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Remote working, COVID-19, and a new normal… maybe.

24.06.2020

A new normal?

Since COVID-19 swept the world, for many of us our working environments changed overnight. In a matter of months, entire countries have been locked down with many office-dwellers forced to work from home. Many of us find ourselves with a new working scenario, but is this a temporary situation or, as many question, are we in the process of creating a ‘new normal’? Once coronavirus has run its course, will things return to how they were before, or will the landscape have changed forever?

 

With the leaps and bounds made by technology in recent decades it’s possible to be seen, contribute and socialise in any number of ways without being in a specific location. This is particularly visible in the tech landscape where this shift began years before COVID-19 hit, so this sphere was well prepared when did it. But what of the rest of us? Is following these footsteps the inevitable future – and if so, what does that mean?

 

 

Ways of working

If increased remote working is inevitable, what does that mean for businesses that don’t operate on the cutting edge of tech? what tools are needed and how do we best use them?

 

With remote working perhaps the greatest challenge is one of communication – a tricky element at the best of times! Now more than ever the ability to use the right tools in the right way to effectively coordinate and collaborate with team members is essential, so what’s in the tech kit bag?

 

First off, the obvious entry: email – it’s such a hygiene factor now I think it would be fair to say most of us hardly give a second thought to its use; in fact, I’m tempted to go so far as to say we’ve become so adapted to it, that we can occasionally be a touch guilty of leaning on it too much. It’s really useful for figurative paper trails, and documenting processes and decisions, but not the best tool for coordinating teams as it lacks the flexibility and clarity of a quick discussion and is easily open to misinterpretation.

 

Then there’s chat functions – Skype, Microsoft Teams, Slack, Viber etc: The ability to have an immediate exchange that can sufficiently mimic a conversation is an essential tool in any tech kit bag. Functions that enable you to tag specific team members to signal when something requires their attention keeps communication flexible and flowing freely. I know we find these tools invaluable!

 

There’s also ‘story boarding’ collaboration tools: These support more autonomous teamwork, giving tracking points for ongoing initiatives that are really handy. These web/mobile applications act like a pin-board, with a series of post-its pinned up which help teams track what members are up to: everything from interesting discoveries and outstanding tasks, to next steps. At HRW we’ve been using tools like Trello and Asana more and we’re already benefiting from them and how they give teams more flexibility in organising, coordinating and generally managing work.

 

The real jewel in the crown, however, is video conferencing: because it’s so multi-dimensional when it’s used well. Obviously, it provides conversation in real time helping teams coordinate and keeping everyone on track, and the screensharing functions are invaluable. As anyone who works with data will testify, you can’t put a price on being able to look at the same worksheet, highlight, ‘point’ and generally manipulate the data with a shared audience, in real time. But there’s another dimension of video conferencing that perhaps isn’t being so widely recognised that’s just as important, and that’s it’s value as a tool for wellbeing.

  1. Actually seeing your colleagues effectively simulates some of the connection gained from traditional face to face contact, contributing to the social dimension we all biologically need and may be finding difficult right now. It also supports the strengthening and maintaining of relationships between team members all of which contributes to social cohesion and ultimately better outputs.
  2. The power of ritual! I’m sure I’m not alone in hearing others voice that they miss getting smartly dressed for work or putting make-up on. Certainly, it’s very easy (and tempting?) not to do these things when our desk and workspace is perhaps only a few metres from our bed! But doing these things, showering each morning then brushing your teeth (or brushing your teeth and then showering, the order of which is incredibly important to about half of you out there – the other half don’t care at all! That’s a behavioural science nugget for you), through to getting changed at the end of the day is more important than ‘just a routine’.

 

When your physical location doesn’t change you lose the signals and cues from your environment that your unconscious recognises that then prepare and transition your state of mind taking you from ‘home’ to ‘work’, and then back again. Without these cues, the line between work/life balance becomes blurred – I’d be curious to know just how many of us have found it harder to switch off when working from home. Have you found yourself thinking about work when you’re mentally supposed to be somewhere else?

 

When your home and work environment is the same, switching off and getting the rest needed to support wellbeing and continue functioning at your best is harder, and if we don’t get that break our ability to give our best is compromised. This is why keeping these routines alive is so important. Dressing with the same meticulousness you would for the office, and even taking a brisk walk around the block as you would if you were going to the office can delineate time spent ‘at work’ and time ‘at home’: and being on video conferences gives us the nudge to make the effort. We know we’re going to be visible to others and that’s a great incentive to prepare for the day putting your best foot forward.

  1. Additionally, with conventional visual cues indicating someone else wants to speak reduced, it’s easy to unintentionally eclipse more introverted and/or junior colleagues leaving less space for them to contribute in meetings. A great yet simple addition to help address this is the recently added ‘raise a hand’ function implemented by some programs. But if you know you have a touch of the chatterbox about you, being mindful of this and actively trying to create space for others, perhaps by directly inviting comments more frequently than you would typically may be really appreciated by your more reserved colleagues.

 

  1. Finally, in this scenario where it’s impossible to physically share the same space as your conversational partners, it supports us in giving the best of ourselves, and particularly in giving our full attention to our colleagues and speaker. When we’re visible and engaging with others we’re less tempted to multitask, less tempted to ‘just quickly answer that email’ while another is talking. And this is about practicing respectfulness as much as anything else, you’d be unlikely to be answering emails if that meeting were face to face, so (crises aside) the fact that we can ‘now’ doesn’t mean we should.

 

As with most things in life, there is a yin to the yang of video conferencing of course, and this is that continually having to look engaged when you know you’re on camera can be quite draining, particularly if you’re more inclined towards introversion. The level of self-awareness continually prompted when we’re presented with our own image is neither natural nor normal – we rarely observe ourselves when in conversation with others for example, and so that hyperawareness captures our consciousness and consumes a considerable amount of mental energy. And, aside from being energy consuming, many of us just find it uncomfortable and dislike viewing our image on calls generally.

Additionally, remaining focused on a screen for the entire duration of call when there is no shared physical environment requires deliberate and continued focus, and if we’re truthful I suspect we can all think of an instance recently where we’ve suddenly realised our mind has wandered. So if you’ve noticed you’ve been feeling unusually taxed or wearied by the end of the working day, and a touch reluctant to participate in more online social interactions, despite wanting to get together with some friendly faces, this may well have something to do with it.

Despite these final observations though, on balance and especially under the current circumstances where trade-offs are necessary (at the risk of making myself unpopular) the benefits outweigh the negatives. For all the aforementioned reasons, it really is important we’re encouraged to keep our cameras on whenever its reasonable.

So where does this leave us, what does it all mean for the long term? Certainly many jobs traditionally viewed as being tied to a particular workspace will no longer be seen in the same way. With the support of modern technology it’s been demonstrated it’s generally far less necessary to be bound to a physical location than in the past. Is what we have now a perfect solution? Undoubtedly not, but given the speed with which we adapted, the outlook on refining solutions is a positive one.

Will companies choose to make substantial savings on office space by transitioning more roles to remote, or at least by creating ‘flexible roles’ with a blend office and remote working? Maybe… maybe not. The jury is still out on that, but one thing is clear, there have been enormous changes, and some of these changes will leave a lasting impact.

 

By Rhiannon Phillips,

HRW Behavioural Scientist and member of the Innovation Team

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