Remote work can be super productive, but it can also be lonely and stressful. Because it’s harder to collaborate, it’s more difficult to communicate, and it’s tougher to unplug than it is when working in an office.
That old-timey physical space, though limiting in many ways, helps establish certain norms and behaviors that build camaraderie. Hallway conversations, lunch with a coworker, and office banter fuel our sense of belonging. These and other informal pathways for communication and collaboration are what contribute disproportionately to results. And the truth is that you cannot easily digitize this secret sauce.
Maybe you don’t have such fond memories of the office. After all, communication, collaboration, and a sense of camaraderie don’t always come easily there. And that’s true. But however difficult it may have been in your particular situation, there’s no doubt that it’s harder now in remote mode—especially when team members also need to collaborate with others across the organization who are also remote.
Let’s face it, when everyone is working remotely things can get a little weird. Almost all communication happens in pre-scheduled meetings of some sort. You don’t see the same cross-section of people that you used to see just by walking down the hall. All the bad features of email and its overwhelming flood of disjointed communication fragments become a central battleground where you spend a lot of time parsing through messages to figure out what is happening. We end up with a clinical feel to the culture. It’s dehumanizing.
Work is more than exchanging productivity for a paycheck. We get the most out of our work when we feel like we are contributing to something bigger than ourselves. We build connections, develop relationships, and earn each other’s trust. We look for opportunities to stretch ourselves and grow as professionals and as people. We learn to accept help, criticism, and advice from others. We learn to give back. We create community.
Of course, it’s not all fantasyland at work. It is also problematic, challenging, and frustrating. That beautiful mess is what makes it a human experience.
Working remotely changes the game. It helps that we are all in the same boat. But that sudden shift was driven by a global pandemic and that backdrop is problematic. Because not only do we face all the challenges of a dramatic change in how we work but we are also surrounded by a flood of new outside stressors.
The coronavirus is a direct threat to our health and safety and to those around us who we care about. It also has created a range of problems from financial to mental health. Add to that relentless political strife and pulsating social unrest.
All of these things hit right at the foundation of Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs.
All of this creates an opportunity for team leaders to do more. That begins with humanizing work.
Providing flexibility, support, and encouragement are paramount. But so too is space and time to talk. This is a good use of video calls, whether they are one on one or with a group. Shifting meetings to a focus on making sense of what is happening and to some extent processing emotions can go a long way toward making people feel better connected. Because as humans, we think a lot about the future. We feel like we have deliberate choices to make—or in the case of work, that our leaders have deliberate choices to make—that will make our future either better or worse.
Helping make sense of the here and now helps us to more readily anticipate what is coming next. And what is happening next is usually on the forefront of everyone’s mind.
We get peace today by feeling a little more certain about the future. All the uncertainty in the world now is creating a lot of stress. Feeling a little sense of understanding and control can go a long way toward relieving some stress. And even if a clear picture of the future at work isn’t possible right now, team leaders can help foster open and honest discussion about that, which still helps because people feel included in the conversation.
Establishing routines and patterns can provide comfort and some predictability. So even if some of your regular meetings feel unproductive, keeping them up so that people have an opportunity to check-in can be helpful. It’s also good to have a some space for goofing off. Maybe you use a collaboration tool. Setting aside a channel or section just to post random things can help replace the personal touches that give life to the workplace. The same can be true for meetings that are designed to be purely social.
And maybe you can find opportunities for some team members to step up and contribute in new ways. Now is a time to take risks and try new things. Some of those ideas could end up helping someone develop their higher order needs Maslow would label Esteem or Self-Actualization. Now might be the perfect time for some to develop their leadership skills.
At the same time, many people will need to focus on the basics and their days and nights might continue to be disrupted in lots of different ways. If they have school-aged children, need to care for parents, or have a spouse with a challenging work situation (or who has lost a job), their personal lives may need more focus right now. In that case, give them space.
Doing whatever you can do to humanize the culture and attitude at work will help. If there were ever a time for emotionally intelligent leadership, it’s now.