Recently, I had two similar conversations with leaders about disengaged remote teams. One was with a reader of this newsletter (who I respect greatly as an agile coach) and one was with a director of engineering. Both conversations went something like this:

Leader: I’m worried about my teams. They seem to be withdrawing. Cameras are shutting off in meetings. And the team chat channels have almost gone quiet. I don’t know if people are burning out, if they are frustrated, or what? I want to help, but no one is talking.

Me: Are you sure they are not talking?

Leader: What do you mean?

Me: Do you have 1-on-1s? What are people saying there?

Leader: Not much. And even the watercooler channel in chat has gone quiet. I’m really worried about them.

Me: Have you checked the chat analytics

Leader: Wow! I forgot about those. Let me check quickly.

(When the leader did check, it looked something like the following.)

A time-based chart showing private communications being far greater than public communications in open channels.
This is the actual chart of yet another Slack team chat that seemed quiet.

If you are not familiar with these kinds of charts, the purple line shows any public channel that anyone in the organization can view. Private channels (black line) represent conversations a group of people set up for sensitive topics (e.g., compensation, staff changes, etc.) Direct messages usually represent ad hoc private conversations. The chart above does not represent either organizations’ actual chat analytics, but the chart above shows a familiar pattern for struggling remote teams.

Let’s continue with the conversation …​

Leader: Yikes! There are many conversations! I couldn’t see them. I wonder what’s going on?

Me: That’s a very good question. It could be several things. There might be some things you could try to help open up these conversations more.

So in each case, we discussed some options for engaging with the teams based on their situation.

Usually when I see patterns like this in online communication, it reminds me of when I coach in offices and I see people huddling at desks, in break rooms, or outside in the parking lot. They usually have long, quiet conversations. They express concerns to trusted colleagues because they don’t feel they have a way to do this within the organization.

Some online leaders may say, “just shut down the private chat messages.” That would be similar to shutting down the break rooms and the parking lots. People will feel less psychologically safe to share their concerns and just find other places to share with their colleagues. I don’t know if online pubs will show up, but who knows? It might happen.

What can you do as a leader? Some things to consider:

  1. How can you create a safe space for them to voice their concerns while online? A 1-on-1? In a virtual lean lean coffee with small groups? In an ask-me-anything (AMA) session? Keep in mind that if you can meet with small groups of 3-5 people, those who feel less confident to share concerns may feel supported by their colleagues.
  2. Who on each team has the pulse of the team? Who might confide in them? Can you safely ask these natural leaders of the online team to share the issues they hear? Do they have ideas to try to make it safer to share?
  3. Can you be vulnerable as a leader? Discuss how you may have struggled with the pandemic, recent politics, or even a combination of difficulties over the past months. Maybe you have even taken advantage of counseling now or in the past? Help dissolve any stigma around asking for help and share what you have done to get help as a leader.

I’ve tried all the things above. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. I find it depends on what people have experienced with other leaders and organizations. If they were led to trust these other leaders and felt let down, you might need to get more creative. That’s what I’ve done.

Whatever you try, think of how you can make it easier for your people to connect and share online. Show them small steps they can take.

Let me know what you’ve tried.

Connecting again soon,


P.S. For those wondering about the Valentine’s Day Beef Wellington, I botched the pastry again. However, the leftovers did not last long. So I still get high marks from my wife. ;)