At the beginning of 2021, we shared Aquent's President, Community & Customer Engagement Susie Hall’s insights on the dark side of remote working and how leaders could begin to overcome some of the anticipated disconnect. Now that we’ve had a little more time to see people really settle into being out of the office, it’s become apparent that many of the early concerns were legitimate. Businesses that haven’t yet stepped up and put additional measures in place to maintain (or even improve on) connection between team members have seen some individuals working more sporadically and others more distant from social interaction than they might otherwise have been.
It’s easy for those who are naturally more social, engaged, or self-motivated to label those less like themselves as lazy or introverted (and it’s true that people matching those descriptions do exist), but the reality is that there are plenty of people who simply depend on being coaxed into engaging or thrive in a working community rather than independently. These individuals aren’t any less desirable or skilled, and companies utilising hybrid or fully-remote working styles are failing their teams if they don’t take steps to support these members too.
So, whether the lease has lapsed on your old office space or you’re popping in with half your team three days a week, here are a few things to consider to prevent working remotely come between you and your team.
You Need To Improve Your Company Culture
Yeah, yeah, “company culture” are the buzzwords that won’t die. But seriously, whatever you were doing before (which probably wasn’t enough then) definitely isn’t enough now. Like Susie Hall pointed out, there are no chance interactions and informal exchanges now. Nobody is bumping into somebody at the coffee machine, or heading out to lunch with someone headed in the same direction. Best case scenario is that there are some instant messages flying through the ether about the Euros or COVID updates. Worst case is that the cat/dog/houseplant is the only company on your coffee break.
No matter your seniority, more casual interaction is required - and it will mean putting some effort in to make that happen. Whether it’s group digital events, encouraging catch-ups outside of work, collective lunches (virtual or physical), or collaborative projects on anything and everything (recommending films, podcasts, sustainable products are all good starting points).
Social psychologist and neuroscientist Matthew Leiberman explored the importance of social connection in his book “Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect”. He writes that the human brain’s default “bored” activity is almost identical to the activity that takes place for “social thinking”. What does this mean for a drastic reduction in a social working environment? Well, if we’re happiest in natural states and humans are naturally social, most individuals aren’t going to be as happy away from people. Obviously where you can socialise outside of work the responsibility shifts, but if your expectation is to have somebody working 40 hours a week from home, their happiness is somewhat your responsibility in those hours.
Takeaway: Humans are naturally social. Up your team engagement.
You Need To Get To Know Your Team
If I had you on the phone right now and asked if you knew your team, you’d probably say “Sure I do. There’s this guy and their kid plays basketball on Tuesdays, and there’s this person and they’ve been with us for 8 years. And the newest member doesn’t drink and likes swimming.” And if that’s your answer, that’s brilliant - probably far better than most. But what I’m really asking is do you KNOW your team? Who’s a self-starter? Who will happily work independently? Is there somebody that prefers regular check-ins and guidance?
These nuances aren’t things you can necessarily glean from a few conversations, they’re traits identified over time. Unless someone tells you outright that they prefer working one way or another, it’s going to require that you pay attention to each individual’s needs and working styles. Productivity consultant and author Carson Tate outlines this in her book “Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style” and in this Fast Company article highlights how you can leverage the work style strengths of your team.
Remember that every person is different, and though it might be simpler to treat each member of the team in the same way - you’ll end up with a happier, more engaged and motivated team if each of their needs are met on a personal level. If this isn’t something you feel like you can easily identify, then the next best thing is making yourself open for people to approach about what they want/need in the way that they’re working.
Takeaway: “One size fits all” isn’t a realistic leadership approach.
You Need To Understand That Business Really Has Changed
A “Future of Work” report published by McKinsey highlights a handful of broad trends that have taken place as a direct result of the situation we find ourselves in. This includes e-commerce growing at a rate of 4.5x that prior to the pandemic in the UK, faster steps towards digitisation, automation and artificial intelligence - especially in routine close-contact roles, the predicted requirement for 2.7 million occupational shifts in the UK by 2030, and obviously disruption in those roles where people are working in close proximity.
It’s not surprising, then, when you hear somebody say that the way we work is changing. “That’s obvious.” you think, “I wasn’t wearing a shirt and joggers to work at my kitchen table 18 months ago.” What everybody (at all levels) needs to recognise is that it’s not just where we work that has changed. It can’t simply be a case of doing what you did in the office, at home. What you’re doing, how you’re doing it, when you’re doing it, who you’re talking to about what you’re doing, and how you’re collaborating - that’s all got to change too.
The systems and processes that you’ve got in place weren’t designed with remote working in mind. Realistically evaluate how you’re onboarding new starters, how you’re celebrating successes, and how your team is connecting in meaningful ways. The more grounded and cohesive your team, the better a hybrid or remote working environment is going to work for your business.
Takeaway: Where you work has changed. Now change the way you work.
The future of work is shifting constantly. It’s tumultuous. Unpredictable. No matter how it changes, the best thing you can do is take care of the people that make your work possible. Understanding and recognising their needs as individuals, and building an environment that people want to work in will ensure that your business is capable of tackling many of the challenges that remote working poses.