by Michael Blanding
When the pandemic forced employees to flee desks and work from home en masse last year, many business leaders feared productivity could plummet. Are telecommuters too tempted by Netflix’s lures or too distracted by laundry to do a lot of work? It turns out that the opposite has happened.
âAs decades of virtual work research would have predicted, productivity has increased for many organizations,â says Tsedal Neeley, Professor Naylor Fitzhugh of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, who has researched and advised companies on virtual and global work for nearly two decades.
Indeed, studies from around the world consistently show that companies see productivity gains after letting employees choose where to work. Remote working also offers many other advantages: âTravel times disappear, operational costs are reduced, you can bring in talent in other cities and countries,â says Neeley.
Despite these advantages, however, the move to remote working is not without its challenges, especially when it comes to communication and coordination between managers and employees. âPeople can easily go into an out of sight, out of mind, out of sync and out of touch mode,â says Neeley.
Another challenge, especially during the pandemic: The lines between working and free time can blur, so managers should worry less about declining productivity and more about working employees. too much hard. âI’m worried about what I call hyper-productivity, where people are working longer hours and getting burned out,â says Neeley.
These are all wrinkles that businesses can and should iron out, she says, since remote working is here to stay in one form or another. A 2020 Gartner survey of 5,000 employees found that 87% prefer to work remotely full-time or part-time, while only 13% said they did not want to work remotely after COVID-19 at all.
In fact, the pandemic has accelerated the trend of virtual work, acting as a turning point for many companies, according to Neeley’s new book Remote working revolution: succeed wherever you are, which is released on March 30. The book serves as a ‘blueprint’ for long-term workplace transformations, providing evidence-based advice for navigating the virtual world of work, including the dos and don’ts of businesses that have adopted geographically distributed workplaces for years with great success.
We recently caught up with Neeley – via video chat, of course – to help make sense of this new virtual world of work.
Michael Blanding: Your book seems so timely, given how the job has changed for so many people over the past year. Why did you choose to write it, and especially why now?
Tsedal Neeley: The book was actually in the works for almost three years before COVID. Having been deeply involved in the issues of virtual work and global work, I was convinced that people needed an action guide that they could use as a team, or even as an individual, to truly internalize the lessons of how to work in a distributed environment. And then COVID hit.
Foaming: How has the pandemic changed or informed the topic as you write it?
Neeley: The pandemic hastened the completion of the book. I was able to distill the key questions people were asking as entire workforces migrated to remote work and focus on the answers to those recurring questions. They include: How do you measure productivity? How do you trust people you barely see? What do you even think of digital tools?
Foaming: One of the recommendations you make in the book is that remote teams ârebootâ every six to eight weeks. What do you mean?
Neeley: Workgroups are not static. They are dynamic, including our feelings about our experiences within them. With virtuality, we need to redouble our efforts to make sure we’re all on the same page. That is, it is very important in a remote environment that you define shared standards and how teams will communicate, how they will work together and how they will ensure psychological safety is established and maintained.
It’s not as scary as it sounds; it’s typically a 90-minute or two-hour meeting where you try to align with those shared standards, goals, and resources. Based on the work of pioneering sociologist Richard Hackman, a regular relaunch can increase a team’s chances of success by 30% or more.
Foaming: You make a distinction between cognitive trust and emotional trust. Can you explain the difference? And how do you develop emotional confidence in a remote environment?
Neeley: Trust is the glue that unites a team. It drives performance, enables collaboration, and coordinates everything you need to do. But people think trust is monolithic, unique and binary, and it isn’t. Cognitive confidence is built on the belief that your colleagues and leaders are reliable and trustworthy. It’s a resume-like skill, and you can impart it right away; it is generally referred to as âquick confidenceâ.
But emotional trust is built on the feeling that colleagues and leaders care about each other. It takes a lot longer to win or win. This comes from the frequency of contact and self-disclosure during more informal interactions and unstructured time. It is âHow can I know your heart? “
Foaming: Speaking of contact frequency, you talk a lot about the fatigue people feel in the technological environment and always being connected through video chat. How can people minimize this?
Neeley: Technological exhaustion is a symptom of our excessive use of video for board-to-board and far too long meetings. We need to incorporate more asynchronous means of interaction. In fact, for every interaction we have to determine what we are trying to achieve and what is the best way to achieve it. Choices include: synchronous, asynchronous, rich or thin media, one-to-many or one-to-one and whether we need to capture, store and reuse content. It’s complex, but once we have a framework, we won’t go through that exhaustion again.
Depending on the job you need to do, you need to think about what digital tools to use. Do you need to be on video or can you talk on the phone even if it’s VoIP? Do you need to work together on a shared document, or could you send an email? Rather than selecting one-off, choose the tool that makes the job easier.
Foaming: You also talk about strategies for working with global teams. What are your top tips for collaborating across cultures?
Neeley: When you talk about a global dimension, you come up against some natural but harmful aspects, including an âus versus themâ dynamic simply because you are in different geographies or cultures. It is very important to bridge this gap by developing mutual adaptation and questioning learning skills, so that you are very explicit about what you are communicating.
You also have to work hard to reduce the psychological distance through language. When you have disparities in English proficiency levels, you need to make sure that fluent speakers are dialing to allow less fluent speakers to communicate. You cannot take this for granted. Leaders must constantly manage and balance for inclusive communication.
Foaming: Now that we may be out of this pandemic soon, what do you hope people take away from your book?
Neeley: Hope people have a better understanding of the best practices you need to adopt to be successful as a remote workforce. We need to change our mindsets. We need to increase our skills. And we need to make sure we’re very clear about the tool sets we’re using. We need leaders who can lead a distributed workforce.
When all is said and done, and the pandemic is gone, we’re going to end up with a very different world, where we’ll have more hybrid organizations in terms of people working in the same space or not. Hope this book provides a model for how people can successfully collaborate and work with other people who are not always with you.