Ever been part of a group project in school where it felt like you were doing all of the work while the other members slacked off? Alternatively, have you ever been part of a group project and received an excellent grade… without doing too much (or any) of the work yourself? No judgment; we’ve all been in both situations before, whether at home, at school, or at work. This phenomenon is called social loafing, and it could be harming your remote team’s efficiency, wellbeing, and productivity.
In this article, we’ll define social loafing and provide five strategies you can use to reduce social loafing within your remote team.
Social loafing is a social psychology theory that describes a tendency people have of putting forth less effort when working in a group. Since each individual is working toward the same goal, team members don’t work as hard as they might if they were working alone. After all, if there are several people on your team, someone will probably take the initiative and pick up your slack, right? 😅
Naturally, if every member of the team approaches the project with this kind of work ethic (or lack thereof), the quality of the project is going to suffer. Plus, there will very likely be one or two members of the team who get stuck picking up the slack of their social loafing coworkers, which leads to resentment and burnout.
One of the first experiments around social loafing was conducted by a French agricultural engineer named Maximilien Ringelmann in 1913. He designed a series of rope pulling experiments in which participants were asked to pull on one side of a rope as hard as they could both alone and in a group. He found that the participants pulled harder when they were alone but made less of an effort when they were in a group. Not only that, the larger the group got, the less effort each individual made. Because of these experiments, social loafing is something referred to as the “Ringelmann effect.”
Of course, we don’t need to go back over a hundred years to recognize this phenomenon; just think back to any group project you had in school. Were you typically the dedicated, straight-A student who got saddled with the majority of the work, or were you one of the other group members who nodded along silently and hoped to be forgotten until it was time to receive your (hopefully good🤞) grade?
Likely, you’ve been on both sides of this social loafing scenario before, and neither feels particularly good. It can be very frustrating and disheartening to have to pick up the slack of coworkers who aren’t working as hard as you yet receive the same rewards, and it’s hard to take much (or any) pride in a job well done if you didn’t contribute as much effort as everyone else.
It’s important to note here that a major reason social loafing occurs is due to a lack of clarity, communication, and coordination. It’s not always that people are lazy; they may be unclear on who is performing which task or what they’re actually responsible for. These issues tend to be exacerbated on remote teams.
Distributed teams have specific collaboration and communication challenges. Since team members don’t share a physical space with their coworkers, communication needs to be intentional. You can’t just bump into someone in the hall and catch up on how a project is doing or what task needs to be tackled next. You have to actually reach out to a team member and request clarity on your responsibilities or a status update.
If a team member is on the shy side and uncomfortable with asking for help, their need could go unnoticed for quite a while, as it can be difficult to accurately read someone’s body language over Zoom.
Social loafing is an issue all teams face, but there are ways you can reduce or eliminate its negative impact. Here are five strategies to reduce social loafing.
Accountability means your team can rely on you to never shift blame or shirk your duties, to always meet your organization's expectations, and to own your own mistakes. But if you don’t know what your duties or expectations actually are, how can you be accountable for them?
Diffusion of responsibility is one of the leading causes of social loafing. The more people on the team, the less some team members will feel accountable. Team members who don’t feel personally accountable for the success of the project will be content to sit on the sidelines and let someone else take the reins.
Someone can easily fade into the background without clear tasks and deadlines. During team meetings, be sure to break the work down and assign specific tasks to specific team members. Make each task and who is accountable for it visual to the entire team. All team members should be aware of what they themselves and their fellow team members are specifically accountable for. Every meeting must conclude with a mutual understanding of the action items and who is accountable for them.
📚 Learn how to build a culture of accountability in the workplace.
Asynchronous communication is any communication between two or more people that doesn’t require them to be in the same physical space or communicating at exactly the same time. For example, if you call someone, they don’t answer, and you leave a message, that’s asynchronous communication. If they do pick up and you’re able to have a conversation in real-time, that’s synchronous communication.
In order to effectively communicate with your team, you need a combination of both. If you notice that a member of your team appears to be engaging in some social loafing, you can send them a private message to ask if they need more information about what they’ve been assigned. This way, you’re not putting them on the spot in front of their coworkers, and they have time to reflect on what you’ve said. If you do send such a message, be polite but firm, and offer to help in any way you can. Do they need clarification on the task? Are they struggling to see the task’s value? Do they feel they weren’t assigned the best task for their skillset? Be sure to let them know you’re there to help, not to punish.
But don’t rely on asynchronous communication alone. If you assign someone a task in Slack, but your message becomes buried underneath a sea of other messages, they may never see it—or they may be able to plausibly claim that they never saw it. Asynchronous communication is excellent for reducing interruptions, providing deep focus, and helping workers work in the ways that best suit them, but it can lead to Slack holes, reduced visibility, and social loafing.
This is why remote teams should never neglect synchronous communication. Synchronous communication promotes real-time communication and collaboration, immediate feedback, and a deeper connection with your coworkers; after all, reading a Slack message is a lot different than communicating with someone face-to-face.
Communicating with your team in real-time reminds everyone that you’re all real people behind the emails and Slack messages. You’re less likely to push your responsibilities onto someone else if you know who they are and what they’re accountable for.
One of the best opportunities for remote teams to utilize synchronous communication is during meetings, from one on one meetings to all hands meetings. Regardless of the meeting, be sure to create an effective meeting agenda so that synchronous communication isn’t a free-for-all.
Social loafing is only tolerated when no one speaks up, or there’s a general lack of oversight and direction. Providing consistent and constructive feedback means that if someone isn’t pulling their weight, they’ll hear about it long before the situation gets out of control.
This isn’t about calling someone out in front of their coworkers and ridiculing them; it’s about consistency. If you’re privately communicating with each member of your team and giving them feedback on a regular basis, any issues they’re having will more quickly come to light so that they can be resolved. This includes any issues they may be having with your management style, as feedback is a two-way street.
Continuous, constructive feedback improves team trust and relationships, helps clarify expectations, and enhances performance and professional development. This kind of regular, open, and honest communication helps build rapport between you and your direct report and keeps you accountable to one another.
Team members will never be stuck wondering what they’re supposed to be doing or what you think of their performance because you’re in regular communication with them.
Social loafing only works in silence. Build continuous feedback into your company culture to ensure no one is ever in the dark about their responsibilities or the quality of their performance.
A team that plays together stays together! Social loafing is more likely to occur on teams that don’t reflect on their progress and celebrate wins together. At the end of every project or whenever you meet a particular milestone, be sure to take time to celebrate.
What did you accomplish? Is there anyone that deserves particular credit for a job well done? Ensure that celebrating wins does not become competitive. You are all working together to achieve the same goals—when one person wins, the whole team wins.
Celebrations can be both big and small and should represent the weight of the accomplishment. Meeting a milestone might mean ordering a snack or lunch for the team, whereas completing a large project might deserve a dinner out or a new office coffee machine. Celebrations can also be as simple as recognizing a team or specific members of the team for a job well done.
🎉 Share team wins in Slack with Kudos, which allows managers, employees, and peers to celebrate wins from anywhere.
Prevent social loafing by utilizing tools that aid both collaboration and productivity. WorkPatterns helps teams manage meeting agendas with clear schedules and action items, build rapport with virtual teammates, leave continuous feedback, and communicate effectively.
Ensure your team has the tools they need to keep communication flowing during team projects. When tasks and deadlines are clear, all members of the team are able to be accountable and productive, whether working synchronously or asynchronously.