Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on the psychology of remote teams
Cali Williams Yost
Stabilising the performance , psychological wellbeing
and inclusivity of remote teams involves learning from our experiences over the past nine months , writes Cali Williams Yost , founder of the Flex + Strategy Group .
In March , employers around the globe told millions of workers – practically overnight – to “ work from home until further notice ”. Many of these employees had never worked remotely before . Most were given no training or guidance on how to work effectively in such a radically new way .
Yet , remarkably , these newly formed remote teams figured out how to survive in real time . People got on with their jobs and managed complex personal responsibilities in the face of extraordinary economic uncertainty . However , this crisis-driven , ‘ trial-by-fire ’ response will be difficult to sustain for another six to nine months – the point at which experts estimate it will be safe to recalibrate work back into physical workspaces .
To stabilise the performance , psychological wellbeing and inclusivity of remote teams in the near term , it ’ s important to understand how this rapid shift has already changed the way members think about and approach their jobs , their lives and each other . We must leverage this learning to reimagine work going forward and lay the foundations for what will probably be a hybrid onsite / remote reality , post-pandemic .
Communicating and co-ordinating
The sudden onset of COVID-19 restrictions destroyed the traditional boundaries between work and life . Not only did the strict 9-5 and the commutes disappear , so did the educational and caregiving supports many workers relied on to do their jobs . Remote workers have had to consider the realities of both work and life , when planning , coordinating and executing priorities .
One model of working life does not fit all – especially during a global viral pandemic . Therefore , setting boundaries has required a level of shared accountability between each worker and their manager . Establishing this
Remote workers have had to consider the realities of both work and life , when planning , co-ordinating and executing priorities
has been a challenge ; managers can set clear priorities and make it safe to problem solve , but optimising the way work and life fit together , based on current realities , is up to every individual and the team . That requires a new skill set that most people do not have .
In our 2018 study of full-time workers in the US ( involving a nationally representative sample ), only 17 % of respondents said they frequently used video- or web-conferencing software to update supervisors and colleagues about work progress . It ’ s clear , then , that when the pandemic hit , most remote workers faced a steep learning curve when it came to adopting the digital tools to communicate and co-ordinate with each other and their customers .
While many successfully climbed the curve , challenges such as so-called “ Zoom fatigue ” are a symptom of a deeper need to organise and prioritise current communication channels ; to clarify which channels to use when and how to use them most effectively , according to what we are communicating ; to specify where both formal communications and informal gatherings are happening virtually and invite people to participate , as they prefer .
Some employees may love video-conferencing ‘ happy hours ’ where pets , partners and children participate freely in the activities , while others may prefer to keep their private lives separate and to take part in smaller , more intimate team-building sessions ; for example , break-out room lunch chats during work hours .
From where we work to what we do
The rapid transition to remote and flexible working , experienced by so many for such an extended period of time , will change the operating DNA of organisations . For remote teams , work has already become less about ‘ where we go ’ and more about ‘ what we do ’. This requires managing to clear performance metrics ( around outcomes versus presence ); organisational culture must be founded on a shared purpose and impact ( versus shared place and space ).
The sudden shift to remote working has forced each of us to rethink how we approach our jobs , our lives and one another . Now we must define and leverage what we have learned , in order to stabilise the way remote teams operate in the near-term by :
• giving remote teams and their managers the knowledge , skills and tools to collaborate and set better , more sustainable boundaries between work and life
• clarifying and co-ordinating when and how to use different digital communication channels
• emphasising outcomes to gauge performance , and shared purpose to define culture .
In the process , we will also be positioning our organisations to rebuild , and grow stronger and better , in the flexible and dynamic post-pandemic reality .
Cali Williams Yost is founder and CEO of the Flex + Strategy Group , a solutions company helping organisations to unlock performance and engagement . She is a leading authority on high-performance work flexibility .