Remote working looks like it’s set to become a permanent fixture within the future of businesses. So how can organisations ensure this way of working becomes humanized?
Covid-19 has certainly impacted the way we live. Social distancing mandates, wearing masks in public, bumping elbows instead of shaking hands—all things that would have been thought of as crazy just a few months ago are not only accepted norms now—they are considered critical, life-saving interventions.
The pandemic has also revamped the way we work. Those of us lucky enough to still have jobs plug away from home and do so in near isolation. We are separated physically from one another and connected only by the occasional web meeting or phone call.
So how long will this new existence last? No one really knows for sure, but the data suggests it is going to go on for a while. Companies as diverse as insurance giants, technology leaders, financial behemoths, even local businesses are all saying they will make remote employment a much bigger part of their business model moving forward. Seventy four percent of all CFOs expect to transition a number of previously on-premise employees to remote work setups and do so permanently as a result of the virus.
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Working from home is now the new “workplace” and the acute transition it represents has impacted us all. As businesses adjust to this new paradox they need to minimize the emotional distance working from home has created across their staffs; they need to find new ways of celebrating and bonding with one another, and they need to prepare people for a future that will be more demanding (at least psychologically) than ever before.
Here are some tips on how to humanize the strange reality we all find ourselves in where work is home and home is work.
1) Break down the emotional distance
Several years back Dr. Karen Sobel Lojeski introduced the term “virtual distance”. Her premise was simple really. She argued that when people are physically apart from one another (and left to communicate through electronic devices) emotional barriers begin to form. In the virtual world, there is almost no body language to go by and there is certainly no communal connection. As a result, innocent gestures like a simple but short email can be misconstrued and be thought of as abrupt or curt by the very people who don’t physically interact much.
In her mind, as we remain separated from one another virtual distance can accumulate. We can grow anxious within our relationships. Our “fight or flight” reflexes can take hold and when they do, we retreat emotionally. As a result, we become more disconnected to what we are doing and perhaps even more disassociated with the people we do it with.
That’s why it’s imperative, within this new working construct that we find ourselves in, that we work harder than ever to keep the lines of communication open, loose and free. Web meetings have helped to augment the faceless banter that goes back and forth over email, but video communications also have their limits. It’s impossible to share meaningful eye contact across boxes of talking heads and it is even harder to read anyone’s body language. Mostly, the reasons for meeting have become routine and predictable as web calls are almost always structured and agenda driven.
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2) Finding more ways to celebrate
Maybe it is time to break the monotony and add a broader range of celebration and interaction to the predictable web meeting concept. Yes, it’s always been important to celebrate effort and achievement, but now commemorative moments within the new working-from-home structure are even more critical.
And such occurrences do not need to be formal. One manager I know makes it a habit to highlight the special capabilities of at least one team member during his weekly call. He intentionally points out the good or innovative things that an individual has brought to the table. The idea works. It not only makes employees feel good about their own efforts, it makes an upcoming call something to look forward to.
And acts of reinforcement do not need to come from just one individual. Guest speakers—like invited senior staff—can applaud the different outcomes or ways of working exhibited by people on the team. That will also break up the day while helping to spread some much-needed confidence and appreciation across a group setting.
Sometimes an act of recognition can come by just asking one employee to talk about their own experiences. You can give someone a chance to speak about an important step they took to resolve a problem or move a project forward. That insight not only helps others learn from someone else’s experiences; it can humanize the trials we all go through as we do good work under trying circumstances.
3) Reducing the psychological demands we all feel
Why is working from our homes bringing us down? After all, the commute is non-existent, and we have the flexibility to take breaks when we need them. For the most part, we control our own hours and make our own schedules. Then why do 82% of US professionals who work remotely say they feel burnt out? Maybe it’s because more than half of us have problems making the separation between home and the “new office”: 52% say they end up working more hours than they used to with many believing that they are expected to contribute more than they ever have.
It could be that we also feel the pressure that’s part and parcel of a faltering economy. Many workers are worried about job stability (theirs and their partners). They are overwhelmed with childcare responsibilities and home-schooling demands, and for the most part they really cannot go anywhere or do anything to blow off steam. Employers need to keep all of that in mind and work harder themselves to mitigate the psychological impact the virus has had on all of us.
We are all in this together. Work restrictions and social barriers have affected each and every one of us. It will be the companies that overcome the obstacles consistent with Covid-19 that eventually regain their footing. Those are the organizations that will come out of the crisis with stronger leaders, a more vibrant culture, and a new level of interconnectedness that propels their people to do even greater things in the future. In the meantime, companies would do well to just bring a little more humanity to the new workplace.