Effective work follows principles which are even more important when working remotely.
Since almost 3 months I’m working from home now. Although it felt strange at the beginning I really got used to it by now. As additional handicap this new homeoffice experience came along with being at home while also everyone else was at home too, both colleagues and family.
Everyone who has younger kids (or any other “sometimes loud and demanding” lifeform) surely has experienced similar difficulties and some new needed level of stress resistance 🙂
In my experience we got used to it around 2 weeks into our isolation. And now it’s hard to even imagine going back to a 5 days in the office week.
This homeoffice this works much better than I thought. I think we’ve been lucky to have the technological means in place to allow remote work and communication in such a frictionless manner.
Imagine this would have happened in the 90’s. Would have been a very different picture in my opinion.
User-behaviour beats technology
But same as with all technological advances it’s the user behaviour which makes or breaks success. During the first weeks of our homeoffice-odyssey I had the impression that the pure number of virtual meetings exploded. Sadly most of them were heavily unstructured, badly prepared and by far not efficient enough.
As you know I give classes at different universities where the radical change to remote learning was quite a challenge. Same as with the virtual meetings in the business world, virutal teaching sessions vcan’t be compared to normal classroom situation. The input material needed to be prepared very well and can’t at all be compared to a physical class session.
The key difference I experienced is that dialogs and verbal communication is much harder. In the virtual setup the little nuances and timings of human communication get lost.
You surely have experienced multiple situations where the participants in a meeting all of a sudden started talking simultaneously and thus nothing got understood. This is caused by us not being able to “see” some milliseconds upfront that the other persons is just about to start talking. These micro-observations reacting to other people’s facial or body expressions processed in our sub-consciousness make the difference. In physical situations where you run a meeting or teach a class, you can moderate and steer conversations much more naturally by eye contact and body-language (Scott-Philipps, 2014, pp. 54).
As all this is more difficult in a remote setup you need to focus on creating interaction and dialog in a different way. Pre-prepared tasks, exercises and mini-group actions seem to be a good way to go. But in order to do this well, your preparation upfront need to be very accurate. Many things I would do spontaneously and verbally in a physical class require a written, precisely prepared description in a virtual class.
So lesson #1 is clearly “Preparation, preparation, preparation!” Preparation is always important for being effective, but I feel it is absolutely inevitable for any effective group work in a remote situation.
The UPS theory
Lesson #2 instead is try your best to avoid the “useless-participant-spotlight”. Seeing and wondering about some person’s behaviour in virtual meetings I came up with this “UPS theory”.
I believe that some people, who are very distant from the real day-to-day operations in their teams, are very vulnerable to the “UPS Syndrom”. I have the impression that these people usually spend most of their time by networking with peers, by participating in meetings in which they assist because of their position in the organisation and by walking around and chatting with their peers, teams and subordinates.
The problem with a situation like now with Corona is that this remote situation is undermining their importance. As the day-to-day is anyhow managed by their teams and sub-level managers, they don’t have any stake there. Spontaneous networking with peers is also much more difficult, setting up a video call for pure small-talk is much more awkward than spending 30min with a peer who they met occasionally in the cafeteria.
Thus the only place left where they can show their importance to the organisation and from which they derive their self-affirmation are meetings. This unfortunately has a severe negative side-effect on your meeting effectiveness. While in physical meetings the pure physical presence of the person is undisputable and often enough for the person to feel “seen”, the virtual world is very different. In the virtual world, especially in meetings with a high number of participants the pure attendance of a person might even get missed. Thus for everyone noticing his or her participation it is absolute key to talk, to have time in the spotlight, to show to the world their contribution.
As you can imagine this usually makes meetings much longer and much harder, especially as persons searching for “UPS” often occur in groups 🙂
Best practise and book recommendation
Best advice I can give is to try to keep meetings small and invite very restrictively only the persons who need to contribute something. A colleague and good friend of mine told me yesterday about Peter Drucker, the founder modern management (Denning, 2014, Forbes), who wrote in his book the Drucker Essentials that there are only very few situations where a meeting makes sense at all (Drucker, 2008, p. 237). The work needs to get done before and you should apply strict rules before deciding if a meeting is even necessary.
I think I will read Drucker’s ideas one once more, I couldn’t remember that part.
Maybe these thoughts from Drucker are even more important nowadays during Corona-times.
Before finishing I really hope that everyone reading this, plus your families and friends are fine and healthy. While for most of us this is just a strange new experience with a time of less social contact, it has been a nightmare and severe life-threatening situation for others and some may have even lost beloved friends, partners or parents. My thoughts are with those whose families haven’t been as lucky as my own.
I wish you all the best, stay safe, stay healthy!