5 Most Impactful Reasons Why Remote Teams Fall Apart by@ovice

5 Most Impactful Reasons Why Remote Teams Fall Apart

5 most impactful reasons why remote teams fall apart 1. Trust 2. Physical distance 3. Employee perks are missing 4. Technology 5. Lack of strategical approach to coordinating remote work
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oVice

A virtual office company that bridges the gap between remote and hybrid teams.

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Remote work seems to be one of the topics on which team leaders still cannot make up their minds. After two years of the pandemic, some tech startups, like Spotify or Airbnb, are committed to remote or hybrid models. Companies like Yelp take this approach a step further and are ready to fully get rid of their office spaces.


Meanwhile, others are ardently opposing remote work, painting to be the killer of culture, creativity, and operational efficiency.


Elon Musk called the Tesla workforce back to the office and told remote workers to “pretend to work somewhere else”. Apple and Google are also favoring office over working from home — both companies opted for a 3-to-2 hybrid split after the pandemic.


The question to ask here is: why does remote work succeed in some teams yet fails in others? Is there a way to set yourself up for success in a remote workplace and make sure you won’t regret downsizing office infrastructure?


We will attempt to answer this question by examining why remote teams fail to begin with.

Reason #1: Trust

In trying to get to the root of the dilemma of remote work not being able to support organizations, we turned to the testimonials of leaders that were disillusioned with the new model.


A PR firm executive told The New York Times that, as he let teammates work remotely on Fridays: “Every weekend became a three-day holiday”.


Elon Musk, Jamie Dimon, and other leaders opposing remote work all, to some degree, shared this sentiment — as do most managers. Data shows that two out of three leaders polled by RICOH Europe don’t trust their remote reports.


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Without the ability to see their reports in the office, managers are left to their own devices wondering if people are working, to begin with. C-levels are not the only ones struggling — the rise of working remotely led to a sharp decline in trust between teammates as well.


In an attempt to regain control, managers often go to extremes. In August, New York Times blew the whistle on employers using invasive monitoring software to track people’s every move in real-time.


At J.P. Morgan, employee time is tracked second-to-second, scanning how long it takes an employee to write an email. At Barclay’s Bank, employees would get emails saying “Not enough time in the Zone today” to motivate them to work harder.


These stories seem straight out of a “Black Mirror” script — yet, they are becoming a standard practice. Data shows that eight out of ten largest private employers in the US monitor worker activity. The need to oversee and monitor is hugely driven by the switch to remote work, as the demand for productivity tracking and employee surveillance has increased by 50% since the start of the pandemic.


The effects of this missing trust are disastrous to remote teams. Employee anxiety is on the rise in hybrid teams, as those who work remotely feel disregarded by their managers and replaceable.


Under the motto of “They can’t take away your desk from you if you are sitting at it”, employees feel the pressure to go to the office even if they are allowed to work remotely on paper.


All forms of “digital presenteeism” — making it look like you are working extra-hard by flooding Slack channels with or scheduling meetings needlessly — are on the rise since the switch to remote work.


According to Microsoft, people spend 252% more time of their workweeks in meetings than they used to when working in person. A 32% increase in phone chats was also seen since March 2020.


Jeremy Useem argues, in a thought-provoking piece for the Atlantic, that the struggle to trust our teammates and earn trust from managers has profound economical implications and is capable of exponentially deprecating GDP.


He also warns that, with the rate of trust loss since the pandemic, we might be approaching a “trust recession”.

How to build trust in a remote team?

Feeling at a loss of control is natural for managers who used to rely on in-person interactions and now have no other way to check in on their reports.


However, instead of giving up on the benefits of remote work, leaders should restructure operations in a way that gives them assuredness of the team’s productivity, as in:


  • Shift the focus from time-based to performance-based KPIs. In departments like engineering, product design, or marketing, it’s possible to break a project down into manageable tasks and monitor progress based on the completion of individual tasks instead of clocked time.
  • Establish ground rules for the team to follow. Create a list of policies you will be comfortable with and ensure you are not policing the team as long as they meet these baseline expectations. In our team, we don’t expect people to clock nine-to-five, but we expect employees to come to the virtual office for meetings while new hires also have core hours during which they should be available to talk to onboarding buddies or HR managers.
  • Don’t reprimand honesty. Let’s be frank — no one works full workdays at the office. Between water cooler talks, restroom leaves, and smoke breaks, employees spend a lot of time doing no specific hard work. Typically, managers see it and are fine with it. But, in a remote environment, the inability to see the team creates extra anxiety and makes managers treat teammates too harshly. In turn, employees are forced to overcompensate and get to the end of the workday completely exhausted.

Reason #2. Physical distance

The widespread adoption of remote work gave rise to a unique phenomenon — people starting and leaving their jobs without having met anyone from their team in person. That distance, experts believe, is making it easier for people to leave, as they feel no strings attached between them and their companies.


In fact, two phenomena: job hopping and the Great Resignation, have become widespread during the pandemic, so much so that recruiters stopped seeing job hopping as a red flag, as it became hard to find someone committed to a single position.


Employees themselves point out that physical distance makes gauging out the tone of a message and figuring out a proper way to respond to a colleague a lot more challenging.


Also, the multi-step process that comes into play when scheduling Zoom calls makes people debate if an issue is big enough to set up a meeting for it. Thus, spontaneous communication fueled by proximity gets substituted by guesswork and teammates second-guessing their interactions with each other.


At the same time, the freedom of remote work encourages people to rekindle their hobbies that, over time, become more fulfilling than work.


A 23-year-old analyst from PwC told New York Times that, after experiencing clear disengagement at work (participants were tuning into meetings with cameras off and lack of desire to deviate from strict agendas), she found more solace in her hobbies.


She called this experience “leading a double life” and said she became much freer after quitting her job at the consulting firm.

As team leaders attempt to close the gap between team members by bringing them back to offices, they should remember that, with growing globalization, it is possible only to an extent. After all, it is rather difficult to bring employees from the US, UK, Japan, and other far-apart countries under one roof.


That’s why looking for digital ways to bring teams closer without flying them to the office will benefit hybrid or international in-office teams as much as it does remote startups.

Here’s how we address the challenge:


  • Build a virtual space that employees can share. We believe that proximity is a huge factor in improving communication efficiency and managers struggle to connect with remote employees because they don’t see them too often. While 8-hour-long Zoom meetings are too draining and uncomfortable, virtual office space has solved the issue for us. Through avatars, employees are represented in the space and can connect with each other. The real-life interaction dynamics (for example, the speaker’s voice gets louder when you approach them and quieter as you walk away) help recreate the office atmosphere in a digital environment.
  • Encourage spontaneous conversations. The birth of creative ideas or connections with teammates can hardly be scheduled and accomplished at an agenda-driven meeting. These are serendipitous moments leaders can’t predict — but they can create an environment that helps ignite the spark. At oVice, we don’t have many meetings — some teammates can have 1-2 short scheduled meetings a day. However, they often “walk up” to each other’s desks and start spontaneous conversations on pending projects. We found this non-scripted approach way less draining and more fulfilling than scheduling calls to go over minute project details.
  • Keep discussions open. In our virtual space, teammates can have private conversations in a locked meeting room or chat openly in the office space. Unless we are discussing confidential information or client data, we prefer brainstorming at our desks, so that everyone can join, contribute, or even casually listen to the conversation for situational awareness. Keeping discussions open lowers the barrier to entry and makes it easier for new hires or colleagues from different departments to get answers to their questions or share knowledge.

Reason #3. Employee perks are missing

Big or small, in an effort to conquer a candidate-driven market, pre-pandemic tech startups put a lot of effort into improving their list of office perks. For tech teams like Google, large, million-dollar offices have become part of the brand — so, when the company’s 156,000 workforce switched to remote, the dream of a Silicon Valley campus vanished.


As companies switched from in-office work to hybrid or fully remote workdays, they made little effort to create new benefits packages that would contribute to employee satisfaction.


Seeing flexibility and autonomy provided by remote work as standalone perks, leaders didn’t walk the extra mile to understand what hardware, tools, learning, and wellness opportunities would make their teams more connected to the organization, productive, and engaged.


The readiness to review and update worker benefits has a noticeable impact on retention. A survey of over 1,000employees shows that 64% of those working at companies that have changed their perks to fit the needs of different work styles plan to stay with their employer for the next year.

On the contrary, only 47% of employees are loyal to leaders who don’t have the practice of reviewing employee benefits.

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In our experience, remote employees hugely benefit from the following:


  • Budget for a home office setup — leaders should cover hardware expenses and offer teammates assistance in optimizing their devices or workplace tools.
  • Covering travel expenses — remote work gives employees extra mobility — it’s only natural they want to use it. By covering workations, leaders can show consideration to the needs of their reports and improve retention.
  • Offering mental health support. For many teams, switching to remote work during the pandemic was an abrupt adjustment. It required people who have never worked from home to adjust their routines and handle the burdens of self-management. Multiple studies show that remote employees have high stress levels and are at risk of burnout. That’s why giving work-from-home teams an agency for adjusting to the new lifestyle will improve productivity, retention, and job satisfaction.

Reason #4. Technology

Looking back at the history of remote work at tech companies, it’s interesting to see that even those who have successfully adapted to the new model during the pandemic, had a rocky start in their first experiments with remote work.


Reddit is one of the prime (though not only) examples of a company that didn’t initially commit to remote work but eventually came around.

In 2014, after securing a new investment round, the company mandated the relocation of its remote employees to San Fransisco — those who did not comply were let go with a generous severance package.


In 2020, the company made a public statement that it would allow teams to work from anywhere.


The same is true for Yahoo which abruptly ended its remote work experiment in 2013 and now is, at least on a team-by-team basis, allowing employees to work remotely. The obvious question is — what wasn’t working then and is now? The answer is also quite predictable — the tech improved. A lot.


In 2022, tools that did not exist in 2013-2014 are commonplace — Slack for asynchronous communication, Notion for documentation, and many more. Collaborative platforms help optimize workflows department by department — think about the fact that Figma, a collaboration-friendly design platform, is around only since 2016.


One of the key factors separating successful remote teams from laggards is the ability to discover and implement new tools. Companies that have roles or departments dedicated to introducing innovation to the workplace are able to adapt to changes and stay connected remotely much faster than teams that still rely on decades-old playbooks.


Having said that, leaders should remember that, when it comes to choosing collaboration platforms, less is more. Here’s how you can make sure your organization is not missing out on innovation and protect teams from being overwhelmed:


  • Choose all-in-one platforms. Rather than using one-platform-one-feature, choose feature-rich solutions that combine multiple tools (for example, text chat, voice calls, video conferencing, calendar, etc.). This way, teammates won’t have to lose time switching multiple tabs.
  • Connect and integrate wherever possible. Take the time to connect collaboration platforms with each other (for example, we can see who is in the virtual office at the moment in a dedicated Slack channel, updated in real-time). Use single sign-on instead of creating new accounts so that you don’t have to spend extra time entering or remembering credentials. Prioritize in-app editing over sharing new versions and iterations via email. These tweaks will help connect workflows and reduce confusion in day-to-day work.
  • Monitor the efficiency of your technology. Employee surveys are one of the most effective ways to understand whether your team is actually using the tools you discovered. Also, at oVice, we have an “idea stash” where people share the challenges they face and suggest platforms that can help solve these problems.

Reason #5. Lack of strategical approach to coordinating remote work

Expanding collaboration tool stacks give remote team leaders a lot of choices. With video conferencing, audio chatting, and virtual office platforms on the one hand, and email, messengers, Slack, and documentation platforms like Notion managers can achieve efficiency by skillfully balancing synchronous and asynchronous communication. The issue is few know how to do it.

A Harvard Business Review article describes an experiment that skillfully exposes the challenges of remote communication. Participants are divided into groups of three and each group is shown an image.


The person who has seen the picture shown by moderators has to describe it to the second team on a phone call. That teammate, in turn, emails the third teammate the instructions on recreating the image via email. The third participant has to draw the picture from scratch based on the email he got from the colleague.


You may have guessed it — the experiment produces hilarious pictures and shows how miscommunication prevents teams from successfully accomplishing even a relatively straightforward task.


What would happen if the game challenged participants in a complex process like designing a product feature and groups were composed of dozens of people, not three?


The problem could’ve been solved if instead of using audio-only and text-only tools (phone and email), the participants in the game chose a video conferencing tool that enables screen sharing and walked each other through the process step-by-step. This anecdote example shows the importance of matching the message to the medium.


Understanding whether an issue should be solved synchronously or asynchronously will help leaders reduce meeting fatigue among teammates while, on the contrary, leveraging audio and video when the context calls for it.


While it’s better to map up the balance between synchronous and asynchronous communication on a process-by-process basis, here are a few general practices we’ve seen to be effective in our and other teams.


  • Remove the pressure of always being on. A team leader should map out the processes that require an instant response and those that don’t call for urgent feedback. Pressuring employees to instantly react to each notification will contribute to workplace anxiety and, in international teams, get in the way of work-life balance (for example, if employees based in North America are pressured to quickly react to conversations between Asian or European teammates).
  • Audio chat is well-suited for small talk or a quick catch-up callAudio chat is well-suited for small talk or a quick catch-up call It’s not a secret that being in front of the camera puts a degree of pressure on remote workers, who need to be constantly aware of their appearance and surroundings. That’s why limiting all synchronous interactions to video calls is too emotionally draining — using audio calls instead is a good opportunity to give teammates more space while keeping real-time conversations going. Virtual office platforms are an excellent medium for engaging audio conversations because they combine voice chatting that typically is not accompanied by images with the ability to share a common space and see the avatar of a teammate you are talking to.
  • Communicate sensitive information face-to-face. The inability to gauge intent by analyzing the other person’s tone of voice, gestures, or facial expressions can lead to miscommunication. That’s why we recommend using video conferencing for emotionally draining conversations like feedback sessions.

The Bottom Line

Objective evidence shows that remote work is a progressive and forward-thinking model. On the other hand, there’s a record of tech teams having a rocky start in working remotely and their concerns have a basis.


It is true that, what could be taken for granted in the office — proximity, seamless oversight, effortless connection, requires extra effort in remote workplaces. It’s also true that employees are not entirely used to new responsibilities created by the shift: independently managing their time, maintaining home offices, and going the extra mile to connect with people within and outside their teams.


That’s why leaders should focus on bridging the gap between teammates, reducing the sense of alienation, and redefining employee benefits.


At oVice, we believe that technology is the answer to making remote work a success. Over the last decade, the emergence of collaborative solutions helped streamline a lot of operations and save hours of productive time. Now, it’s time for technology to help leaders create a sense of immediacy and proximity in a remote workplace.


We aim to achieve both by offering leaders a virtual office space — a place where teammates can instantly connect without jumping through hoops to schedule calls or confirm availability. It combines the standard features of a communication platform — text chat, voice calls, and video conferencing, with an intuitive visual interface that gives managers and teammates a full view of the team.


Our spaces are fully customizable and can have areas for scrum, brainstorming, or casual conversations that help build “soft connections”.


Find out how oVice helps leaders keep remote teams from falling out by exploring our case studies. Also, you can try using the platform for yourself and talk to our team in our demo space.


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