There was fat chance that giving up your daily commute for Lent would have got the thumbs up from your boss. No-one planned this but, OK then, it looks like we’re all working from home till Easter. As the reality of dialling in from the kitchen table finally starts to become something we need to adapt to, what can the experts in the field tell us about our new remote working reality?
Well, the first thing to note is that, despite what you imagined, workers who work remotely report feeling more stressed, not less. According to the World Health Organization, remote workers are up to 70% more anxious than their peers who work in offices. And the reason? Well, it seems that without the day-to-day cues of nods, agreements, comments and corridor chatter, we begin to start worrying about our position in our organisations. Remote workers generally fret that their boss doesn’t trust them and their colleagues don’t like them.
Get used to this angst, because one of the obvious coping strategies doesn’t seem to work. Whether it is making sure your instant chat icon is always on, replying promptly to your boss’ emails or generally trying to project an air of productivity, many remote workers find that attempts to be noticed simply don’t work. Even the best-intentioned worker can find themselves desperately making performative actions intended to be observed by their managers.
Bleakly, the research suggests that these needy but well-intentioned attempts to put an apple on the teacher’s desk, rather than earning more respect, often only serve to make us feel more burned out. Picture the child with an arm thrust in the air and the teacher blithely looking the other way – it only serves to make that arm weary. The lesson, then, is: relax, don’t worry – we’re going to have to trust each other that we’re all putting in the hours over the next few weeks. Don’t sweat if your extra endeavour isn’t immediately observed.
One of the approaches that does seem to work is to agree a plan of attack. This is where your mum’s passive-aggressive approach to packaged holidays is going to finally pay off. Her insistence on trying to get towels on the sun loungers and a decent table at breakfast meant team work and co-ordination. Bring that Thomas Cook spirit to the discipline of team communication.
Evidence suggests that remote teams work best when locked into a co-ordinated plan. Teams should agree what blocks of time they intend to be engaged in rapid email/chat/Slack chatter – and what times are dedicated to deeper (quiet) work. Why? Well, remote teams seem to work better when they are "bursty" (going from periods of solo working to bursts of engaged discussion with fast-response times).
In many ways, this approach seems to emulate the best aspects of the office. The authors of that story assert: "We find that bursts of rapid communication, followed by longer periods of silence, are telltale signs of successful teams."
Of course, spending long hours confined to the house can sometimes make us economise on daily rituals. One regular remote worker shared their experience of setting personal boundaries for remote working (the linked article suggests you have a specific place you work; keep your hygiene up; remember to go outside; have times when you aren’t working). Most critically, it reminds us to "check in with people even if you don't have a work-related reason to". The absence of these check-ins is the surest way to eliminate workplace trust (it’s what I call "sync" in my book).
Of course, for those from Office Show Off, isolation can be bad for the brand. With long hours with no human contact, the importance of looking their shimmery best is about using every opportunity that presents itself. A daily Zoom call isn’t just an opportunity to be rendered in a postage-stamp-sized part of screen space for them; it’s a moment in the spotlight. Sending them something to bring a touch of Hollywood lighting for their video calls might be the stage they were looking for, after all.