example, celebrating someone's success in the company-wide announcements channel will need a different approach than in a video call with their squad, and so on. The guidelines roughly work out like this:
- The faster the medium, the less formal the tone — Slack is less formal than email
- The larger the audience, the more formal the tone — A Slack message in the company-wide channel might be equally formal as an email to the squad.
There’s another underlying factor, but company-wide praise of your direct reports can seem like a political game of optics rather than genuine praise. Context and tone are essential here. And remember earlier when I said individualisation was a signal for belonging? It’s harder to individualise your message when sending it to a wider audience.
For this reason, my favourite way to celebrate people’s success is in a Slack channel with their primary team. This allows me to go all out, using some ALL-CAPS, emoji bombs 🎉🤩🕺, an excessive number of exclamation marks (!!!), and some insider references or jokes.
This might sound over the top, too informal, too vulnerable. That is why it works. Text communication needs the extra oomph, but also, when you’re celebrating success, you need to be a person, not a boss. Done right, it’s a key moment for bonding the whole team because it creates a moment of shared pride.
I cannot stress enough how important it is for the people observing you giving praise to someone else, to feel joy themselves; To empathetically feel and share that sense of pride.
Imagine going to someone’s graduation ceremony. Is the healthy response beaming with pride, or seething with jealousy? Healthy teams experience the former when celebrating each other’s success. So many of these rituals we have as humans aren’t about celebrating the individual’s success as much as they are for the group to bond over a sense of shared pride.
In a healthy remote culture, this means your celebratory message should receive many emoji reactions and enthusiastic replies. A dry, formal congratulatory email is not likely to elicit a positive emotional response from its audience. But an over-the-top, emotion-laden, emoji-bombed message has a certain infectious joy!
As important as that asynchronous Slack message is, you need to back it up with another congratulatory moment in a video call with the team. This is critical; we need both the written form and the body language of a video call. Neither on their own is quite enough in a remote team. I also back it up with more congratulatory praise in our next one-on-one. There’s no such thing as too much gratitude.
If you can, sending gifts can also help your team seem real and connected. This could be tasty treats, plushies, vouchers, books (not work-related!), or whatever you think will be appreciated. If you’re lucky, the team will adopt this practice themselves, sending each other gifts to show appreciation. This hits a belonging double-whammy of energy AND individualisation.
As important as big moments of recognition are, it's important to have plenty of little moments of recognition too. I recommend setting up a #high-fives Slack channel where anyone can publicly show gratitude for people who look out for their teammates, whether small or big.
Co-located workplaces lead to many accidental collisions. A collision is a random encounter that winds up being beneficial in terms of either information sharing, belonging, or psychological safety. It can be a conversation in the elevator, grabbing a coffee, or overhearing a conversation near your desk.
In a remote team, accidental collisions happen almost exclusively in chat. The rest we need to consciously plan for. I’ve tried each of the following ideas to varying degrees of success with different teams.
Coffee-run Slack Huddles
The morning coffee run can be a great bonding experience in the office, but what is its equivalent on a remote team? One method I’ve tried is a regular slack huddle. It has had varying success, but I think my approach with this technique fell into a negative network effect. I recommend trying with small groups in the same time zone. Even better if you can actually consume a hot beverage at the same time.
Donut: Random one-on-ones
Donut is a Slack app that pairs everyone up together randomly every week or so for a “virtual coffee”. Some people will love having time to get to know their colleagues and talk about things other than work. Others will loathe it.
Gather: Avatar Proximity Video Chat
Apps like Gather aim to mimic the spatial element of real-world conversations. Everyone has an avatar in a 2D world, but you can only hear and see the people standing near you. This allows people to drop in and out of conversations, break into groups, and swing by your desk.
I’ve used this for two purposes: mimicking the office and socialising. It works to varying degrees for either purpose, but again, it resonates with some people but not others.
Standups: A Double-Edged Sword
We dropped stand-ups in favour of asynchronous status updates. Then we returned to doing them three times a week in groups of less than six people. The larger the group, the less each person talks relative to the length of the meeting. On a video call, this is even worse.
We returned to stand-ups, not for productivity, but because we felt socially unmoored. It was possible to go an entire week without seeing the face of one of your squad mates.
Generally, I would say never use meetings for status updates, but this is one exception. Just keep the number of attendees low and the meeting very short! Anything bigger will not scale with the team.
Pick Up The (digital) Trash
Remote teams still have necessary but mundane tasks. As a leader, do them! After we split our Jira board into two projects, we wound up with both teams’ tickets in the new board, and all past and present tickets were reset to to-do and turned into tasks! I reviewed nearly 500 tickets individually and deleted roughly 400 of them. Just like cleaning up around the office, it shows that no one is above caring for the team and doing what needs to be done.
Leverage Threshold Moments
Onboarding on a remote team can be even more daunting than in person in some ways. That means you need to perfect every single element of the experience. If you have flashy promotional videos, include them in your onboarding docs. Set up plenty of one-on-ones with different team members. Don’t be afraid to use over-the-top language and raise the emotional intensity a little, be cheesy and fun, with some self-awareness of your awkwardness.
This is also an excellent moment for connecting their role to a sense of purpose. It can be challenging, but you must connect their work to the company’s mission. In a physical office, you can cover your walls with purpose and symbolism. In a remote team, you need videos, messages, and other constant reminders, rather than relying on ambient indicators of purpose.
Bring together groups of teammates for get-to-know-you video calls instead of team lunches. Prepare some icebreakers; the more awkward they are, the better. I find five people is the most you can have on a call before turn taking breaks down and people begin to disengage. You have to work harder to turn the abstract concept of the remote team into a concrete experience, but it is definitely achievable.
Bringing It All Together
No two teams are the same. In fact, someone once said to me, “teams are immutable”, meaning that every time someone leaves or joins a team, it’s really a whole new team. While analogies are never entirely true, this one holds some truth.
What has or hasn’t worked for me may work for you and your team. It might even work for my team at some point in the future when it hasn’t in the past. These ideas are worth trying at least once, if not twice.
That said, the fundamentals never change. Belonging will always require a steady stream of future orientation, energy, and individualisation. Psychological safety will always require vulnerability, open discussion of bad news, and everyone’s voices being heard.
I hope this article has given you some food for thought, and as always, I would love to hear what has worked for you in the comments. What are your techniques for fostering psychological safety and belonging in remote teams?