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How To Thrive In The Virtual Work Environment

It is often said that there has been more change in the last 17 months than in the last 17 years. The global pandemic forced the world to embrace remote work, in response to the risks of the coronavirus. Even today, with the success of the vaccine rollout and a return to normalcy, many businesses have committed themselves to continuing with remote work or some kind of hybrid work model. The virtual work environment has been unsettling for both the management and workforce of businesses. Some businesses have found the environment so unsettling that they have pushed to return to full, in-person work. Yet, for many remote workers and even many businesses, there are enormous advantages to working remotely, either all the time or for some days a week. Remote work has even been referred to as the “new signing-on bonus”. So, we are faced with a challenge that just last year was unimaginable: learning how to thrive in the virtual work environment.

We start with two warnings. The first is that you should be aware of confounding circumstances. Typically, when a business is thinking about adopting a new work model or technologies, it runs a raft of experiments to determine how these models or technologies will impact their profitability. The pandemic was a sudden and unexpected event that forced businesses to adapt without the luxury of experiments or time to develop clear ideas. Secondly, we should all be aware that there is or could be a huge difference between a temporary shift toward remote work, and a permanent one. For instance, it is easier for an established team to work remotely, but a fresh team may find difficulty starting off in the virtual work environment. That kind of relationship capital has to be built in new ways in the context of remote work. History tells us that organizations take time to learn how to effectively use new technologies. Many managers and remote workers believe that productivity did not suffer from the shift to remote work. The technology for remote work has existed for over a decade,  but it took a crisis to force businesses to embrace it. We can be sure that there are more productivity gains to be made from the existing technology giving people more time to take care of important things, like taking their sick pet to the local animal clinic. These productivity gains will take time to unearth. The technology may be everywhere, but we are in the first innings of truly seeing what it can do.

Communication is everything. 

One reason why so many managers were hesitant about remote work is the difficulty of developing relationship capital and the loss of incidental information. By incidental information, I mean that information that gets shared ad hoc and informally, by the water cooler, as workers enter the office building, during lunch, in all those seemingly non-work contexts. In a virtual work environment, encounters with workers are more rigid, more structured. Calls, conferences and the like happen at specific times when there is a definite agenda to tackle. Incidental information isn’t shared. For fresh teams, the lack of relationship capital makes collaboration difficult and often colder, more viscerally distant.

The solution to this is to compensate by communicating more and by communicating with greater intentionality. Everyone has to be deliberate in their communications so that the right person always has the information that they need to work.

If you are a manager, set regular times to catch-up with your team. This is vitally important in times of uncertainty and disruption. In normal times, it is important for building relationship capital and creating an environment for incidental information to flow. Often, all it takes is a 15-minute video conference call.

Exploit the Available Technologies

We tend to get excited about technology well before it has been successfully adopted by businesses. Research shows that technology deployment demands complemental process and managerial investments. Investments that may even temporarily depress productivity as measured by the company. Remember, it took a decade for the productivity gains of computing to show up in productivity numbers.

That said, there are a number of tools that are designed to keep teams well-connected and enable coordination. The Industrial Revolution saw a shift of production from homes to factories and after that, we witnessed a shift to offices. Remote work is returning production back to homes. This shift will require trade-offs from businesses, workers and their managers, if they are to experience the transformative potential of remote work. In embracing technologies, managers also have to think about how they can benefit from having a workforce distributed across time zones without losing out on camaraderie and coordination. How can managers monitor their employee’s productivity and how they handle confidential information, without resorting to invasion of their employees’ privacy?

Have Designated Work Spaces

Remote work turns everywhere you are into a potential workspace. You can be on a conference call from your bedroom, the kitchen, or out in the garden. Yet, it is better to have a designated workspace, a place where all your work materials are kept and where they are easily accessible to you. This has important psychological benefits: by segregating your workspace from the rest of your home, you make it easier to knock off, by just getting up and walking away.

Establish a Routine

Remote work frees workers to organize their day as they see fit. What counts is that deadlines are met and work done. When you work virtually, it is important to be organized. This entails creating a schedule that allows you to fulfil your domestic obligations and work in the style that best suits you, while understanding that with technology, others will be able to contact you during work hours. Even where a business may want to impose a schedule, some things must be kept in mind:

  1. By avoiding commuting and time getting ready for work, many people find they get back 2 to 3 hours a day. That gives more scope for flexible schedules and remote workers can take advantage of it in a number of ways.
  2. When you are physically in the office, your day is naturally interrupted as people come to your desk, or when you have to attend meetings. At home, it is important to be more deliberate about having breaks during the course of your day, so that you can rest your eyes, take a walk, and recharge.