remote bonding

A few weeks back, we wrote about how showing your pets on Zoom meetings, or at least not hiding them like guilty secrets, can help the team bond and get to know each other. But can it go too far? Here’s the other side of that conversation.

Apparently, some people make their pets too central to the process.  A reader recently told me about his boss, a lovely lady who has taken things a tad overboard. Apparently, her cat (no names, either of the manager or the kitty) not only makes an appearance on every meeting but is an unofficial “cohost.” Not only is he placed near her so he’s visible throughout the call (assuming he stays put long enough), but every meeting begins with an update on what the cat has been up to, and everyone else is expected to share their pet stories. This can take up to fifteen minutes of every web meeting.

It’s driving this particular attendee and his teammates a little batty.

From the way he describes the situation (at least using the words I can use here), it sounds like there are two issues going on which are common to a lot of teams. The cat is only a specific example of the larger problem(s).

  1. Not everyone requires the same level of interaction and relationship building on team meetings. One person’s bonding is another’s wasted time.
  2. The team is reluctant to give the leader feedback. This results in gossip, frustration, and lack of trust in the way the team works.

Of these two, the second is the bigger long-term challenge to the team’s work.

Wanted: Emotionally Intelligent Leaders

The fact that different people require different levels of social interaction is not exclusive to remote teams. If you’ve ever tried to get your work done while Alice from Marketing stands by your desk telling you about her cousin’s wedding, you get it.

This can be a serious problem, but the roots of the conflict are easily addressed, assuming everyone is open to discussion. Getting to understand the team’s preferences around social conversation and the best use of time is often a result of listening to each other.

Emotionally intelligent leaders pick up on the signs that others might be uncomfortable or bored with what’s happening. Working remotely can make it even harder to pick up on some of the verbal and physical cues that tell you it’s time to move on. To be fair, if everyone was in the office, it’s unlikely the cat would be an issue.

If there’s wide-spread conflict around the amount of time spent on non-work matters it might be time for the team to learn more about their own and their teammates’ work styles. We can offer help with DISC assessments, but there are plenty of other ways for people to learn how their peers like to work and reach a compromise.

Most of this misunderstanding about the cat would be addressed simply with candid conversation, but it appears that’s not happening. As far as we know, nobody’s actually told her that this business with the cat is making people crazy.  This leads us to the second issue, and why it’s even more critical than the first.

Where’s the feedback?

For whatever reason, the team is reluctant to give their manager feedback. Whether because they fear reprisals, or simply don’t want to be rude, the leader’s behavior is creating long-term problems for the team.

If nobody is willing to approach the manager about this concern, there are probably larger issues that are also being ignored. People bite their tongues, rather than speak up. They go into meetings with resentment and a self-fulfilling belief they’ll be a waste of time. And what are the odds that the manager is the only person people don’t give candid, constructive and often critical feedback to?

If you are the person dealing with the Cat Lady, here are a couple of suggestions:

  • Don’t make it about the cat. If you sound like you don’t care about Mr. Whiskers, the other party may take offense and become defensive. The issue isn’t that he’s a cat. It’s that there is a lot of time being spent on non-work, nonproductive matters. Feel free to express your frustration about that: “We have been spending more and more time on matters that aren’t helping me and the get our work done.”
  • If the entire team shares your frustration, make it known that this is not just a personal complaint. It’s impacting the team. “We” would appreciate making better use of our time.
  • Ask for permission to give the manager feedback about the meetings. Don’t just start with, “you’re making us crazy.”
  • Depending on your relationship with your manager, this may be something that a couple of you take part in, rather than having it be one on one, which could result in people taking the conversation personally.

Human beings are famously capable of turning anything innocent, like sharing their personal lives and pets with their colleagues, into a source of friction. Stay focused on the task at hand, the work, as well as preserving the relationship.

Every week we talk to remote work experts and respond to listener questions on the Long-Distance Worklife podcast. Listen and subscribe today.


Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammateoffers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.

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