How to Protect Remote Workers’ Productivity and Performance

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Even as restrictions ease, working from home will continue for many. Experts offer tips for bridging the distance.

Practically overnight the vast majority of office workers became remote workers when social distancing measures put in place in March to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus dramatically changed the way we go about our days. If that was you, over the last several months you have had a taste of the long-touted benefits of remote work—no commute (a savings of nearly an hour a day for the average American plus the cost of commuting) and flexibility. You may also be wrestling with the challenges of blurred lines between company time and personal time, and how to effectively collaborate with colleagues who are no longer down the hall. 

Early on, these office-turned-remote workers may have put in longer hours and worked hard to show they were being productive in the changing environment. It’s temporary, they may have told themselves. If layoffs might be coming, I need to prove myself now. Leaders who may have previously resisted extending the option of remote work to employees out of a concern that it will negatively impact productivity were relieved to see the opposite. Maybe having a largely remote workforce is not so bad… Running at that pace, though, is not sustainable and can lead to burnout. 

Even as restrictions begin to ease and it becomes possible to return to the office, we are seeing more organizations announce that working from outside a shared workplace will continue. The open question is whether this change will pay off for individuals and for organizations. What do we need to watch out for to preserve the health and viability of all parties?

Productivity is clearly a concern. Related to that is collaboration and innovation. A shared physical workplace allows for opportunities to gather around a whiteboard or someone’s laptop to bounce ideas back and forth. And how many of us have had an “aha moment” that sprang from a casual conversation by the coffee maker or an insight gleaned by asking that quick question as you stood in the doorway of someone’s office? It’s in these collective and sometimes organic interactions where a collision of ideas may produce new processes, products, and services. Working alone in front of your laptop most of the day, and communicating through screens and over the phone changes things.

Beware of Virtual Distance

In this time of transition, and as more of us remain colleagues working remotely, a risk to be aware of is what Professor Karen Sobel-Lojesky has identified as “virtual distance.” Virtual distance has three components: physical distance; operational distance, including such conditions as poor internet connections and technical problems; and affinity distance that prevents deeper connections from developing. Her research has found that too much time spent interacting via screens can result in a myopic mindset that sets in so that people miss the big picture and context of their work. 

According to Sobel-Lojesky, increased virtual distance results in a connectivity paradox: as more people are connected virtually, they feel increasingly isolated. Sobel-Lojesky and her colleagues have found that when virtual distance is relatively high, a number of negative effects arise, including:

  • Innovative behaviors decline by more than 90%. 
  • Trust declines by more than 80%. 
  • Cooperative and helping behavior decline by more than 80%.
  • Project success drops by more than 50%. 

Clearly, experiencing high virtual distance is going to be a drag on engagement and productivity. So, what can leaders do to address virtual distance? If ongoing physical distance is now part of the business strategy, leaders should consider which teams truly need to work in person together and how to do that safely. They should consider options that allow smaller groups to come together occasionally. If operational distance is an issue, technical problems should be addressed. 

The most gains will come from addressing the affinity distance. Working remotely makes it more likely that the organization’s culture will default to one of indifference. As we describe in our book Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work, in a culture of indifference people are so focused on tasks that they fail to develop supportive relationships and bonds of connection that are necessary to thrive and do their best work for a sustained period of time. The risk of increased virtual distance makes being intentional about developing a connection culture all the more important. 

Make Personal Connections

How we value one another as unique individuals and treat each other with respect, not as means to an end, is a foundational aspect of a connection culture. Because of that, one of the actions we highly recommend is for supervisors and colleagues to invest time in getting to know more about each other. Professor Ashley Elizabeth Hardin’s research on personal knowledge has found that getting to know about colleagues’ lives outside of work “leads to a more individuated, humanized perception of the known colleague, which results in increased responsiveness and decreased social undermining.” Psychologist James Pennebaker has found that when you get people to talk, they feel more connected to you, like you more, and believe they learn more from you. 

To reduce the affinity distance, adopt the mindset that fostering healthy and supportive relationships with your colleagues smooths the way for working well together and fueling collaboration. Being interested in the people on your team may come naturally to you but others may need to adjust an attitude of “Work is work. I don’t need, or actually want, to be friends with other employees.” We’re not suggesting that everyone needs to be best friends. We do know that finding common ground or identifying a shared interest opens up the working relationship in a helpful way.

How well do you know your colleagues? Have you ever talked with them about their hopes and dreams, their interests outside of work, or past experiences that have shaped them? Do you actually know what is important to them or have you been making assumptions? 

Here are two simple practices you could use on a video call with your team to help colleagues begin to get to know each other on a deeper level. In both, the person sharing has the freedom to be open to the extent that he or she feels comfortable. 

When he was U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy incorporated a practice to boost connection called “inside scoop” and he saw it pay big dividends. As part of the weekly all-hands meeting, one individual would have five minutes to show a few photos related to his or her life and tell the others about them. Over time, each participant took a turn. “In listening, in just five minutes, we got to see whole other dimensions of people we had not understood in working together for a year,” Murthy recounted in an interview. “People started treating each other differently, stepping out of their lanes and helping each other more. They felt they had been seen. It’s powerful as institutions to create simple opportunities like that to see each other clearly for who they are.” As a result of “inside scoop,” Murthy observed that people felt more valued when their colleagues learned about them on a more personal level, introverted individuals began speaking up more and taking more responsibility, people seemed less stressed, and they commented that they felt more connected.

Or you might consider trying what Maureen Bisognano did when she was president and CEO of Institute for Healthcare Improvement. Before getting down to business, she began each Monday morning meeting with the senior executive team by asking each person to take up to two minutes and share one good thing. Most of the time, the good things were personal memories of something that happened over the weekend with family or friends.  

Before the COVID-19 pandemic caused such upheaval, stress and loneliness were already high. Add to that, new concerns for our health, the health of loved ones, and the health of the economy; the effects of being socially isolated; the stress of how work has changed, how divisive political discourse in an election year is polarizing, and how to move forward together with important societal issues we’re facing—that’s a lot all at once. We need others with whom we can talk and process how we are feeling. 

Lacking meaningful connection to help us cope, ongoing stress and loneliness impairs how clearly we think, our quality of sleep, and our willpower to eat a healthy diet and exercise. It makes us more vulnerable to other stressors and we are more likely to have a more intense reaction to negatives. Disconnection is a super-stressor. Connection, on the other hand, helps protect us from stress. It is a superpower that also makes you smarter, happier, and more productive, according to UCLA neuroscience professor and author Matthew Lieberman.

Cultivating a connection culture and strengthening the bonds of connection will help you, your team, and the organization thrive. To protect productivity and performance, actively guard against “out of sight, out of mind.” Strive to keep the big picture in front of you so you’re guided and motivated by “here’s where we’re going, how we’re going to get there, and here’s my role and how I fit into the whole.” Be sure people have a voice and are contributing their ideas and perspectives. Take steps to be sure people feel they are valued as part of the team and begin by creating a safe environment in which people get to know and appreciate their colleagues as unique individuals.

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