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Four Things We Miss When Working Remotely

Management Researcher Tallies What’s Changed During Pandemic, and How to Compensate

By Carrie Handwerker

Abandoned desk

Photo by Gail Rupert

The office may be empty, but teams can still connect effectively for creativity and problem solving, a UMD management researcher says.

With faster internet, better videoconferencing tools and new management thinking, the shift to remote work was already in motion before COVID-19 abruptly accelerated the process eight months ago. A handful of companies—Twitter, Facebook, Zillow, Raytheon and Square among them—have since made the change permanent for many employees. But a big question looms: Can companies be as productive in the long run when its staff is based at home?

They can—if managers take care to maintain, or even create digital facsimiles of, the elements that make working together in the same office so effective, said Kathryn Bartol, the Robert H. Smith Professor in Leadership & Innovation whose latest research looks at how remote teams can communicate better. 

“If you can get the team to work well together and provide leadership—give them some goals and purpose and also support—you can definitely get people to work effectively when everyone is remote,” Bartol said. “You have to be empowering and get shared leadership on the team. That’s critical to making this work.”

Here are some of the challenges they’ll face, and tips to overcome them:

Creative problem-solving: For teams that frequently huddled together in the same room to develop ideas and tackle problems, worry not—technology can replicate that setting, Bartol said. A number of studies have shown that people can brainstorm and collaborate effectively with technology such as Zoom, Slack, Google Docs and Microsoft Teams. 

Managers can also work to keep people more engaged, she said: Have shorter meetings more frequently to keep things moving forward. And make sure people are well-prepared to give presentations or discuss set topics, so teams can use the group time to work together for brainstorming and problem-solving.

And with few people traveling for work at the moment, it’s easier to get full attendance in meetings as well as to inject fresh ideas by inviting people from outside the team to pop in digitally.

Serendipity: With everyone scattered, those water-cooler conversations and lunchroom chats that lead to the kind of information-sharing that increases productivity obviously can’t happen, at least in a literal sense. “But it’s not impossible to have some serendipitous conversations, especially if you try to have some open-ended kinds of things where people could get together and share ideas,” said Bartol. 

Hold virtual office hours or breakout sessions within teams, she said. Allow time for people to have a bit of small talk before, after or during meetings. “That’s always been a good practice,” she said, “and it’s especially true when everyone is remote.” Intentionally injecting some levity with virtual coffee and tea meetups, Zoom lunch gatherings or social activities like virtual trivia can also elicit serendipitous exchanges, she said.

Camaraderie: Studies have shown the importance of close relationships with co-workers and having a “work best friend.” Those relationships increase workplace satisfaction, and high workplace satisfaction increases productivity and decreases turnover rates. “I do think it’s harder to build deep friendships and camaraderie when everyone is remote,” said Bartol. “But it’s not impossible, especially if leaders are helping people to come on board” by taking steps like arranging meetings specifically to introduce a new hire to the people they need to know to do their job well. 

Work/home balance: When you go to a physical workplace, you head home at the end of your workday. Now your office may be your dining room table, and work can easily extend beyond dinnertime. But, as Bartol points out, even before the pandemic, technology was already prompting longer hours. “The workday can extend endlessly because everyone has access to the work materials—much more so than they used to,” she said. 

Managers and teams should determine workday expectations to set ground rules for distinguishing work and home times. Come to agreements on work hours, how quickly you’ll respond to emails and how many times, generally, you’re going to meet each week or month, she said.

“The mistake that managers make with virtual teams is they try to be the traffic cop on everything and try to run things centrally,” she said. “A better way is to allocate responsibilities but within some kind of structure.” 

Keeping remote teams as productive as in-person teams comes down to good managers making sure people are working together, just like in an office setting—but likely with a bit more effort.

“If the team is dysfunctional, that’s true in an office setting, too,” she said. “It’s a matter of whether you can set up the tools and get people to share leadership and keep people involved and engaged.”

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