Why mood matters in remote teams & how to communicate it

Mood is vital to performance and motivation, but it’s more difficult to pick up on in remote teams. Maya Middlemiss has some tips on how to communicate how you are feeling more effectively if you work remotely.


As more and more of us are having to work remotely due to the coronavirus, attention has turned to how to do this effectively. Maya Middlemiss examines here the difficiulties of reading the moods of your co-workers when you work from home.

When we work with other people, we’re continually giving off messages one way or another. There are those we intentionally create and send, but — particularly if we share a physical environment with our colleagues — there will be many other communications we are inevitably putting out into the world, perhaps with a bit less deliberation:

“I must have an important meeting today, because I am wearing a suit”

“I have a huge amount of stress at home, so I’m not really listening to what you’re saying, in fact I can barely manage to brush my own hair”

“I am about to go down with a massive cold”

“I am in love, and glowing with happiness”

Which of these affect our work? Potentially all of them, in terms of how the people around us interact and liaise with us. However, the challenge when your team (or part of your team) is remote, is that these non-deliberate communications can get lost altogether. Like many aspects of remote collaboration, greater intentionality is required. We might be used to considering how we approach other aspects of remote communication with our team, such as direction and requests and availability. But what about how we’re feeling, what’s on our mind outside of the work? We communicate this by what we say, how we listen, how we appear and how we behave.

Why mood matters

We might think we’re not influenced by how we or others are feeling, but in knowledge work in particular, mood has a significant impact on what we do and how we behave. Moods are contagious, particularly the mood of those in leadership roles. As well as leading in the work itself, those at the top are frequently looked to for cues and guidance when it comes to all aspects of behaviour — so when we’re working in teams, how we feel and act affects everyone else. Conversely, we feel a sense of unease if we don’t know what’s going on for someone, or they’re behaving in an out-of-character way, and we don’t know why.

I once worked closely with a remote colleague going through a horrible separation, and her openness about how this was affecting her day by day enabled us to support her. Her decision to share freely helped us all to understand and have her back, if she was coming across as uncommunicative or simply couldn’t face a call with client X on a given day. We knew it wasn’t our team that was creating her terrible mood, so no one was left wondering what we might have done to upset her. Instead, we could behave sensitively and show appropriate empathy.

Moods also fluctuate, and the Core Protocols – a behavioural framework for teams – recommends ‘checking in’ on a regular basis. The Core Protocols were originally developed for high performance agile teams, but draw from observations of social interactions generally and are quite broadly applicable. The ‘Check-in’ protocol proposes starting each meeting or conversation with a brief disclosure of how you’re doing at that moment, (in terms of the universal emotions of being mad, sad, glad or afraid) – a practice which enables a rapid ‘temperature check’ of the room at any time.

This is well worth considering in remote teams, where we can’t as easily pick up on the non-verbal cues signifying anything from overexcitement to physical pain. Perhaps you could do it at the start of each day, when you log on in the morning?

Be the change you’d like to see

As a team leader you could model the behaviour without calling it out as a specific thing to do – signalling simultaneously that in your team, people care about how others are doing.

If you get into the habit of saying something like “good morning — stinking cold brewing here, thank goodness we’re remote!” or “fabulous morning today — just been for a walk in the sunshine to set myself up for a busy day, feeling great!” then others will be more likely to reciprocate and disclose their own state of mind, as well as learning that they’re in an environment where, 1) They can bring their whole self and state of mind to work; and 2) Someone actually cares about how they are. With the role of loneliness and isolation in remote teams and associated issues of well-being and good mental health increasingly in the spotlight, these moments of human connection serve many purposes.

Remote work advocate Laurel Farrer likes to integrate her moods into general updates and sharing via Slack updates and messages, e.g.: “Feeling crazy excited about the call I just had…” or “Had a tough weekend, so I’m feeling sluggish and unmotivated today. Trying to jumpstart my accountability by sharing my to-do list here.” These examples positively invite both empathy and reciprocation, helping to tune the mood of a team ready to support one another.

Don’t overlook emojis either, after all they were intended initially to communicate something about emotion, provided you evolve a shared understanding and vocabulary so your choice actually conveys something with an unambiguous, that is. Chris Colodonato uses a structured version of this: “One thing we do is on the morning of our team meetings we share a gif or emoji that highlights our mood/feelings about the day/week and then move in to personal/prof. check-ins. Done in Workplace chat, it sets the stage for the meeting and potential follow up.”

Tammy Bjelland from Workplaceless has adopted an elegant self-explanatory classification of “rose, thorn or bud” at team meetings to classify feelings, and it’s clear their deep level of emotional safety leads to high levels of disclosure and support: “I’ve been extremely open about my own struggles with anxiety through various channels, and that helps others feel like they can open up, too.” Interestingly they have deployed a tool designed for external/user feedback, Olark, to listen to how things are going within their own team.

Mood within context

Deliberately communicating our moods can help us connect with and understand our remote colleagues better, including contextual things you might not think of. For example, a team that is geographically distributed might have members whose emotions are affected by changes in the seasons, natural disasters, political upheavals… Even if our team is all in one city, you won’t be aware of the roadworks outside, the noisy neighbours or the ongoing family problems a colleague is enduring, unless they feel safe enough to share them.

Making time to talk about and understand how they affect our colleagues can be enlightening, as well as making people feel happier and more secure. I vividly remember a time of great upheaval in my own life, including a move to a new country, when my (remote) work was the only real point of stability in my life, and it was important to me to be able to share what was going on outside of that space so they understood my context, before it impacted on the work we were doing.

Talking about mood can also bridge gaps in understanding and ensure alignment of mood. If you sense that your team is really demotivated and disengaged, but someone else thinks everything’s going swimmingly, you’ve got a huge disconnect to overcome. Moods, and our perceptions of them, are indeed subjective — but they can be openly discussed and light shed upon them, to improve understanding all round.

Of course, not everyone is necessarily comfortable talking about their feelings or what’s going on in their personal lives, and no one should feel pressured to disclose things which are not relevant to the work and are purely their personal business.

And it’s definitely possible to overshare, particularly as a team leader. As Laurel Farrer pointed out: “BUT let me also add that I’ve had to learn to keep some info and feelings to myself. I default to over-communication, but as a manager, sometimes you need to put on a happy face to keep morale up. Your co-workers aren’t your therapist, spouse, or BFF. Keep it professional.”

As a team leader you may have invested time in developing your active listening skills, and be used to paying attention to communications which are directed at you, or which are given off more generally by those around you. But, you may have given less thought to how you communicate and give out signals, in different settings. By incorporating an intentional sensitivity to mood into your team’s culture, you can remain responsive, and aware of your own potential biases and factors which may affect how you react to others.

Ultimately, choosing to deliberately communicate our mood and context is all about increasing connectedness within the team. It’s more difficult for remote managers than those who see each other daily, but it’s perfectly achievable, if you are purposeful about how you do it. By recognising the significance of mood — of individuals and the group — as it impacts on our performance and motivation, we can make room for it in our remote working lives and align our best selves with the work we’re doing in our teams.

*This article was first posted on www.virtualnotdistant.com. With thanks to Virtualnotdistant.com’s community of remote connections on Twitter for getting involved in this conversation and sharing their experiences so freely – please check out the full conversation here, and also take a look at a recent post on How Remote Collaboration can Affect Motivation for further inspiration.

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