Stefanie Mockler, M.A.
Busting Myths & Sharing Best Practices to Make Remote Working Work For Your Team & Business
In the face of a global pandemic, we’re seeing unprecedented numbers of people shifting to or being offered the option of remote work.
Remote work refers to working from all sorts of locations, and its use has been on the rise for a while (with Forbes reporting that it’s no longer simply a privilege but rather standard operating mode for nearly 50% of the US population); however, in light of COVID-19, many are having to shift to working remote practically overnight, without much time to get a solid plan in place.
So, if this is you, your team, or your organization, let’s take a moment to bust some myths and stereotypes regarding remote work + identify some best practices for how to make 'remote work’ work.
Also, as a preface, if this is the first time you’re managing a remote team, or working remotely yourself, it will be messy as you figure things out — I'd encourage you to approach this from a change management mindset, assuming that, before things “click” and become effective, they are likely to become more challenging, frustrating, and difficult.
The Kubler-Ross change curve illustrates the series of emotional stages we are likely to go through during a period of change - from losing a loved one to being faced with working in a highly different way.
With COVID-19, we're speeding through these at an accelerated pace without much time to stop and reflect. However, from my estimation, many are stuck in a state of "disruption" - feeling fearful and uncertain.
To move toward the next state of exploration (and importantly, get to problem-solving), it's critical to watch, listen, and support.
There is a lot of power in remembering that many of us are in this together. If you’re struggling with the change, chances are someone else is too — so get together, listen and provide support, and collaboratively identify solutions.
This is also a great time to shift from asking why to asking what. Why questions can lead to a cycle of rumination and exacerbate frustrations, whereas what questions help us shift into mindset of problem-solving.
For example: ask not “why am I feeling so frustrated with work right now?” but rather, “what could I do differently to make this new reality more effective?"
Another effective tactic is to expect the expected. That is, recognize and accept that things will get more challenging through a period of change and transition, and proceed with open eyes, a learning mindset, and importantly, some levity (the world feels heavy enough right now, right?).
So, your dog won’t stop barking while you’re on a conference call or your cat walks across your computer screen while in a video conference (yes, both things happened to me in the last few days) — laugh it off and move on.
We’re all human, and we have to adjust together.
OK, now that you're armed with a few personal strategies to get through the this change, let’s bust some myths that promote a bias against remote work and contribute to feelings of guilt for flex-workers.
Myth: People who work remotely get less done than those who work in a traditional office.
Reality: First, regardless of where someone is working, there are always going to be people who are more productive than others —working environment, felt motivation, job fit, [insert other job-related variables and concepts] matter — however, if you take a talented, motivated, and productive employee who is a good fit for their current position, and put them in another place (home) to work, they’re not going to simply become unproductive overnight.
So, let’s nip that in the bud real quick... moving on. Evidence suggests that when employees are offered remote working options, their performance may be enhanced through increased job satisfaction.
Dan Pink — author of Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us — argues that performance is actually a combination of three intrinsic elements:
Autonomy: freedom and control to direct our own lives
Purpose: desire to do something meaningful
Mastery: strive to continually improve in our work
Note that none of the above mention: “desire to work in an office space” as key to performance 😉
So, in all seriousness, as you shift to remote work, consider how you might tap into these 3 elements of motivation, regardless of location.
Myth: Traditional employees are more committed to their work than remote employees.
Reality: Evidence suggests that employees who have the benefit of working flexibly tend to be more committed, likely due to flexibility's positive impact on their well-being, feelings of control and autonomy, and reduction of work-life conflict.
The positive relationship between employee commitment and remote work is particularly evident for informal working options as they tend to emerge on an ad hoc basis through times of need (e.g., COVID-19) or through negotiation with one’s supervisor or boss, and are likely accompanied by feelings of supervisor or boss support.
Myth: It is easier to communicate and collaborate when everyone is in one space.
Reality: Okay, so is it easier to communicate and collaborate when your colleagues are literally down the hall? Sure.
But, saying “well, it’s easier” as a rationale against shifting to work remote is quite an excuse. The more apt thing to say is that remote work can be more challenging, at first, because it requires a lot of change in how we work, collaborate, and communicate.
Simply throwing around the “well, it’s easier” excuse is, while not necessarily myth, a phrase to bust.
Now that we've busted some myths of remote work - and hopefully, if you hear people say these things, you'll be armed with insights to share - let’s discuss best practices for how to make remote work most effective.
New ways of working necessitate new ways of communicating.
Ever get the feeling that, as a remote worker, you may be "out of sight-out of mind”? You’re not alone.
To effectively work remotely, we have to take a good hard look at how we communicate with our colleagues. If you’re the type of person who walks around the office to connect with colleagues and then leaves it at that, time for some behavior change.
Here are some suggestions for adopting new methods of communication:
Don’t just overuse email — we’re all inundated with enough email as it is. Go back to the basics and pick up the phone to connect with your colleagues, use real-time chat (e.g., Slack), and utilize video technology when you can. It makes the communication synchronous (aka happening in real time) and you minimize the chances that you’re mis-interpreting reactions, tone, and messaging. “Sure, that’s fine” can feel very different via phone vs text or email.
Do you typically eat lunch with a colleague or grab coffee to connect? Schedule a virtual coffee or lunch meeting.Usually host a happy hour at your office or head offsite to socialize after a long week? Hop on Zoom with a drink of choice and host a happy hour remotely.
The key here is finding ways to use virtual communication to stay connected, avoid losing touch with one another, and importantly, provide social support through a strange and scary time.
There’s enough uncertainty in our current world — so, don’t leave too many things up for interpretation. Set clear expectations and boundaries regarding how and even when to work remotely.
Remote work doesn’t have to feel like the wild, wild west, but if you don’t put the right strategies and expectations in place, it certainly can.
So, first things first, get together (virtual working lunch meeting anyone?) and specify some "rules of the road” for how your team will work together remotely.
Remember: these conversations do not necessarily have to happen at the company-wide level, rather, each individual work team or unit can decide on their own rules of the road.
When making decisions, consider how interdependent you are with other areas of the organization (e.g., if you’re in Finance, and HR relies on your support for payroll, then link up with that function to make sure you’re all aligned regarding how you’ll work best together).
Within the team, ask:
Will we have a specific timeframe where we’re all “on” together? For example, perhaps you designate 10-3pm as the core working hours for your team — when everyone is available (for phone calls, slack, email, etc) and the rest of the time is “flextime” wherein people can choose when to complete their individual work.
What will be our preferred mode of communication for resolving issues or working together? Perhaps you stick with email for certain forms of collaboration, while using Slack or phone calls for the rest. The important point is not necessarily what you choose, but rather that your team is aligned around how you're communicating.
Avoid micromanaging during this time - recognize that everyone will need to adjust and get settled into this 'new normal' which may mean disruptions initially (in fact, expect it), but micromanaging behavior can damage trust and make the transition more, not less, difficult.Avoid saying: "we must respond to every email within 5 minutes" (not realistic) - and rather ask: "what's a realistic timeframe in which we can expect responses from one another?" Connecting back to the change model, this is a time to explore, ask, and listen as you problem-solve.
For 'remote work' to work, leaders and those in high-status, high visibility positions need to role model desired behaviors.
Mixed messages, in particular, should be avoided during this time.
For example, following in line with the core working hours example above: if you agree that employees will be “on” from 10-3pm and then you call your employee 3 times at 8am and ask “where are you? Why weren’t you answering?”, that’s a mixed message, which results in stress and more ambiguity for your team.
So, set the ground rules and then stick to them. If they’re not working, get together and openly re-evaluate — and course correct as needed.
Iteration is to be expected, but mixed messages start to undermine trust and make remote working more stressful than it has to be.
Finally, as noted above, showing one another empathy and grace during this time is key.
For those new to remote work, there’s a learning curve —
Let's approach this with curiosity and ask not: what could go wrong, but rather, what could go right?
And remember, that along with the changes that come with working differently, we’re also faced with all sorts of other changes in our lives — from kids being out of school for working parents, to having to avoid our favorite spots, to all sorts of events — work and pleasure — being cancelled or postponed. Again, compassion and grace are critical.
What did I miss? What else have you experienced in this shift that would be important to note? Let's learn together.
For some other great resources on remote working, check out:
In this piece, Ben Butina starts out with a hard truth: this won’t be easy, in fact, it will be very, very tough. Then, he offers practical suggestions organized around 3 core themes: Be cool. Be caring. Be connected.
In this @HBR piece, Heidi Gardner and Ivan Matviak offer some actionable strategies for leaders to utilize to ensure their teams can collaborate effectively and maintain business momentum.
A colleague, Susanne Krivanek, also shared this piece which offers suggestions both for new remote workers as well as organizations wherein remote work isn’t quite possible.