social & community

Ambient Reassurance

A long time ago, in 2007, I wrote about ambient intimacy, a name for a new kind of experience that came about as a result of the emergence of social media, in particular Twitter.

Over the last seven months I have been working from home, remotely from my team. It has just been in the past couple of weeks that I’ve been able to come up with a way of describing a particular kind of lack that I’ve been feeling.

There are many things we lack (and gain) in working remotely, but this is one I’ve not considered before, and I don’t hear other people talking about it either.

I call it ambient reassurance. (Almost certainly the organisational psychologists have another term for it but I can’t find it!)

Ambient reassurance is the experience of small, unplanned moments of interaction with colleagues that provide reassurance that you’re on the right track. They provide encouragement and they help us to maintain self belief in those moments where we are liable to lapse into unproductive self doubt or imposter syndrome.

In hindsight I realise, these moments flowed naturally in an office environment.

Sometimes we seek them out in an ad hoc way – a conversation in the hallway about the thing you’re working on right now, a request for someone to quickly look at something and give a tiny bit of feedback, a tiny moan about something you’re struggling with.

Sometimes they are completely unintended – someone looks over your shoulder at something you’re working on, or gives you a few encouraging words as you enter or leave a tough meeting, or just happens to comment positively on something they saw you do recently.

It is possible for these to happen when we are all remote, but it takes more effort and intentionality. As a result, I think we experience much less of this ambient reassurance when we work remotely.

Concerned about disrupting people’s flow with messaging, we’re much less likely to send that tiny message of encouragement or positivity. Without the visibility of whether people are in focus mode or have a moment of availability for a small interaction, we keep things to ourselves. We only reach out and demand someones attention if it feels sufficiently important or well thought out.

So many of our interactions now are textual. More visible, audit-able, traceable. Interactions that make us think twice. Far from a reassuring smile across the room or a secret thumbs up from the audience.

Getting the balance right is hard. Protecting our colleagues work time flexibility and their focus time helps deliver some of the advantages of working remotely.

And yet, in the absence of these tiny, human interactions, we’re more dependent on our own, individual self assurance. I never realised, until COVID and this long stretch of remote work, how dependent my self assurance was on ambient reassurance from others. In its absence, the natural peaks and troughs we experience – from confidence in our abilities to despair that we will never be good enough – feel more frequent and more extreme.

So knowing this, I experiment. With reaching out and sharing more than I might otherwise. Both about what I’m working on and how I feel about it, and also, with micro reassurance for others. I worry about the extra load I might be placing on others. And I ponder how our tools might take this new (to me) need into account as well.

Meanwhile, we muddle through. And I wonder if you’re experiencing this absence of ambient reassurance as well?

So, here’s a little reassurance for you right now – whatever you’re working on right now – you’re almost certainly doing better than you think you are. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Don’t be afraid to reach out for some feedback or just plain reassurance. Keep going! and stay safe.

If you found this interesting, you might also be interested in some research my team at Atlassian recently shared on what makes a difference to how people are experiencing remote work during the pandemic. Read more here.