Remote Work Is Now: How to Make It Better!

I confess. I’m Mr. Remote-Work-Cheerleader. Have been my own boss since 2004. Haven’t gone to an office with co-workers physically present in over two decades. And I have no yearning for water cooler chats or in-person meetings in the boardroom.

That’s my bias. Reality for many is more complex, I get it. You may be an individual who thrives on face-to-face interactions in your office. They energize you.

And you’re not alone.

Research conducted by sociologists Zoltan Zelenyi and Tanya van der Lippe in the Netherlands is an eye-opener. Zelenyi and van der Lippe study the influence of co‐workers working from home on individual and team performance. Their massive research project, using survey data involving 9 European countries, 259 establishments, 869 teams and 11,011 employees, was published in the November 2019 issue of “New Technology, Work and Employment.”

While their study was conducted before the Coronavirus shutdowns, Zelenyi and van der Lippe’s findings are eerily relevant for how our current work-at-home scenarios may affect both the output quality of your teams as well as their emotional well-being.

The most startling discovery is that while some individuals perform exceptionally well from home, the collective performance by an entire team is invariably worse when many co-workers work from home.

Here’s the data. And here are some tips for you, the leader of a remote team or the suddenly remote team member, for overcoming these potential downsides:

84% say that workplace challenges or concerns drag on for a few days or more.

It takes longer to overcome hurdles because, well, I can’t just walk over to your office or cubicle and drop in on you. Something we might resolve in a quick 5-minute impromptu chat can suddenly take a series of emails before it is resolved. A quick solution may suddenly become a belabored fix.

Solution: Minimize emails. Pick up the phone. If your workplace environment is text-friendly or uses Whatsapp, choose those quick-response communication tools. Use a communication style that most closely mirrors the cubicle drop-in. Go for speed!

80% say they would have better relationships with more frequent team communication.

The message is clear. The social aspect of workplace relationships is way more significant than we tend to think. It fosters communication short-cuts. It creates communication ease among your team.

Solution: Many of you are already doing this – which is GREAT. Have your weekly virtual Happy Hour. It is critical to helping your team feel connected. If you’re the Director of a suddenly virtual team, have daily or bi-weekly virtual “office hours” where any member of the team can drop in, with no advance notice. Create the forums that will best simulate social connectedness. Be more available.

43% say that more face time would help them develop deeper relationships with team members.

This feedback builds directly on the preceding data. Team effectiveness is about so much more than transactional competence. Seeing each other, the body language, the social signals, the energy we feel – that is the social glue that binds a team.

Solution: Disregard the complaints about folks being “Zoom-exhausted.” The data is clear. We long to see each other more often. Zoom or the visual medium of your choice beautifully simulate that. It annoys the heck out of me when I hear that some global teams still hold their stifling old-school phone calls. Come on – really? Don’t be that team. Turn on the video.

41% believe that colleagues said bad things behind their backs.

Startling, isn’t it! This points to a deep-seated lack of trust in some of the colleagues we work with. This number, in the data gathered by our sociologists, sits at 31% for colleagues who we see at work in our physical offices. While the lack-of-trust metrics are high in traditional offices, physical distance seems to elevate distrust

Solution: Trust-building within a team is an ongoing effort. One off-site retreat where you conduct team-building activities won’t cut it. Integrate simple, quick, unforced trust-building into your virtual meetings. Start with check-ins where every person shares how s/he is feeling that day. Invite folks to share a non-work highlight of the week. Simple stuff. It anchors us in humanity. It matters.
Vivek Murthy, the inspiring and thought-provoking Surgeon General of the United States under Barack Obama, has written and spoken at length about how he has integrated such practices in his work. His book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World was published last month. The subtitle says it all, doesn’t it?

Foster connection. Foster it virtually. Foster it often. More frequent communication is the key.

And let’s see each other virtually, please.

Related: So You Said You Were AGILE. Are You?