This week we will talk about why home working might become increasingly normal once the coronavirus pandemic has passed. We will dispel some myths about working away from the office and having the constant presence of a team leader. We will also talk about ways to make your team thrive, even when they are not in the office.
A huge experiment in homeworking
We all know that modern management theory says that where possible, leaders should give autonomy and trust to their followers. A huge amount of money is spent on training supervisors and managers to become better leaders - reports have estimated as much as $14 Billion is spent each year in the United States on training managers to be leaders. As someone who has taught leadership in academic settings, and trained leaders in the workplace; I can safely say that leader development courses teach managers and supervisors not to view workers as naturally lazy leg-swingers, who need constant direction and monitoring. But for many managers and organisations there is a reluctance to let people work from home, based on the fear and misplaced assumption that people will not be as effective without direct supervision. However, homeworking can have considerable benefits for the organisation and the worker. For the organisation, there is the potential to introduce hot-desking and reduce office size and maintenance. For many workers there’s only one
thing better than a day off, and that is a pyjama day. Socially, there’s less commuting, so there’s less congestion, less pollution and less traffic accidents. We are currently engaged in a huge experiment in mass remote working, and it has the potential to forever change the way people work.
Major world events can bring about lasting changes.
The first world war was a devastating blow for the British economy, not only because war is mostly stupid and expensive (buying tanks and feeding an army has never been cheap) but also because countries and companies that bought their goods and supplies from the United Kingdom found new trading partners. International companies found that they needed to find new reliable trading partners as the naval supply lines from the United Kingdom to the rest of the world were curtailed or accosted for the war effort. British exports such as coal were now hijacked to provide supplies for the frontline. Once the war passed, the former customers of British goods continued with their new relationships with countries such as the United States and Japan. The UK was left to lick its wounds. “So What?” I hear you say: the point is that when change is enforced people learn to adapt whilst the positive aspects of the forced changes endure. In the case of international trade, even though the international customers of Britain were forced into looking for alternative supplies, they found that the new arrangements suited their needs.
One possible unintended outcome of the COVID-19 crisis is that organisations and individuals who were reluctant to allow remote working, will find out that it works out quite well, and production is not negatively affected, and attitudes will change permanently to allow more remote working.
Why not work from home?
Let’s have a closer look at why some people and managers prefer office working.
Why is that some people, who have the option of working from home, still prefer to go into the office? Some people like the social interaction and can find that working at home is too distracting – it’s too easy to get sucked into Jerry Springer reruns, there’s always a dish to wash or a tumble dryer to be loaded. They will tell you that they just don’t feel as motivated or effective trying to answer emails and write reports from the comfort of their own sofas. There can be a constant flow of interruptions whether it may be the mail man, the dog or children. Who could forget the infamous live BBC interview with Professor Robert Kelly an American political analyst on inter-Koran affairs? Whilst he faced his computer screen and was interviewed on live TV his not one, but two children and his wife joined him on screen much to the amusement of the world!
Among the negative perceptions of remote working include: a fear that people will engage in what sociologists call social loafing or free riding, in other words people will slope off and let other people take up the slack. If you’ve ever been on a conference call where the person running the meeting has asked for a volunteer, it seems that it takes a loooong
time for anyone to step forward; eventually the silence becomes so painful someone steps up to the plate. It seems that people can find it easier to hide in the shadows in a virtual environment.
It might also seem harder to get and gauge someone’s commitment, without looking them in the eye while asking them to do something and observing their body language as they respond.
What does the research say?
But despite these anxieties, for a long-time research has suggested that:
"there is little difference in the performance of dispersed teams who do not work together and co-located teams who work in the same physical space."
There is no clear evidence that teams who work virtually are any more or less effective than co-located teams who work in the same place. There is some mixed evidence that it takes new teams longer to build trust, but once trust is built, performance levels are roughly the same. But for teams that have already formed, which is the case for most people working remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, team dynamics are already set and so the possible difficulty of a newly formed team taking time to get from forming to performing is a moot point.
An added bonus of virtual working is that it seems to flatten hierarchies and remove status differences, allowing people to bring more of themselves to the party regardless of their position.
Hence, for most teams having people working from home will not make them less effective. Furthermore, given the push for work-life balance and flexible working there seems to be a strong case for actively promoting remote and home working.
How to get the Best Out of Virtual Teams
However, to get the best out of our people when they are working virtually, we might need to tweak our leadership approach.
We need to understand which workers feel they benefit from working at home and which workers feel they are just as productive when working remotely.
If someone wants to come into work every day of the week, support them in doing so but make it clear that it’s not an expectation.
The same way we don’t indulge nonsense office politics where people want to be the first one in and the last one out.
Surprisingly, extroverts might prefer virtual working more than introverts. And some nationalities seem to prefer different ways of interacting virtually. For example: Brazilians prefer video conferencing, while Americans prefer chat and email.
Some people who are learning a task or are new to the job might want to have face to face contact. They may feel demonstrations of how to do something are much better when you are in the same room. Also, they might appreciate directly seeing your facial expressions, as they seek confirmation and approval.
During the lockdown that many of us are experiencing, use this time to show your human side as a leader. Ask about how the person is feeling and coping; don’t just launch into being a manager and being wholly task focused.
Avoid the temptation to exert more forceful leadership and engage in micromanaging, to try and compensate for not having the direct contact of face-to-face interactions. Focus more on giving clear objectives and setting up support from yourself or others in the team. As illogical as it might seem, tightening the grip on a virtual team could see you choke the life out of it.
In general, leaders who are more personable seem to get more out of teams that work virtually than leaders who are more focussed on achieving tasks. But if you have a newly formed team with a relatively short deadline to deliver a project people will be looking for answers and guidance. Then task focused leadership and giving clear instructions is probably going to be the best strategy for success. Team members seem to appreciate directness, when things need to be done in short order.
Watch out for personal fallouts and unfulfilled commitments as these can seem to have a greater impact with virtual working versus face to face teams. When there is conflict, it’s easier for people who like to avoid conflict to do so. Subsequently the more dominant personalities might hold the floor, while other team members may be quietly sitting on really good ideas.
Relinquish some control and encourage shared leadership. One study which looked at remote working teams, found that the more a leader recognised the amount of peer support; the more successful the leaders team performed. The more a leader recognises, encourages and utilises the shared leadership of having team members support each other; the more likely the team will be successful.
As the computer savvy millennials start to take up more and more of the working population; remote working and computer mediated technologies will be accepted more readily. In one recent study, even professionals of a normal working age did not find the use of digital communication technologies to be an obstacle. Perhaps that’s not to be so unexpected: many middle-aged people have 10-year-old Facebook accounts and Yahoo email accounts that are even older. Technology is not the intimidating monster it once was. Different people will have different aptitudes but standard basic training when new software is introduced e.g. Microsoft Teams or Zoom, will pay dividends.
Set up rules for meetings. Let people know if there’s an expectation to have the camera on or if voice alone is good enough when using video conferencing applications (some people might prefer to literally take a pyjama day). And come up with clear guidelines for decision making. There is some evidence that decision making can be slower using virtual communication.
Finally, for meetings where you would prefer face to face contact schedule them to happen on regular days. For example: you might decide that all the team needs to be in on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while having a degree of flexibility about the rest of the week regarding remote working.
So, there you have it: working remotely is productive and rewarding. In the future leave the car keys hanging where they are, boot up your computer and pour yourself a drink – nothing too strong: your on work time!
Dr. Jared Dempsey is the Principal Psychologist at Kognivate.
This blog is for education purposes and may be freely shared with attribution.