Shifting the focus from the phenomena and effects of working virtually to the individual behaviors and skills needed to succeed.
Managers need to understand factors that can make remote work especially demanding.
Quick and inexpensive things that managers can do today to ease the transition
As virtual work becomes increasingly prevalent, it becomes more important to determine what factors are needed for an individual worker to be successful in a virtual work environment, and how to prepare individuals for virtual work.
Building ‘virtual’ emotional intelligence
There is evidence that much virtual work takes place beyond traditionally studied contexts, arising organically as part of ongoing work flow. As this unstructured virtual work becomes increasingly prevalent, it becomes more important to determine what factors are needed for an individual worker to be successful in a virtual work environment, and how to prepare individuals for virtual work.
Fortunately, prior to Covid-19 there has been significant research done into the effects of virtual working and how managers can develop an individuals skills and behaviours to succeed.
From the empirical and theoretical findings we can deduce certain critical success factors in virtual work. From there we can develop an informed process of individual adaptation to virtual work and to unlock the cognitive mechanism underlying this adaptation, which can be called virtual emotional intelligence.
What Are Some Remote Work Challenges?
Lack of face-to-face supervision:
Both managers and employees can often express concern with the lack of actual face-to-face interaction. Managers often worry that employees don’t work as hard or as efficiently from home (though not borne out in actual research). Many employees, on the other hand, struggle with reduced access to managers – to the point that some employees feel that remote managers are out of touch with their needs. The key is to ensure face-to-face communication that enables work to get done. Depending on the structure of your team it’s important to keep in mind the cadence of said meetings. A group of developers may not need a twice daily scrum call as their work requires longer periods of concentrated work. A sales team definitely benefits from being able to share strategies in the morning and discuss results in the afternoon.
Lack of access to information
One of the most common employee complaints is the added time and effort needed to get in contact with coworkers to get time-sensitive information. What would be a quick walk to someone’s desk now has become an email which simply goes to the bottom of the queue.
This can lead to interpersonal challenges due to a lack of “mutual knowledge” among remote workers. Research has found that remote workers have less willingness to give each other the benefit of the doubt in difficult situations. If someone is having a rough day at home a brusque email is more likely to make someone offended than in an in-person environment.
Believe it or not, some employees enjoy being at work and appreciate the informal social interaction of an office setting and often complain of loneliness in remote work situations.
This doesn’t only affect extraverts (who suffer from isolation more in the short run), any employee feels less ‘belonging’ to their organization and can even result in increased intention to leave the company.
Distractions at home:
If we’re on a Zoom call, I don’t care if your kids are in the frame, having a meltdown in the background, or are sitting in your lap playing with your keyboard. I get it. The fact that you’re continuing to work is a minor miracle. Just do your thing.
— Sunil Dhaliwal (@dhaliwas) March 17, 2020
With a sudden transition to virtual work the chances of your employees having dedicated workspaces and adequate childcare (especially with the possibility that the school year is done) are slim. Even during normal circumstances home and family demands can be distracting to remote work; managers should expect these distractions to be greater during Covid-19.
Quick and Easy Solutions To Implement Today
To support face-to-face supervision – structured daily check-ins:
Many successful remote teams establish a daily call with their remote employees (it’s what we do at Digitcom). Depending on the structure of your team you may find that independent workers prefer a 1:1 meeting over a large scrum call where they may not be able to speak as candidly. If your team is highly collaborative, on the other hand, you will find that the daily scrum calls enables people to support each other on roadblocks and to provide timely information to each other. A good cadence is to ask what they accomplished yesterday, what they’re working on today, a roadblock, and the plan to get past it. The roadblock portion is vital as it allows for real-time resolution as opposed to another email.
Provide several different communication technology options to streamline access to information and each other:
Email alone is insufficient. Veteran remote workers and new remote workers benefit from having “richer” technology such as video conferencing which provides all of the visual cues that we rely on from face-to-face communication.
Integrating unified communications has never been more important. A research study found that using unified communications clients saved an average of 32 minutes daily per employee because presence technology enabled staff to reach one another on the first try. Mobile workers also saved 40 minutes each day, enjoyed greater business communications convenience, and generated annual productivity gains of 3.5 days per year through business continuity impact. Organizations using unified messaging reported that in-office employees saved 43 minutes per day from more efficient message management while mobile workers saved 55 minutes per day.
If your company doesn’t have these tools in place you have nothing to worry about. Recognizing the far-reaching implications of Covid-19 and the social responsibility to flatten the curve numerous companies such as Avaya, Microsoft, Lifesize, and more have offered free access to enterprise level video-conferencing and unified communication tools.
Establish ‘rules of engagement’:
Remote work becomes more satisfying for everyone involved when management set expectations for the frequency, means, and ideal timing of communication from the team. For example at Digitcom we use video conferencing for our morning huddle, IM for messages and if something truly escalates we’re equipped with softphones and IP phones to be able to pick up the phone and talk to each other.
Provide opportunities for remote social interaction to tackle social isolation:
Leave some time at the beginning of team calls just for non-work items (on Monday’s you can lead with ‘how was your weekend?’). Other options we’ve seen include virtual pizza parties (delivering pizza to people all at the same time) or virtual office parties (send care packages in advance). While these may feel like forced social interaction both managers and employees report that virtual events help reduce the feelings of isolation.
Offer encouragement and emotional support:
We’re all in this together. Especially given the abrupt shift to remote work it’s crucial for managers to acknowledge and understand employee’s anxieties and concerns, and empathize with their struggles. One of the biggest flags for management is an employee not communicating at all. Set up a 1:1 video call and find out how they’re doing, how’s the remote work situation working out for them? Asking the question is 30% of the solution, the other 70% is carefully listening to the answer (briefly restating the answer to make sure you understand it helps to avoid misunderstandings). Try to let the employee’s stress or concerns be the focus of the conversation.