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How Does Being on a Remote Team Affect Emotional Culture? Part 1 of 2

by Emily Iwankovitsch Social Media Marketing Manager

We recently had Liz Fosslien, author of “No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work” and Head of Content at Humu, give an awesome presentation in High Fidelity’s virtual headquarters.

As my teammates sat in their home offices, coffee shops, and co-working spaces of California, Washington, Wisconsin, Arizona, and even France, we learned about emotional culture

According to the Harvard Business Review, emotional culture describes “the shared affective values, norms, artifacts, and assumptions that govern which emotions people have and express at work and which ones they are better off suppressing.” That is, how authentic should you be within a formal setting?

How Does Being on a Remote Team Affect Emotional Culture?

Emotions are an inevitable part of life, and as Liz said so well, it’s time we deal with them in the workplace. If we take time to acknowledge our feelings, we’ll be able to use them in more productive ways. Emotional culture influences so much in the workplace: employee satisfaction, burnout, teamwork, even financial performance and absenteeism.

Even the best workplaces can be emotional minefields — but remote work poses special challenges.

1. Ambiguity when you can't see body language.

We communicate not just through what we say, but how we say it. Our body language and tone of voice convey crucial information about our mood and intentions. A question like, “Can you finish the job today?” could come across as curious, impatient or even angry, depending on how it’s delivered. In the absence of physical cues, people tend to fill in the missing information by assuming the worst. That’s why it’s so dangerous to deliver feedback via Slack or email. It’s all too easy to be misunderstood.

In our virtual HQ, fortunately, we not only have 3D spatial audio to capture the nuances of speech, but through VR we can actually communicate through body language. When we first began working in our virtual HQ, we’d have daily chicken dances with our avatars. But that’s a story for another time...

2. Desire for an ‘office’ space with warmth and synchronous communication.

In a physical office, as Liz details, people respond to subtle cues. How is the space decorated and designed? Are photos of your team more prominent than notices about rules and regulations…or the other way around? Is the space emotionally ‘warm’? Does it encourage people to feel friendly and tranquil, or aggressive and competitive?

I arrive to work every morning on a tropical island, surrounded by swaying palm trees and the distant sound of ocean waves. Even if Karl the Fog is plaguing San Francisco, it’s sunny in my team’s virtual HQ. I visit Day Break Island nearly every day as well, sometimes to meditate under a virtual sunrise, other times to join a team activity amidst the lush jungle in the middle of the island. Our virtual HQ is crafted with subtle welcoming design cues, and the 3D spatial audio helps foster those serendipitous watercooler moments.

3. Emotional contagion still happens from afar.

As Liz explained, no employee is an island (even when you work on one). We influence each other’s feelings through an automatic process called emotional contagion, a phenomenon in which one person's emotions and related behaviors directly trigger similar emotions and behaviors in other people.

Sigal Barsade, Ph.D., writes in Psychology Today, “People routinely ‘catch’ each other’s feelings when working together in groups. It’s not surprising that this influences your employees’ moods: what’s more surprising is that it significantly influences their judgment and business decisions as well.”

That can be dangerous for remote teams, which are vulnerable to frustration and misunderstanding. It’s why remote workplaces need to strive for a positive emotional culture. It’s a lot easier to spread negativity via email than happiness, and once it gets started, it can be hard to stop. 

On that note, we’ve found that the tranquil view of a virtual ocean, or the comforting sound of a crackling bonfire, can have a remarkable effect on your mood throughout the day. Your coworkers are always there to chat, and you can always pop into the HQ window to take in a restful scene on your next Pomodoro break.

Liz concluded by asking about something that would only happen in our virtual HQ. We recalled how we are able to express ourselves emotionally through our avatars in ways we couldn’t with other remote collaboration tools, and she laughed at how unique of an experience this is.

We knew we were on to something special, but Liz gave us the language to talk about it. ‘No Hard Feelings’ is a no-brainer choice for any workplace library, in the virtual world or the real one.

Blog header image credit to Liz Fosslien.

Published by Emily Iwankovitsch August 22, 2019

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