Covid-19 has certainly given us a lot to think about. Recent rules put in place around the globe have shuttered offices and buildings everywhere. Most people working in the UAE have just completed their first week of working from home, as directed by the government.
Around the world we have had to embrace large-scale virtual working and with far less preparation time than any of us would have expected.
Working virtually is not new. I have been researching it in the field and writing about it since the early 2000s and I certainly was not the first. The good news is that we have learned a lot in the intervening years, the tools and technologies supporting us have improved dramatically and all of us are more familiar and comfortable with interacting online.
While many of us have experience working virtually, not everyone has the same amount of experience, comfort or access. Those with experience working virtually have typically done so by choice rather than due to the current reality – where many of us find ourselves “virtualised” by the situation. Given this new reality, we need strategies for how to structure our work as well as manage our own needs and expectations.
While many organisations have put in place policies and practices to support virtual work, it has not been at the scale and scope we are now facing and certainly not introduced in some cases literally overnight. To address this, we need to think holistically about what we need to provide.
For one, we need to figure out the differing levels of experience and comfort working virtually and proactively help those who are neither used to, nor at ease with this approach. This can introduce a new source of unease and power imbalance. Research and experience has repeatedly shown us how working in a language other than your mother tongue can leave collaborators feeling less skilled, frustrated and outmatched.
Similarly, there is a language of remote work and gaining fluency in it is neither easy nor quick. In this way, your team may face a new-found power imbalance between those who feel comfortable and skilled at working virtually and those who do not.
If this is the way you normally work, try to think back and remember what it was like when you first started. What were your common mistakes? Did you forget you were on mute? Did you leave your microphone on when you went to the bathroom? Did you forget to send the access code to your meeting participants? If this is not the way you normally work, be conscious you may feel out of your depth or a bit insecure. A way to counter this is to start your meeting with a check-in on what challenges people are having and let the members of the group share recommendations or best practices. That process of coaching itself will both address specific issues and also strengthen the team’s bonds.
Remember as well that not everyone has a home setup with a studio-quality condenser microphone with elastic suspension, a pop screen and a 4K-capable video camera – and that is ok. The latest technology is not what will make or break your virtual collaboration.
What is a necessity is that everyone is aware of the technical capabilities, limitations and comfort level of their teammates. A common frustration of virtual work comes from the mis-attribution of technical issues to personal ones. We have all been on a call or video conference with someone with spotty connectivity and, let’s be honest, it is not long before our annoyance with the situation starts to spill over into frustration with our colleague for making us repeat ourselves or reconnect. With that in mind, pay attention to the structuring of work and establish boundaries.
Working from home is a challenge, not least because you must actively manage the boundary between home and work. Boundaries are important for our psychology as they help us compartmentalise and avoid overload. In a traditional office environment that separation comes via your morning commute. And while many of us wrestle with our inability to switch off when home, that is very different from having all your switched on time at home.
One way to address this is to decide what part of your home will serve as your workspace (you can have a few – that is one of the benefits). Similarly, decide when you will work. Think in terms of setting up daily rituals. They provide temporal boundaries for when you are in work mode and when you are not. For example, start your day with exercise, take lunch at the same time, schedule time to check in with friends or check emails at fixed intervals. Seasoned virtual workers attest to the importance of making the when and where of home and work distinct.
And while creating separation is a valuable step, you will not get it totally right. At some point home life comes barging in like the gatecrashing children interrupting their father’s BBC interview that went viral a few years ago.
Rather than getting caught off-guard, recognise and expect such hiccups. One great technique is to start with a virtual tour of the environment. Turn the camera around, show your environment and share with your colleagues any likely interruptions such as rambunctious children, curious pets or shared spousal workspaces. This makes it less disruptive and embarrassing for you when it happens and is often a good way to bond with your co-workers who are grappling with the same challenges.
This promotes a key success factor of virtual work – mutual understanding. The more your collaborators understand what your working reality is like, the easier it is to interpret your behaviours, beliefs and actions correctly. Your ability to take the perspective of others is a critical ability in remote work – and a lot harder, given that you do not have all the other information (for example, shared spaces and experiences) you normally have at your disposal.
In our research on distributed collaborations, the Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley and I found “reflected knowledge” – the insights gained when distant collaborators joined regularly scheduled meetings from the other side (that is, sat in on a meeting with their usual home location while on a site visit) were key success factors for teams.
It is important also to set the ground rules. Different teams need different things to be effective, just as different team members need different things to be productive, engaged and fulfilled. Having studied teams – both virtual and collocated – for years, I can tell you there is no one-size-fits-all template that you can use to stamp out a winning combination each time. This is why team launches are so critical. Teams that take the time to engage up front and decide how they want to work start their collaboration with a massive leg up. Do not let the fact that the team has worked together for the past five years stop you, because that work was a very different animal.
Bear in mind, it is necessary to keep communication open and regular. As the situation continues to evolve there may be new challenges ahead. As is usually the case, the simplest solution tends to be the best one: talk. Schedule a weekly check-in not on what you are doing but how you are doing it. A critical element for any team is trust and one of the best ways to establish that trust particularly in virtual environments is regularity.
For many, Covid-19 is changing work in a far more complete way than typical virtual work. For some this means being cut off from the daily work routine, for others it may mean even more severe social isolation. While it is easy to focus on the impact of these on your ability to efficiently accomplish your tasks, remember that the informal water-cooler conversations, coffee-pot chats and cubicle prairie-dogging serve multiple important purposes. They provide sources of informal information that are the oil critical to keeping the machinery of your organisation going. It is also important we realise that our daily routines and normal work environments provide a critical link to social connections, friendships and support networks.
I firmly believe and research shows that virtual interaction is a weak substitute for face to face. In fact, virtual interactions fool us into believing we have more and stronger social connections, while not triggering all the positive biological responses that social engagement brings. Unfortunately, the current situation does not provide us with many alternatives. However, one can still promote connection, not just on tasks, but as people. Setting aside some time to check in and connect is neither an inefficient nor inappropriate use of your team’s time.
Mark Mortensen is associate professor of organisational behaviour at Insead. He's based in Fontainebleau, France