This article is the third in a series of three focused on leveraging techniques that enable us to engage and better work with others to drive results.
The dynamics of distributed teams and remote working
Remote working is really nothing new. With the pandemic, however, we’ve been forced to engage in this way of working virtually ubiquitously and with a ferocious intensity that almost undermines the sense of flexibility that it was originally meant to bring. As things begin to subside, return to “normal” however, I haven’t really seen any business that I work with return to pre-Covid working arrangements and many people, despite having offices to go to, are continuing to work from home.
While this is an excellent working model that can fundamentally drive enormous benefits on every level, it is not without its pitfalls. In the previous part of this blog, we looked at the role of Emotional Intelligence in helping us better engage our colleagues. Curiously, managing our own and others’ emotions becomes even more important when working virtually.
To learn more about managing yourself as you navigate projects, stakeholders, and your career, please refer to the chapter “Professional Impact in the Construction Industry” by the author as part of a Springer book Industry 4.0 for the Built Environment, edited by Marzia Bolpagni, Rui Gavina, and Diogo Rodrigo Ribeiro.
Disconnected from the mothership
By their very nature, distributed teams or remote working configurations mean that teams physically get split apart. We become small satellites in various geographies, time zones, and spaces. With this geographic and physical dispersal, it is easy to lose connection with the mothership as the whole gets broken down into a series of component parts, and with it, the basic and traditional experience of the workday can also begin to disintegrate.
People lose those natural and organic face-to-face connections with colleagues – they no longer bump into them in the lift, pass one another in the hallway or greet each another on arrival. People also lose the critical in-person observations of body language and facial expression that comprises such a significant component of face-to-face communication and which assists so enormously when bringing Emotional Intelligence into play to calibrate one’s tone, response, and engagement in interactions.
When removed from the office entirely, we can also lose critical moments of transition and differentiation. We lose the natural boundaries and building blocks of the day, along with important psychological transitions such as getting ready in the morning, leaving the house, and commuting to the office. We can easily find ourselves at risk of engaging in a workday that blends into one big blur, rolling out of bed, going straight to the laptop, and work, and work, and work, until it is time to fall into bed. Remote workers are at greater risk of burnout, with 41% of remote workers reporting high-stress levels compared to 25% of office workers in a 2017 report by Eurofound. While individuals can fall prey to overwork, isolation, stress, and burn-out, teams face challenges in relation to the erosion of communication, poorer levels of engagement, greater levels of disconnection or disenfranchisement, and increasing conflict, according to J. Grenny and D. Maxfield.
Communication, in particular, can deteriorate quickly in distributed or remote teams due to an over-reliance on email, chat forums, and other written forms of communication. The physical distancing imposed by dispersed working arrangements means that much of the interaction that may have happened more organically when people are physically together in an office disappears or is diluted in some way. Yet teams still need to be able to dynamically engage with one another to navigate projects, make decisions, generate solutions and drive high-quality commercial outcomes. In virtual working environments, therefore, it means that people need to put in an extra, more concerted, conscious, and disciplined effort to communicate with one another on a regular and dynamic basis, connect back in with the mothership, stay connected as individuals, aligned around goals and priorities, and motivated and engaged in meaningful, rewarding work where they feel valued for their contributions.
Cultivating conscious engagement
When connecting with others in a remote work setting, we essentially need to be more conscious and deliberate in the way we engage others. Yes, it takes a little more effort, but it is an effort that pays off with manifold dividends.
None of the strategies are super time-consuming nor difficult to do. Just simple yet practical principles we can all keep in mind:
|Leverage a combination of channels||Choose technology that supports your goals and engages your colleagues. For example, tap into the chat function during a video call to solicit suggestions and drive engagement or use the whiteboard function to summarise and capture decisions real-time and follow up with an email summarising actions and next steps|
|Video – all or none||If using a video forum, then everyone should be on video and visible. The visual element provides essential information that enhances the communication and subtly holds us to account and invites us to be fully present in the interaction fostering better listening, eye contact, and more effective connection. Otherwise, it’s just a teleconference|
|Create your space||Choose a place with an appealing but non-distracting background – whether that be a bookshelf, a work of art, or plain wall.|
|Engage early||Facilitate conversation or engagement the minute people come online. Invite them to open the chat function and pose a question. It could be as simple as “where are you calling in from today?” or “post a photo of your view,” or “share one word to summarise how you are feeling right now.” The options are endless and can be adjusted depending on how formal or informal the interaction|
|Set expectations and ground rules||Set expectations and ground rules for the use of technology upfront. For example, invite everyone to switch on their video and share rules around the use of mute|
|Frame the interaction||Outline up front how the interaction will play out. For example, you might invite people to dynamically interject as you move through the agenda or ask people to hold questions and comments to the end of each section. You might invite people to use the chat or hands-up functions and have a nominated person monitoring these throughout|
|Mix it up||Our attention span wanes approximately every 10 minutes. This means we need to reset people’s focus regularly. It can be as simple as changing the speaker or shifting from a formal document to using the whiteboard or live note-taking function, or directing people to write something in the chat in response to a question. Changing where and how people are focused through the session will keep them engaged.|
|Take control||If you are running the interaction, then it is important to control and manage engagement. Avoid loose open questions like “does anyone have anything to add?” in favour of more concise and directed questions such as “Jerome, what do you think of that?” or “Anika, would you like to add anything to what Jerome has just shared?”. You might keep a list of names, and while staying random in the order with which you invite comments, systematically tick names to ensure everyone has a say. You might mix things up and ask for everyone’s input on some things, but be more selective in inviting commentary on others. Always make sure people know additional comments are welcome|
|Short and sharp||Keep segments of the agenda focused and limit online meetings to around 45 minutes. If things need to run longer, schedule a 5-minute stretch break around the 45-60 minute mark to help people re-set|
|Add some green||Have a plant visible in your frame. It brings the outdoors inside for you and for your colleagues looking at you on screen. Plants and sunlight are energizing and good for wellbeing.|
|Inject some fun and the unexpected||The options are limitless, from the use of music to colourful backdrops or silly hats and slippers meeting. Bringing in something fun and unexpected will shift energy and drive greater engagement|
What can you do to better connect with your colleagues even though you might not be in the same office or working geography as them?
Ultimately, any effort we put into being more deliberate and constructive in the way we engage others will pay dividends on every level for us as a professional and for the teams, we work with. The possibilities when it comes to building relationships and effectively working with colleagues, stakeholders, and clients, are quite literally endless.
Although this series of articles have touched on a vast range of topics that relate to this area, there is still so much more that could be covered. It can be useful to explore the ideas covered here in the day-to-day practicalities of the world of work and be deliberate in choosing to put something into practice and conscious to observe the effects of these efforts.
Further Resources and Reading
- Eurofound and the International Labour Office.: Working anytime, anywhere: The effects on the world of work. Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, and the International Labour Office, Geneva (2017).
- Grenny, J. and Maxfield, D.: A Study of 1,100 Employees Found That Remote Workers Feel Shunned and Left Out. Harvard Business Review 2 November (2017), https://hbr.org/2017/11/a-study-of-1100-employees-found-that-remote-workers-feel-shunned-and-left-out/, last accessed 31/01/21.
- Assael Architecture.: How our homes are impacting our mental health during lockdown?, 9 May (2020), https://assael.co.uk/news/2020/how-are-our-homes-impacting-our-mental-health-during-lockdown/, last accessed 31/01/21.