By David Gee
Working remotely isn’t new. But being forced into it in such widespread numbers, and so suddenly, is.
“And we are being pushed either over, or right straight through, that learning curve,” says Dr. Mark Mortensen, an associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD. “But in all fairness, the technology is not new. I have been studying remote and virtual work for almost 20 years. It’s not that we haven’t been doing virtual, what is fundamentally different is that up until now we opted in to do virtual.”
Soft skills, not software
Professor Mortensen holds a PhD in management science and engineering from Stanford University, and an MS in computer science from Stanford. We recently spoke via Zoom from his home in Fontainebleau, France, just outside Paris.
He said when he was involved in building technology as a computer scientist, he realized one of the biggest determinants of success or failure had less to do with hardware or software and more to do with the ability of the team that was using the product to work well together. So he changed the focus of his research and teaching to teams and collaboration.
“The terms really are not interchangeable,” said Mortensen. “When we talk about teams, we mean a group of people working interdependently to accomplish some common goal. It’s a bounded set of people, not a random group.
“The part we really care about is whether we are giving people all they need to exchange the information, share their ideas and share their effort in ways that move projects forward. And the way we do that we know is changing.”
He is still regularly conferring with companies and holding online workshops and seminars. He said obviously everyone is working to ensure their survival. But on the other side of this, the former faculty member at MIT Sloan School of Management said everyone is coming to the realization there is going to be a longer-term shift in the way we work.
“So we are thinking about productivity, how much we know about how people are working at home, and how much do we need to know? All of these things are in flux.”
Bright spots in a dark time
The CEO of the media company I work for says we were already on the path towards this all-digital, all-remote work environment, and that COVID simply accelerated it.
Professor Mortensen and his research colleagues have been identifying other bright spots as well.
“Hands down, the number one thing most people have been identifying as a positive in all of this has been having more time with family. I think this is going to be an ongoing demand from employees once this subsides. I think there are going to be a lot more requests for people to work from home. That is going to be one of our challenges for employers to now incorporate that into our ‘normal’ work routines.”
The latest Gallup Panel data on remote workers finds “three in five U.S. workers who have been doing their jobs from home during the coronavirus pandemic would prefer to continue to work remotely as much as possible, once public health restrictions are lifted.”
And a recent survey conducted by global research company Gartner with 317 CFOs and business finance leaders found that 74% plan to move at least part of their previously on-site workforce to permanently remote positions post-COVID-19
“Structured,” unstructured time
As for the present, one of the things I have become aware of personally is I probably talk with my managing editor and other members of my team more now than I did when they were right outside my office door. Like millions of others, I use Zoom, Slack, email, FaceTime and phone calls, but I have to be intentional and deliberate about it.
“You hit the mark when you use the word intentionality,” Dr. Mortensen told me. “We have done studies dating all the way back to 2004 that show that communication actually improves, and that people have more interaction in a remote setting, than when they are co-located and working face-to-face.”
Mortensen went on to say one of the most essential steps a manager can take is to structure ways for employees to interact socially, or have informal conversations about non work-related topics, while working remotely. He says this is true for all remote workers always, but especially vital for workers who have transitioned out of the office so abruptly.
“There is tremendous value in informal communication. In normal day-to-day life when you pop into a colleague’s office, or ask a co-worker out to a quick coffee, or lunch, those informal interactions are where much of the grease for the organizational machine comes from.
“I remind organizations I work with all the time that when you go online many of the things we used to get for free we now have to pay for. What I mean by that is that when we meet face-to-face, I pick up information from you, get more of a sense of what is on your mind, how you are feeling, and so on. Now I don’t get that automatically. I have to build that into my communication. But sometimes you don’t even know the right questions to ask.”
Professor Mortensen, and many others, recommend building in “structured” unstructured time.
“So when I schedule video conferences with team members, I’ll take 10 minutes at the outset just to chit chat. Sometimes you have awkward silences, but you’ll get over it. By the second or third time you try it you will find people having exactly those kinds of random conversations they would in the office.”
Jill Pioter, director of communication at Psychological Associates, an employee retention firm, told U.S. News & World Report these types of virtual meetings are essential to team building.
“Make sure you’re taking time at the beginning of meetings to check in on people’s personal lives. When a team feels connected, they’ll be better collaborators,” she adds.
What does all this mean for the future?
Of course, not all workers will get to work remotely forever. An estimated 60% percent of jobs in the U.S. can’t be performed at home.
Olga Khazan recently authored an article in The Atlantic about the future of work after the pandemic. She opines that a tighter job market means that while employers could offer benefits like working from home, they might not feel the need to.
“Sure, an employee might feel safer and happier if they don’t expose themselves to germs on the subway and in the office,” Khazan writes. “But with fewer job openings, a company can probably find someone else who doesn’t mind coming in.”
Professor Mortensen says one of the big questions he thinks every employer is going to wrestle with when we get back to whatever the new normal looks like is the question of monitoring.
“When we are face-to-face managers get to physically see with their own eyes what’s going on. There are all sorts of articles and books about the value and importance of management by walking around. When that doesn’t occur, managers and business owners and CEOs are going to have to become more comfortable letting go. It’s not about ‘spying’ on people. It’s about being able to step in and help and solve problems. Right now we lack all the information and the data that we need to do that most effectively. This will accelerate the development of new technology though. Much has changed in a short period of time, and there are many more changes ahead.”