Previously published on Virginian-Pilot Inside Business website
As the news about COVID-19 unfolded and it became clear remote work was no longer an optional employee benefit but rather a necessity, I told my clients we needed to get ahead of the challenges that would arise from having most, if not all, of their teams working virtually. Several of them responded by saying, “There’s nothing to get ahead of, this is great!”
What they were seeing, as their teams rose to meet the crisis, was actually a surge in productivity. They were forecasting that productivity would continue and the work-from-home model would free up a multitude of resources, resulting in a nice benefit to the bottom line.
I didn’t share their optimism. Even before work-from-home was a “thing,” and certainly before it was the “new normal,” I’d seen the many ways leaders and managers failed to create healthy team environments. Going virtual, I predicted, would only exacerbate those challenges.
“I hope it is for you,” I told them all, “but my experience with putting human beings into a virtual work experience is that once the novelty wears off there comes a breaking point. Many times, it either plateaus or it tanks.”
It doesn’t have to be that way. It is possible to create healthy work environments — in the office or anywhere your employees happen to be. The challenge isn’t really about creating healthy virtual teams, the nature of work today is the same as it has always been and it isn’t going to change — because the nature of work is based on human nature.
At home or at work, or working from home, life is really just a series of what I call “human moments.” It is the role of the leader to see to it that all of those moments add up to the desired outcome. That means that our first responsibility as leaders is to understand the primal needs of the humans we are in charge of leading. That’s the key mind shift that has to happen for leaders and managers to create healthy workplaces, healthy teams, and healthy bottom lines.
Traditionally, leadership has turned to nurturing activities to address team health. And these activities can certainly be valuable. But they cannot bridge the gap created when the daily work experience fails to meet basic neurological, psychological, and physiological needs.
Much like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs provided us with a structure for understanding the requirements of individual self-actualization, there are six elements or what I call “facets” that bridge the nature/nurture gap and must be experienced by humans in the workplace in order to allow them to actualize their highest potential as a team. If these needs are not met in the culture, environment, and structure of the workplace then nurturing activities will not only fail to lead to lasting change, they can actually cause confusion, dissonance, and resentment.
So, what is necessary to create healthy virtual environments? When it comes to the work environment, we have to focus on clarity and connection.
Clarity Doesn’t Always Start with Conscious Communication
Humans are capable of processing tremendous levels of nuance. We unconsciously pick up clues and cues from everything around us. We read information from body language, facial expression, and who sits next to whom in the conference room. In fact, researchers estimate that up to 55% of communication is derived from body language.
Effective leaders are sensitive to these elements and how they can help or hinder clear communication. Of course, now that most interaction takes place through text, voice and video connections, much of the input we’re naturally wired to depend on is inaccessible. The absence of these largely unconscious sources of information can lead to misunderstandings, uncertainty and confusion in even the healthiest team.
That’s why I believe that video is such a vital aspect of remote team communication. Even some things that don’t really need a “meeting” may be better communicated face-to-face to allow for those nonverbal clues to come through. But video has its downside too, when you end up staring at yourself all day, meeting after meeting, you get tired of your own face. Ensuring that people know how to access different views in the meeting platform — for instance the speaker view on Zoom allows the image of the person speaking to take up most of the screen — gives them different ways to connect with the faces that are there.
Of course, you need to assess all the platforms you use to share data, documentation, and other resources that contribute to clear, concise communication. But first, make sure you’re doing all you can to provide access to the non-written, nonverbal communication that forms the foundation for security and comprehension.
Not All Downtime is a Waste of Time
Sometime in your career you’ve probably done nurturing exercises aimed at increasing team bonding and engagement. And you may have noticed a heightened sense of camaraderie as a result. But how long did that last?
If the culture and environment were designed to create a strong sense of connection then those exercises probably took that connection to a new level. But if the environment failed to support that sense of belonging then the impact of these exercises was likely short-lived and possibly counterproductive.
Belonging is one of the most basic of all human needs. Humans are essentially herd animals. We need to be part of a group, to have a sense of connection and belonging. Any nurturing activity that doesn’t meet that need is likely to fail or even to backfire. And trust, synergy, and collaboration all lean heavily on feeling connected to others. It’s the true objective behind the “holy grail” of employee engagement and the glue that keeps a team together in times of crisis.
You might be surprised how much our sense of connection and belonging is simply the result of organic interactions. It’s the chat that happens while the coffee finishes its brew cycle where you learn that Julie is playing the lead role in a community theater production and that Jim’s daughter contributed to the winning entry in the robotics competition at her high school. It’s having people high-five you because your favorite football team won a tough game or commiserate over the cancellation of your latest Netflix addiction. You know these people, they know you, not just for the roles you all play at work but for the humans you are while playing those roles. Studies show that we even create connection through a sense of shared spaces and places, so not sharing the office space can cause us to feel disconnected from the team, and even from the work itself.
Now that much of our team interaction is virtual, it’s especially important to cultivate a sense of shared reference points. On my top 10 list for building connection in virtual spaces are ideas that might seem like a waste of time and resources, but are actually key to bonding, connection, and trust. Things like shared office-related professional backgrounds for video conferencing to “trick the brain” into a sense of shared office space, exercises for team happy hours, and being intentional about making time in virtual meetings for banter and bonding. These kinds of investments create a shared experience, a sense of adventure, and personal connection.
We, as leaders, must become very purposeful and consistent about creating experiences that meet the universal, built-in needs of the humans who look to us for leadership. Because remote work can never be just about the productivity angle, or the cost-savings angle. The virtual model might represent savings, and can be a real advantage in attracting top talent. And, yes, it can be highly productive. But it will become counterproductive quickly enough if we fail to provide for these facets of human needs.
I predict that “remote leadership” will be the superpower of the future. But to activate that power we have to remember that the future of work is still, and will always be, human.