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52 remote and hybrid teams told us what challenges they face at work, and how leaders can solve them



Summary


We conducted a survey and interviews with remote and hybrid teams to explore the challenges arising from remote work. Our study also examines the role of online games and meaningful interpersonal interactions in addressing these challenges.


Introduction


One of the only benefits to emerge from the recent global pandemic has been the (nearly) universal embrace of working remotely (at least sometimes). Employees now have the freedom to live (mostly) wherever they like while wearing (mostly) whatever they want. All kidding and caveats aside, the reality is that remote work in some form is here to stay and we think it’s important to learn what that may mean for individuals who work in a team environment as well as for those who lead them.


In our current study, we wanted to find out how work from home (WFH) impacts not only individual employees, but the teams they make up. Of course, we are a Games and Interactive Technology Lab, so we also wanted to know if (and how) online games can be a resource for overcoming any challenges employees face in this new age of remote teamwork. But first, we had some foundational research to do.


We began by orienting ourselves to work team characteristics and documented issues related to remote team performance. We then interviewed experts in the field to see if the literature accurately reflects the reality of today’s remote work teams and what the impact of those issues might look like. Finally, we used those qualitative insights to generate survey items designed to measure how prevalent remote work challenges are in today’s teams. Here’s what we learned:


Physical separation can breed disunity in remote teams


Based on a review of academic papers and research studies, we found that because remote employees in team settings face heightened psychological, operational, and geographical distances, they often experience reduced role clarity and increased feelings of loneliness. A deep dive into Reddit threads, Linkedin posts, and opinion pieces on Medium, revealed that these circumstances can exacerbate perceived gaps in values, trust, and interdependence among remote team members. The sum of these gaps is a team that’s lacking cohesion – a sense of its individual members working collectively toward a common goal – which has been shown to directly impact team performance.


Spontaneous connections have hidden value for teams


After interviewing the Director of People Operations at a software company, several clear themes emerged from our analysis of the transcript:


  • Communication

  • Connection

  • “Purely personal” interactions


Turns out remote teams do face unique challenges, such as lacking interpersonal connection and clear lines of communication, which can negatively impact employee engagement and lead to high turnover rates. We also discovered team members perform poorly when inexperienced managers fail to connect with them on a regular basis and resolve any role-related ambiguities. Of course, lack of communication can occur whether teams are in-person or remote, but being colocated provides more organic opportunities to mitigate the impact.


“[What is] difficult…about remote versus in-person…teams, is just those interpersonal interactions…that are just connecting. When you're jumping from zoom to zoom meeting, you don't do as much of that… And so we have some things that we've done to try to kinda imitate that, but that's a big piece that's lost and that often can lead…to not see people as people… but…more as objects…rather than full humans.”


Remote workers miss out on opportunities for spontaneous interpersonal connection, which help flesh out who teammates are beyond their work roles. These connections can prevent co-workers from being perceived solely as “a roadblock or a stepping stone or like a challenge that you have to work around,” according to the software company director. They went on to say failing to see teammates as full humans with “goals and dreams and thoughts and hobbies” can negatively impact affective trust and makes for more transactional relationships rather than a collaborative experience. This brings us back to team cohesion, which we suspect may take a hit if individuals feel like they’re having to work around other teammates to complete tasks or achieve goals.


Statistical estimates highlight concerning trends


Though we were interested specifically in the challenges of fully remote teams, we didn’t want to limit our survey sample (More data is always more fun!), so we broadened our scope to include partially remote and hybrid teams. What we found should interest team leaders, regardless of whether they’re leading remote or hybrid workers.


Across all 52 employees surveyed, about 1 in 5 (21%) reported feeling lonely more than half of the time (95%CI [10%, 32%]). The most prevalent experience of loneliness was lack of common interests and ideas with others at work; about 1 in 4 (28%) of respondents reported these issues occurring more than half the time (95%CI [16%, 40%]).


Less than half (43%) of employees reported a high degree of role clarity (95%CI [30%, 56%]). Similarly, less than half (48%) reported high team cohesion (95%CI [35%, 61%]). Only 1 in 3 employees (35%) are at least moderately confident that they know what their team is working on, and well under half (42%) are at least moderately confident that they can rely on their teammates (95%CI [.23, .47]; 95%CI [.29, .55]).


If we use this data to compute estimates for the worst-case scenario, 32% of team members feel lonely, only 30% feel they have role clarity, and as few as 23% know what their team is working on! We can glimpse a world where only 55% of team members feel they can rely on their teammates, and a maximum of 61% feel like they’re working collectively toward a common goal. Even the best-case scenario illustrated by these statistics validates much of what we already uncovered and it’s not very encouraging.






This left us wondering what role games (and online games, specifically) can play in building team cohesion.


Finding success and connection through gameplay


Evidence has shown that gameplay can be an effective way to foster a culture of team-building. In a study focusing on in-person team gameplay and team performance, researchers found a 20% increase in team performance after Team Video Gaming (TVG), defined as games that require participants to work together simultaneously. The control group received generic team goal training, which did not have any significant effect on team performance. Based on these findings, the researchers suggest that if a team has, say, a project that requires 3-5 hours of work, that the team could greatly benefit from spending those first 45 minutes on TVG. Assuming this effect translates to online gameplay and remote teams, team leaders could leverage this as a potential team-building strategy.


Other benefits of gameplay include a greater sense of belonging, deeper connections, and an increase in confidence as we heard anecdotally from a handful of people with remote team work experience. A CX Analyst at a large retailer told us about her organization’s remote team-wide happy hour, and how she felt before its implementation:


“I found it difficult to make natural small talk and bond deeply because once our work was done, we ended the call… [But at the happy hour], we played CodeNames and Drawasaurus. While a seemingly insignificant team activity for fun, meeting my coworkers in a lighthearted setting made me feel a stronger sense of belonging… the connections and support …made a huge difference in my performance.”


So, which game(s) should my team play?


Choosing the right game may depend on your team’s dynamics as well as other factors. We conducted a competitive analysis by comparing some popular games across variables such as value propositions, cost, number of players, personalization abilities and much more. In the competitive landscape of digital multiplayer games, teams seem to frequently opt for games that (a) can accommodate a high volume of players and (b) are budget-friendly. The most-mentioned games for team-building across online forums, blog posts, and on gaming platforms include:

  • Skribbl.io, a drawing and guessing game (Up to 20 players - Free)

  • Geoguessr, a geography and guessing game (Up to 100 players - Free limited version, or $1.99 monthly for full access)

  • AmongUs, an animated Whodunit game (Up to 15 players - Free)

  • Words Game, a word-formation game for Slack (No player limit specified - Free)

  • Gartic Phone, a telephone game (Up to 14 players - Free)

  • Spyfall, a detective game (Up to 12 players - Free)

  • JackBox, humorous party-game packs (Up to 10 players - $9.99 - $24.99)

  • Table Top Simulator, immersive 3D board games (Up to 10 players - $19.99)


How else can I facilitate interpersonal connection for my team?


We understand that games might not be an option for some teams. However, there are other ways to incorporate the lighthearted break room conversations that are often missed with remote work. Here are a few testimonials:


“[My team] didn’t necessarily have any team bonding exercises. I had one-on-ones scheduled with each team member so that I could get to know their backgrounds and the projects they’re working on. Much later in the internship, I was invited to a meeting with the User Experience team where we all shared our projects and resources that are available to us. At the beginning of the meeting, we had an ice breaker where we all shared what we would do if we were all financially stable and had the ability to do anything we wanted to do. It was really interesting hearing from each team member, they all have such big hearts and many wanted to dedicate their lives to learning, teaching, and building up communities with art and music. Of course, everyone also wanted to travel because who doesn’t? Other than that, there were always opportunities for everyone to come together and share stories that were still UX related but not necessarily work related…called ProdEx Recesses [with a new topic each month].”


— CX/UX Researcher at a managed care company


“We've had some teams do a yoga class together remotely over Zoom or… we'll have some teams do a team dinner where they send people DoorDash gift cards and then the team gets dinner and then they all have dinner together over Zoom”


— Director of People Operations at a software company


Of course, all of this comes down to knowing your team members. These are simply suggestions that could not possibly work for every team. Many people might find themselves being more productive because of the decrease in social interactions, and appreciate this most about working from home.


“I actually prefer remote work. I know lots of people rely on external systems to keep them motivated and on task, but those actually slow me down. My GPA increased by almost a full point after covid started because I was able to work when I wanted, how I wanted, without having to think about people. So I never worried that doing this internship remote would hurt my performance… [My team] didn’t do any small talk, which I really appreciated. The few times we did get personal, it was about stuff that felt meaningful.”


— UX Researcher at a multinational technology company


It all comes down to knowing your team members by understanding how they work best and learning about their individual needs. There is a common thread, however, that exists in every story that was shared with us; they all emphasized the fact that they felt most valued by their team(s) when these non-work-related interactions were meaningful.


“In my second team huddle, which we have once per week, my manager told us how important it is to take risks. This is especially important within the context of creative work, but it felt so great to hear that we have that kind of freedom and trust to do our work. In another huddle, he spoke about how it’s important to share information if you’re more senior or have been with the organization longer, to help out new hires who don’t know what they don’t know. Throughout my internship, he was extremely transparent about struggles we faced at the individual/team/organizational level. All these behaviors accelerated my trust in him and my team, so I could dig in and do my best work without worrying about…unproductive stuff.”


— UX Researcher at a healthcare company


There you have it, folks! As the Director of People Operations told us, “...there's really no replacement for in-person communication,” but we can try and mitigate the negative work team effects of fully remote experiences.


Still feeling unsure about what’s best for your team? All we can say at this point is: schedule a 1:1 to ask how they are and how you can support them.


Methodology


We designed a survey to measure the prevalence of challenges that teams are hypothesized to face, including cohesion, loneliness, burnout, affective trust, job autonomy, role clarity, and work-life balance. Each construct was represented by three validated scale items on the survey, with the exception of work-life balance, which was represented by one scale item. The survey was programmed in Qualtrics and distributed to remote and hybrid employees using a convenience sampling method (sent to personal connections and shared on social media forums, such as LinkedIn and Reddit). Data were collected between July 26, 2023, and August 1st, 2023. The survey yielded a total of 86 responses, but data from only 52 were used. Responses were not included in our analysis if participants did not meet our sampling criteria (e.g. on-site employees, people who do not work in teams of at least two people) and/or were incomplete. For analysis, we created composite scores for each subscale and ran two hierarchical multiple regression analyses.


Finally, qualitative data were collected through remote in-depth interviews and requests for written testimonials from working professionals via convenience sample. Analysis included first and second round coding, which was executed by two researchers in Dovetail.


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