Why virtual teams suffer from isolation and how to change that

Why virtual teams suffer from isolation and how to change that

Or: How to kill your co-worker by ignoring Slack messages

“One of the surest ways to lower individuals’ self-esteem is to reject them.” (Forsyth, Donald Group Dynamics)

Imagine: You are on social media, Facebook, Slack, Whatsapp, you call it. You write a message to a contact that is online. The addressed somebody received the message and read it. But then: nothing. Minutes pass, and nothing. The person you texted does not reply to you. How do you feel?

The time we have between reading and answering a text message is 8 minutes. If it takes longer, it is like rejecting our communication partner (Smith, A. & Williams, K. D. (2004). R u there? Ostracism by cell phone text messages. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 8(4), 291-301). Even if you did not mean so, the person who texted us will feel like we rejected them.

A wall post that does not get a single comment. Or a negative comment on our status post. We experience it like a face-to-face rejection. It is as strong as a snubbed conversation or a vocal insult. Not answering this social media message is like a slap in the face. And it gives us the feeling of being isolated.

This is a remote team’s ultimate nightmare

Working from home, living alone, having a small social network. Isolation is one of the most named disadvantages of remote work. And isolation is dangerous.

As their isolation wears on, they report fear, insomnia, memory lapses, depression, fatigue, and general confusion.
(Forsyth, source: Burney, C., 1961. Solitary confinement (2nd ed.). New York: St. Martin’s Press.)

Being isolated for a long time gives people psychological stress. We are all individuals and we all react in a different way to isolation. But we all react sooner or later with negative outcomes to isolation. Without exception.

John T. Cacippo and William Patrick, authors of “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection”, highlight the danger of isolation. Their findings show: Loneliness is as bad for our health as high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity or smoking.

Continuing loneliness is stress. And our body responds to stress with the release of stress hormones and inflammation. This leads to higher blood pressure and the risk of inflammation. As well as problems with sleep, attention, logical and verbal reasoning, and creativity.

We do not know what triggers our body to respond to isolation. But we know that every person has an individual perception of the degree of isolation. For some, it is enough to write a Facebook post with no response to feeling lonely. Others stay at home for days without seeing anybody, or talking to anybody, and enjoy the solitude. But every now and then everybody, even the biggest solitude-lover, needs social contact. Or else will fall into the trap and dangers of social isolation.

The tremendous threat of being shunned

Nobody likes to be isolated. Nobody chooses to be excluded. Which is why it is a popular punishment method.

ostracism = excluding a person from a group by ignoring, shunning, or banishing them

The word “ostracism” originates from the old Greek. They would punish citizens misbehaviours by expelling them from Athen for ten years. But not only the old Greek used ostracism to punish people. Also today it is a common punishment method. High school cliques ignore the unpopular kid. The church threatens with excommunication. And the Golf Club can kick out members for misbehaviour. For the individual, these are horrible ideas. Already the thread of ostracism makes us stick to the rules to prevent it. And ostracism is not only a human invention. Even other social species like wolves, bees, and primates use this method.

People that get ostracised report frustration, shock, surprise. They feel nervous and lonely (Wiliams, K.D. 2007: Ostracism. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 425-452). Their blood pressure rises and the stress-hormone Cortisol elevates. Brain imaging tests prove that we experience psychological pain resulting from exclusion like physical pain.

How virtual teams ignore teammates every day

Virtual teams use ostracism daily, often without meaning any harm. Colleagues might talk in a private chat about a topic that we would have been interested in, too. When they later present the results of the discussion we feel left out.

In written conversations, it happens often that we choose the topics we want to answer to. And leave out the others. That happens when you talk on different Slack channels. A coworker asked you a question in one channel, that you do not respond to since hours. But you are very active on another channel. Thus, you co-worker feels ignored. His question does not seem to matter to you. He feels rejected.

Remote co-workers are as exposed to ostracism as onsite workers. And the pain is as severe.

Remote employees suffer from cyber-ostracism

Psychology professor Kipling Williams compared ostracism with, as he calls it, cyber-ostracism.

cyber-ostracism = the exclusion of one or more individuals from a technologically mediated group interaction, such as a computer-based discussion group.

For his research, Williams studied online groups with three participants. The set up was that the three people will receive a disk on their screen that they will pass on to each other. Each person got randomly assigned one of four conditions:

  • overinclusion: thrown the disk 50% of the time)
  • inclusion (33%)
  • partial ostracism (20%)
  • complete ostracism (after the first round of tosses, they never received the disk again)

The participants completed a survey after the online game. Results showed: People who had suffered online ostracism displayed the same negative effects displayed by people who experienced ostracism face-to-face. Victims of cyber-ostracism felt their self-esteem drop, their moods turn negative, and they felt rejected (Williams, K. Cheung, C.K.T., & Choi, W., 2000. Cyberostracism: Effects of being ignored over the Internet. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 748-762).

So, you might not toss around virtual disks with your virtual team. But you chat with each other on Slack? Williams repeated the research setup without a virtual disk within a chatroom. The results were the same. People physically suffered when others showed them the cold shoulder and did not answer their messages. (Williams, K.D., Govan, C.L., Croker, V., Tynan, D., Cruisckshank, M., & Lam, A., 2002. Investigations into differences between social- and cyber-ostracism. IN: Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 6, 65-77).

Being alone every now and then can be nice. Working alone in our home-office can enhance our concentration. But being alone the whole day, without any social contact, can be painful. With dangerous effects on our physical and mental health.

A virtual compliment is as good as face-to-face

Social media has the power to make us feel lonesome. But also to make us feel great!

Paul J. Zak, a professor at the Claremont Graduate University, surveyed how relationships differed when online and offline. The result: For our brain, there is hardly any difference. It interprets Twitter and Facebook messages like speaking to someone face-to-face.

Oxytocin = a hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain. Also called the “cuddle hormone” or “trust hormone” because oxytocin levels rise when we hug and kiss a beloved or talk to a person we trust. It also works as an antidote against depression.

Paul J. Zak run tests with volunteers that were interacting with strangers and friends for 10 minutes on social media. Blood tests revealed that not only people’s stress hormones decreased, but their oxytocin level also increased on average by 15 to 20 per cent when interacting on any kind of social media. That is the same amount of what a groom experiences on his wedding day!

All people – 100 per cent – showed an increase in oxytocin when interacting on social media. One man even showed an oxytocin increase of 150 per cent when posting to his girlfriend’s Facebook page. (see original article)

A vibrant company culture facilitates genuine relationships

The results from Zak show that online relationships are real. Relationships between remote co-workers are as rewarding as relationships between onsite co-workers. It does not matter if you are co-located or online.

  • Feeling comfortable with your team and chatting with co-workers lets your oxytocin level rise.
  • Decreases stress hormones.
  • Enables a feeling of trust and empathy.

Technology can create a feeling of disconnectedness. But the right company culture gives employees a boost of closeness. It is all about company culture, not about technology.

Co-workers in a co-located environment can feel isolated when everybody closes their office door or sits with noise-cancelling-headphones in an open-space arrangement. It is the company culture that can motivate people to open up to others.

With an effective remote culture, virtual teams can be even more connected than teams in an office.

With happy co-workers, you can skyrocket your business

Start with processes that ensure every remote worker feels valued. Make them be a trusted and important part of the organization. Then foster high-quality interactions between employees. Gossip at the watercooler is something no effective team needs. Instead, with the right company culture, you will have worthy social interactions with your virtual co-workers.

To summarize:
Online relationships are as valuable as onsite relationships are. Help your team to create a rich company culture that makes people feel connected. Isolated people have a higher risk of mental and physical problems. Thus, it is in your employees and in your companies interest to foster virtual closeness. Help your team to bond and create strong social relationships.

Start with answering people’s messages.

Virtual Team Building

Get to know and trust each other with engaging and fun team building exercises. Bond with short daily activities and team events.

Virtual Team Development

In online workshops you bond, engage, solve problems. Topics: team culture, collaboration, trust, communication, and more.

Meeting facilitation

We facilitate engaging and effective online meetings for you, so that you can concentrate on bringing in your ideas in discussions.

Transition & Onboarding

We support you in setting up processes and structures for your remote team and in onboarding your newest virtual team members.

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