Four Things We Miss When Working Remotely

And how to replicate them in an all-remote team

Nov 12, 2020
Management

SMITH BRAIN TRUST  This shift to remote work had already been growing before many of us abruptly started working from home eight months ago. The COVID-19 pandemic is just accelerating the process. Some companies – Twitter, Facebook, Zillow, Raytheon, Square – have already declared many employees will work remotely going forward. But a big question looms: Can companies be as productive in the long-run when everyone is working from home?

Yes, says Kathryn Bartol, a Maryland Smith management professor, whose latest research looks at how remote teams can communicate better. She says companies can be as productive when everyone is working from home, even without some of the elements that work so well in the office.

Managers have to learn how to be good at this, she says.

“If you can get the team to work well together and provide leadership – give them some goals and purpose and also support – you can definitely get people to work effectively when everyone is remote,” Bartol says. “You have to be empowering and get shared leadership on the team. That’s critical to making this work.”

Here’s how good managers and teams can remotely work out some of the things that work so well in person – “It just might take a little more effort to orchestrate,” says Bartol:

Creative problem-solving: For teams that frequently huddled together in the same room to solve problems and come up with new ideas, technology replicate that setting, says Bartol, who points to a number of studies that indicate people can brainstorm and collaborate effectively with technology such as Zoom, Slack, Google Docs and Microsoft Teams. “There is more software around now to help people communication and share information and data,” she says. Because of the pandemic, people have quickly become more comfortable with the tech.

Managers can also work to keep people more engaged, Bartol says. Have shorter meetings, more frequently, to keep things moving forward. Have people do more preparation work before meetings, like prepping documents and presentations, so teams can use the group time to work together for brainstorming and problem-solving.

Right now – with few people travelling for work – it is easier to get full attendance in meetings. It’s also easier to invite people from outside the team to participate in virtual meetings.

Serendipity: Those water-cooler conversations and lunchroom chats that lead to the kind of information-sharing that increases productivity don’t happen to the same extent when everyone is working at home. “But it’s not impossible to have some serendipitous conversations, especially if you try to have some open-ended kinds of things where people could get together and share ideas,” says Bartol. Hold virtual office hours or break-out sessions within teams, she says. Allow time for people to have a bit of small talk before, after or during meetings. “That’s always been a good practice,” she says, “and it’s especially true when everyone is remote.”

Virtual coffee and tea meetups, Zoom lunch gatherings, or social activities like virtual trivia events can also elicit serendipitous exchanges, she says.

Camaraderie: Studies have shown the importance of close relationships with co-workers and having a “work best friend.” Those relationships increase workplace satisfaction, and high workplace satisfaction increases productivity and decreases turnover rates, says Bartol. “I do think it’s harder to build deep friendships and camaraderie when everyone is remote. But it’s not impossible, especially if leaders are helping people to come on board.” Managers should set up meetings to introduce the new hire to the right people. “With everyone on Zoom, you can easily set up a quick virtual welcome for the new member to meet everyone.”

Work/home balance: When you go to a physical workplace, you head home at the end of your workday. Now your office may be your dining room table, and work can easily extend beyond dinnertime. But, as Bartol points out, even before so many people were working from home, most of us weren’t working with paper files we had to leave at the office. “The workday can extend endlessly because everyone has access to the work materials, much more so than they used to,” Bartol says. Managers and teams need to figure out workday expectations to set the ground rules for the separation between work and home. Come to agreements on work hours, how quickly you’ll respond to emails and how many times, generally, you’re going to meet each week or month, she says.

“The mistake that managers make with virtual teams is they try to be the traffic cop on everything and try to run things centrally. A better way is to allocate responsibilities but within some kind of structure.” Set up communication to keep everybody informed on projects, which is easier than ever with certain platforms and tools. ”You have to share leadership more in the team because you can’t just walk down the hall and see what’s going on.”

Keeping remote teams as productive as in-person teams comes down to good managers making sure people are working together, just like in an office setting, but likely with a bit more effort.

“If the team is dysfunctional, that’s true in an office setting, too,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if you are face-to-face or at home. It’s a matter of whether you can set up the tools and get people to share leadership and keep people involved and engaged.”

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About the Expert(s)

Kathryn M. Bartol

Dr. Kathryn M. Bartol is the Robert H. Smith Professor of Leadership and Innovation and Chair of the Management and Organization Department at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, College Park. She is the director of the Center for Leadership, Innovation and Change (CLIC). She holds an Executive Coach Certification from the Columbia University Coaching Certification Program.

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