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Crisis Management

Remote Work Dos and Don’ts


Industrial and Organizational Psychologist Dave Sowinski shares his tips for managing emotional distance and technology misuse in remote work.

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As the coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt operations at organizations across the country and throughout the world, collaboration is more important than ever.

Dave Sowinski, a partner at Vantage Leadership Consulting, specializes in individual and team assessment and coaching, high potential identification and development, succession management, and embedding internal talent management capability within his clients. In this Q&A, Sowinski shares his video conferencing dos and don'ts, collaboration challenges, and how leaders can use empathy to support their teams.

FEI Daily:  What are the biggest collaboration challenges under normal circumstances (if the entire team works out of the same office)?

Dave Sowinski: One of the big challenges I see is teams struggling with constructive conflict. That can be a real barrier to effective collaboration and cohesion within the team.

There can be a dynamic of hub and spoke decision-making. With team members, they don't want to raise controversial issues in the meeting. So after the meeting they'll go talk to the leader to advocate on behalf of their point of view. Decisions can be made so that when the team gets back together, people are confused and there's a lack of alignment. Not having that clarity around our rules of the road, in terms of how the team operates, is really important.

In our experience, one of the most central tenants to high performance teams is shared alignment around a big goal or vision. Is there something that the team is really able to rally around and if there's a lack of clarity around that, that can be a real barrier to effective team performance.

FEI Daily: How about now that most everyone is working from home?

Sowinski: One of the things that is most important is making sure that there are still open lines for communication and dialogue. Because what you lose in this context is just the richness of communication. There's a lot that's missing when you're just operating through texts, emails, conference calls.

There's also an issue around that old saying, ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’ Physical distance can, over time, create emotional distance between team members and between teams. It requires organizations to get really creative and make an extra effort to ensure that people still have that connection with one another.

I've actually seen this done where there are virtual team building events, which can sound a little funny when you think about it at first. For example, the virtual happy hour. It's something we're actually experimenting with in our firm. I've also heard of organizations experimenting with virtual movie watching where they might watch a funny movie and have a shared chatroom that you can comment.

Finding ways to maintain personal connection is really important. We want that water cooler feel where you can create a non-work chat thread, or if you use Slack as a technology, build that channel where people can just talk about work and non-work comments.

FEI Daily: You mention Slack. What are some of the tools or technologies that you think are particularly helpful with collaboration?

Sowinski: Leaders need to be really thoughtful about the mode of communication that you pick. When you're working virtually, there's a lot of different ways that you can try to connect with somebody. You could use a service like a Zoom or a Google Hangouts, Google chats. You can text someone, you can email them, you can call them. You want to be very careful that if you use Slack and it shows that your team member is at their computer but you’re not hearing from them that you don’t send you a text, ‘Hey did you get my Slack message?’

You can't just pop in someone's office and ask them where something's at or ask them a question. You don't want to come across as annoying or overwhelm somebody when you're needing something from them.

Choose the kind of communication that you think is appropriate for the message and stick with that.

FEI Daily: How much should we be using video conferencing?

Sowinski: Video conference, when possible, is a terrific technology. It's advanced to the point where you can have very large video conference meetings and include as many people as possible. I do think it prevents people from multitasking. People do tend to be a little bit more engaged using a medium like that.

FEI Daily: Tell me about video conference etiquette.

Sowinski: Anticipate that the technology won't work perfectly. Always provide an audio dial-in option if it's not already been provided in the invitation.

Test the technology ahead of time. Make sure you've got enough connectivity to have an uninterrupted conversation, or plug directly into a landlines so you can really simulate as natural and as smooth a conversation as possible.

As a facilitator, still try to do icebreakers. Envision that you're sitting around the table and as much as you can, try to break the ice. Establish a rapport by having people describe the room from which they are calling. Try to personalize the interaction as much as you can. And certainly if you're the facilitator, make sure that everybody has an opportunity to participate. There can be a tendency for those with the loudest voice to get the most airtime. There's an opportunity for managers, as they are observing their teams using the technology, to give them feedback on what they’ve observed, like interrupting and cutting people off.

FEI Daily: How do you see collaboration and teamwork changing over the next five years?

Sowinski: It's a really interesting time to be asking me that question because we’re in an unprecedented moment in history and most organizations are doing some sort of flexible work arrangement with an emphasis on virtual remote working and, in some cases, are entirely work from home. All organizations don't have that luxury. We have some clients that are servicing very core sectors that could support societal needs. So they're trying to be as flexible as they can. But this is really forcing some pretty rapid changes in the way they think about work getting done and how teams and leaders need to come together to support customers.

Teamwork is more important than ever and this is going to force change. We're obviously all trained to stay aware and up to date with the requirements and requests regarding social distancing. But it'll be interesting in 18 months from now or two years from now, might there be some employees who are more entrants to the workforce, who have very little interest in working in an office environment? This may change the way we think about what is required to be successful in the work environment.

It's going to challenge comfort zones, challenge norms. I read recently, ‘The age of the office is over.’ I think that's an extreme point of view. But I do see there being some kind of evolutionary thinking that comes out of this.

FEI Daily: I agree with you. A lot of us will realize that our jobs can be done remotely. How are we going to feel going back? What advice would you give leaders for when we do all start returning to the office and how can they help their teams navigate that transition back?

Sowinski: I would anticipate coming out of this that there will be a greater need for organizations to be sensitive to the intermingling of work time and family time. And I do think that this is going to require all of us to be a little bit more creative, particularly when we think about the implications for leadership. Flexibility and adaptability are going to be more important than ever.

The importance of empathy is going to be key for leaders. We're talking about decisions that are really impacting people in very, very significant ways. It's worth thinking about what kinds of resources organizations can provide their employees to help make this transition more manageable. Maybe it's a gradual return to the office environment. Reminding everybody of the values of the organization and reminding people how the decisions that are being made reflect those values. Give them some sense of certainty and something to aspire to as they work through this challenging time and envision what the future holds for that.

Disruption can create change. And I do think it's going to force us to think about new ways of working and revisit some old assumptions.