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How quarantine is changing the way we work

14th Apr 2020
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Caitlin McDonald, Digital Anthropologist at Leading Edge Forum, examines how COVID-19 is changing the way we work, now and in the future.

A few months ago, I co-authored a report with my colleague Victoria Ward in which we argued that collaborative technologies such as videoconferencing and real-time shared document editing are no longer particularly novel technologies, but their increasing ubiquity and reliability are changing the physical environments in which we work. 

In particular, large organizations – typically slow to adjust to novelty and adapt to changing conditions – are becoming increasingly comfortable with rolling these tools out as standard parts of their collaborative toolkits.  As a result, it’s easier than ever for big sections of the population to work more flexibly than ever before.  

Fast forward a few months, and we find ourselves in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.  For the first time, organizations’ crisis management can include precautionary measures like closing offices or encouraging working from home even for employees not (yet) directly affected by the virus, with minimal disruption to the flow of information across the organization.  Some will be better equipped to handle this than others, of course: groups that are already at least partially familiar with the challenges and rewards of remote working will adjust more easily, while others may struggle with the behavioural and cultural changes necessary to support effective working at a distance. 

Creating the Conditions for Success

Fortunately, there are some simple techniques that HR teams can use to help their teams set up for remote success.  First and perhaps most important is to find ways to replicate the ‘coffee conversation’.  This might seem frivolous, but it’s in these micro-interactions that we build the trust with one another in small ways that we later rely on in big ways when something tough comes up.  One technique we saw from our research included explicitly setting aside time at the beginning or end of a meeting for ‘warm-up’ or ‘cool down’ chat outside of the formal business.

Defaulting to the needs of the most-remote person is another way to mitigate some of the communication inequalities that happen in blended teams.  This strategy is often recommended by accessibility inclusion advocates also, and is known as the curb cut effect: optimizing for your most vulnerable user (or in this case team member) ends up benefiting everyone. 

Another common anxiety about remote working that we saw in our research is digital presenteeism.  A good example of this is employees feeling they need to send flurries of reply-all emails to show that they’re working or responding to every single message in the company chat system so everyone else knows they’ve seen it.  Presenteeism (essentially anxiety about how your value is perceived) can become so extreme that looking like you’re working can become more important than the real outputs you’ve been asked to achieve.  

Teams need to learn to let go and trust that peers (and employees) are doing what they need to do to move the ship in the right direction even if you can’t monitor them every second of the day, which requires trust.  Second, everyone needs to do more ‘working out loud’: your remote teammates aren’t mind readers – they don’t know what you’re stuck on, what you need help with, what your big wins are, or anything else unless you tell them.  Finding an appropriate cadence for sharing news and changes that move the entire group forward is critical here.

Finally, one of our key recommendations is that quality kit creates trust.  Although the feeling of being ‘invested in’ helps, it’s actually more to do with the online collaboration or meeting experience.  When video freezes, audio quality is low, or other ‘jitters’ occur between participants, we interpret them subconsciously as interpersonal communication skills failures.  This impacts our confidence and trust, not just our ability to have a productive session.  Good tools also mean the non-verbal communication skills we all rely on in-person can shine through, improving trust.

Opportunities for Improving Remote Experiences

The next few months will probably be the greatest natural experiment for increased flexible working since the technology infrastructure has been strong enough to support such a cultural shift.  Despite the possible bumps in the road, given the technology we have now, there are resources for teams to make an effective transition to being productive and happy remote workers.  But there are still a few areas where there is room for improvement, and HR plays a key role in driving through change.  Here is a summary of where those innovations should be:

  • Design thinking & co-creation sessions.  While there are some tools emerging in this space, and some facilitator groups getting really good at handling these kinds of sessions remotely, I think there’s still no coalescence around a lead set of practices or features that enable this to happen seamlessly.
  • The hallway track.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that the ‘hallway track’ is always the most important part of a conference.  Broadcast content like talks can be relatively easily recorded or live-streamed.  The live, spontaneous interaction part – the very same thing that makes co-location in an office appealing – is the bit that’s really difficult to replicate.  A few new tools are emerging here too, and well-established players like G Suite are making it easier for some customers (such as education users) to access enterprise features to facilitate communication between larger groups. 
  • Triangulating around an object of focus (e.g. a whiteboard).  In person it is much easier to collaborate around an object, such as a whiteboard, to develop ideas or focus a meeting.  But they can become almost a central part of a company culture.  The issue with remote working is it is hard to recreate that situation where you, and another group, are collaborating around a third object.  Even with screen sharing this does not work as fluidly as in person.  There are some tools out there, but nothing that’s really captured the public imagination.  I think we’re some way yet from real innovations here, but I'm closely watching the AR/VR innovations for this.
  • Support for partially remote teams. The 2020 State of Remote Work report points out, most tools for remote workers assume the default that everyone is working equally remotely, while in reality, that’s very rarely the case.  Tools that would smooth the path for hybrid teams, working to enhance the experience of remote and co-located workers alike, are still a rarity. 

There is no doubt these are challenging times for HR teams and employees.  All are trying to adapt at pace.  It is important to remember that small changes can make a huge difference to employee well-being, feelings of anxiety and effectiveness.  The most interesting period will be when the experiment ends, how many feel they can take what they have learnt and make it part of their ‘new normal’.

Click this link to download Caitlin McDonald and Victoria Ward’s in-depth report Reconfiguring the Collaborative Workspace: Making the most of Time, Space and Attitude.


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