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Using the SCARF Model for Better Remote Work Environments

We’re in the middle of winter, and SCARF season is in full swing! Truthfully, it’s always in style regardless of season – because we aren’t referring to winter scarves to keep us warm. We’re referring to David Rock’s SCARF model for leadership.

The five variables that form the acronym are: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. Anytime you feel these five things are in harmony, your brain feels more relaxed, safe and in turn, more creative. If a leader ensures these five variables are met collectively by each member of their team, they increase each individual’s likelihood to contribute their best work.

Nearly one year ago, Dr. Rebecca Ellis introduced the idea in a blog as she outlined its significance to help leaders navigate through COVID-19 uncertainty. At that time, we didn’t know how COVID-19 would impact the world, but we knew the uncertainty called for courageous, tactical leadership (as uncertainty always does). The SCARF model acted as a guide to help us lead with courage and help our teams feel at ease.

Dr. Ellis was recently featured on RTV6 and FOX59 to discuss remote work. Watch the segment below.

We’ve learned a lot since that blog was posted in 2020. Although uncertainty remains, workplaces and individuals have adapted. And, regardless of some of the uncertainties that still linger, we know remote working will not be going away anytime soon. A recent Gartner study revealed that after the pandemic, over 80% of company leaders plan to allow some form of part-time remote working to their employees.

As convenient as remote work has made our lives and as great as companies and their employees have adapted, it doesn’t come without its share of struggles. Problems with distraction, time management, loneliness and more present themselves with continued remote working. With so many companies unsure when they will reopen offices – and so many knowing remote work is a way of the future – companies are best served utilizing strategies to counter these struggles. The SCARF model can help companies do precisely that.

How you as a leader use the SCARF model to outline better remote working experiences for your employees? Here are some specific strategies.


Why Status is important: Whether you realize it or not, your mind has the tendency to rank your level of importance in comparison to the importance of others. Anytime you feel your status is equal or elevated in relation to your peers, your brain activates a “reward state” and is more focused than the brain of a person who feels their peers are seen with a higher status. If you feel your status is below the status of someone else, you’re likely to be more reserved.

Ideas for increasing Status with remote work:

  • Rotate who leads virtual meetings and conversations (for individuals who feel comfortable leading meetings).
  • Praise efforts and give appropriate credit in front of the entire team.
  • Continually ask others for thoughts, suggestions and ideas.
  • Let others know you realize the difficulties of working remotely, and you appreciate that they overcome those difficulties.


Why Certainty is important: Picture yourself sitting in your home office. A teammate calls and says the company president would like to speak with you ASAP. What goes through your head? Did you do something wrong? Will you fall victim to staff cuts, or will you be getting promoted? Your mind races trying to decipher what the president is about to tell you. Had your teammate told you the exact reason, like wanting to hear your thoughts on a new project, your mind would have been put to ease. Certainty does that. When you know for certain what each conversation, meeting, day or week brings, you are relaxed and able to fully focus your energy to do great work.

Ideas for increasing Certainty with remote work:

  • Provide at least one or two sentences of call/meeting details before any virtual interaction.
  • Relay objectives clearly and concisely, preferably on something that can be referenced (like an email).
  • Provide occasional “state of the union” style updates to let everyone know recent success stories and try to ease anyone in fear of job loss.
  • Where possible, provide details on the company strategy or some longer-term goals so people can see where their work fits in the overall direction. Even if your company has had to pivot in the pandemic, this will help employees find where they can add value and feel more confident their skills and knowledge will be needed.


Why Autonomy is important: Autonomy is the “right to self-govern.” Essentially, this allows you to make decisions for yourself and provides you freedom to do your work without constantly checking in with your manager or leader. Autonomy is necessary when working remotely, because we don’t have leaders or bosses looking over our shoulder, motivating us, walking around the office or advising us to manage our schedule a certain way. Autonomy is trusting your people to figure out more things on their own.

Ideas for increasing Autonomy with remote work:

  • Give people loose remote work boundaries, but not strict guardrails.
  • If possible, give people flexibility in their hours. For example, if someone can work 8:00 to 4:00 instead of 9:00 to 5:00 without any disruption to the team/customers, allow them to do so.
  • Encourage people to schedule lunch breaks away from the computer, walking breaks, etc.
  • Recognize others’ ability to work efficiently from home, and ask them for their personal strategies that keep them effective.


Why Relatedness is important: Plain and simple, people need psychological safety, and that’s often found through connection with others. As you work remotely and have less face-to-face interactions, you need to prioritize connectedness and relationships with peers who can relate to what you’re going through. Also, you need a work culture where you feel comfortable bringing your true self and feel fully valued.

Ideas for increasing Relatedness with remote work:

  • Hold Coffee Hours or Happy Hours for relaxing open discussion.
  • Conduct thoughtful icebreakers for 5-10 minutes before diving into work material during virtual calls.
  • Encourage people to work from coffee shops, when appropriate, so they can be in the presence of others and interact in new environments.
  • Connect isolated team members who often conduct solo projects with well-connected team members. Consider creating collaborative co-assignments for them to tackle.
  • Develop an in-house mentorship program to increase team connections.


Why Fairness is important: This one is straightforward: No matter who you are or what you do, fairness is essential to any culture. You need to know what is happening to you and around you is fair. This includes roles, assignments, workload, position in the company hierarchy and pay.

Ideas for increasing Fairness with remote work:

  • Hold standing weekly meetings with appropriate team members to give everyone discussion time.
  • Regularly ask how everyone is doing and if there is anything they need. Don’t just ask as a formality. Genuinely care and ask specific questions like, “Do you feel you’re getting plenty of time away from the computer?”
  • Discuss each team member’s workload and help them manage it if they need assistance.
  • Make it a norm for team members to bring you things that concern them – like perceived or real inequities in pay, job assignments, etc. Until you know what an individual thinks is “unfair”, you have no chance to address it.

In a nutshell, these are tangible ideas you can use for leading with confidence during this complex environment of COVID-19 and remote work. While you may already use some of these methods, let this blog confirm your instincts and give you some things to reflect on. Knowing how to lead with the brain in mind is useful in normal conditions, and it will be immensely powerful in times of turbulence and change such as these.

If you’d like to learn more about this topic, here are some resources:

Want to build up the leaders at your organization? Feel free to reach out to Dr. Ellis, drop us a line or tweet at us to continue the conversation..

Nick Sherwood is the co-founder of Navigator Leadership Corporation, a member of the John Maxwell Team and author of the self-development book Own The 8: Your Ultimate Guide for Mastering 8 Essential Areas to Unlock Potential and Achieve More, released in spring of 2020.

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