• Rosanna Ravey, Manager |
4 min read

Don’t leave your colleagues out in the cold. Remember your (virtual) SCARF

How making small shifts in our virtual interactions can minimise threat and maximise reward in the workplace

This year has seen organisations quickly pivot to virtual working. This shift has been rapid, largely out of necessity rather than choice. Whilst services and processes have successfully transitioned to virtual formats, have the required behavioural changes had time to catch up?

Many workplace interactions are now happening virtually. Whether it be a quick catchup or a performance conversation, these interactions no longer bear the social cues people have been conditioned to adopt in their working lives to date. Whilst organisations have had little choice but to adopt new physical ways of working, have they successfully flicked the social switch? The SCARF model (Rock, 2006) can serve as a simple tool for helping accelerate this.

The human brain has been shown to react in the same way to social needs as it does to physical needs (Gordon 2008). These social needs are something everyone, consciously or subconsciously, looks to satisfy in everyday interactions. The SCARF model (Rock 2006) is based upon the brain’s organising principle of maximising reward and minimising danger. All interactions in the workplace trigger an emotional response in the brain. By exploring each element of the model in turn, it is possible to identify simple changes to interactions to help create a psychologically safe virtual working environment.


  • Status relates to an individual’s perception of their importance relative to others. In the workplace, people tend to calibrate their status through the feedback they receive. In a virtual setting it can be challenging to provide “on-the-job” feedback. To minimise threat responses, rather than setting specific time aside for feedback, try to integrate it into existing catchups or team meetings. Try framing feedback as “advice” or “tips”. By simply changing this single word the whole interaction can be reframed and an individual’s sense of status preserved.


  • Certainty relates to an individual’s sense of security over their future. Your sense of certainty has likely been challenged in many ways during recent months. In a workplace context, consider how you feel when someone puts a meeting entitled ‘catchup’ in your diary without explanation. How does this make you feel? Do you experience a momentary sense of panic, wondering what it could be about? Think about how different your reaction would be if there was a short description in the invite highlighting it was to prep for an upcoming team meeting? Without receiving that small piece of information, your brain can feel unnecessarily threatened. Next time you go to put a quick meeting in the diary, remember the impact it might have on someone’s certainty.


  • Autonomy relates to an individual’s sense of control over their surroundings and the belief that their actions have an influence over outcomes. Think about how you communicate with people in your team. Are you perhaps guilty of setting someone a task and then sending a stream of consciousness of additional thoughts over instant message 30 minutes later? Whilst convenient, the constant ping of instant messages when trying to complete an activity can threaten autonomy. The face-to-face equivalent would be walking up to someone’s desk offloading information without invitation! Before hitting send on that series of instant messages, ask your colleague “is now a good time?” and give them the autonomy to plan the interaction.


  •  Relatedness links to an individual’s sense of connection and security when interacting with others. Virtual working can be a big barrier to relatedness, with limited opportunities for spontaneous conversation. Strange thought it may seem, think about how you can “schedule” spontaneity. Why not treat the first 5 minutes of team meetings as ‘the walk to the meeting room’? Create small breakout groups of 3-4 people and ask them to have an informal chat before the meeting gets started. By rotating the groups each week, you help ensure people can connect with different team members. This may feel somewhat artificial at first, but in time it should feel less scheduled and more spontaneous!


  • Fairness relates to how fair individuals perceive the exchanges between people to be. A sense of unfairness can generate strong emotional reactions. Think about the number of people you have worked with closely over the past six months. Without physically seeing your team on a day-to-day basis, it can be easy to get into a routine of regularly collaborating with the same select group. This can make other team members feel isolated and limit their access to development opportunities. Going forward, each month, make a proactive decision to create an opportunity for someone in the team you haven’t worked with for a while.

The past year has demonstrated that change can accelerate when there is no viable alternative. However, behavioural change does not happen overnight. 'It is crucial' to give organisational behaviour the time, focus and nudges required to adapt and catch up. Importantly, remember your SCARF.

Reference list

Gordon, E. (2008). ‘An integrative neuroscience platform: application to profiles of negativity and positivity bias’, Journal of Integrative Neuroscience.

Rock, D. (2006) Quiet Leadership, New York: Harper Collins.

Rock, D. and Schwartz, J. (2006) ‘The Neuroscience of Leadership’, Strategy and Business, 43.