One common interest you find within the expat community in Hong Kong is the love of typhoon season. For those that don’t know, if the Hong Kong observatory issues a No. 8 typhoon signal warning, you are required to stay at home. This meant that for many, this was considered as a day off. Well, times have certainly changed.
As I sit here, with Typhoon Nangka drifting off the coast (honestly, was there even really a storm?) lamenting about the good ol’ days, I started to weigh up the good, the bad, and the ugly of remote working. Having worked in many roles where I was a part of a distributed team, working remotely is not unfamiliar to me. In my role as Global Product Manager, I had a distributed development team, stakeholders scattered around the world, and key customers on several continents.
To me, the world adapted rather well to what the popular press is referring to as the “new norm.” When Microsoft rushed to release a virtual background capability on Teams, organisations clambered to give VPN access, and Zoom stock rose to an astonishing 600% this year. Anecdotally, productivity hasn’t slowed down. Access to a larger talent pool is increasingly becoming a reality and teams have adopted new emergent norms. On the flip side, there has been more pressure to be “always on” and work/home life has stepped on each other’s proverbial foot.
So even though remote working seemed like the perfect nirvana – at first – it was clear that we needed to iron out some kinks in this brave new world. Here are some things I’ve noticed – what about you?
1. Mimicking face-to-face is not the answer
The Agile manifesto places co-location and face-to-face communication on a pedestal – and rightly so. The connections people make in the office by simply being present cannot be underestimated, allowing for more open interactions to occur.
During video calls, trying to enforce people to turn on cameras is also not the solution. I keep looking for ways to enable two-way communication - whether by using emojis, online collaboration boards, polls, surveys or even the chat function. In my experience, non-participation does not mean that they don’t want to, it could simply mean that they just don’t know how. So I kept asking, in multiple ways, until I would get a response.
2. Balancing the who, what, and why during remote working
It is often thought that there is safety in numbers. That is, there is less likelihood of an individual getting into trouble. For an anxious extrovert, like me, this is not always the truth. I do enjoy the company of others, but continuously question my interactions with others. “Did I say the right thing? Did I articulate myself well?” In a distributed setting, these thoughts are amplified. I take a leaf out of my empirical book and search for data to give me an answer.
I continue to empathise with people like me or even with those who are less comfortable in social situations. In the absence of information, I start to perhaps over cater to this crowd. Balancing out the participants, topics and methods of engagement in order to create the right environment should always evolve. For me, the key is to focus on outcomes.
3. Establishing the new emergent norms, quickly
I believe it is human nature to want to control the environment around us. There is a feeling of safety within the things we think we understand, or we think we can control. Stephen Covey, author of ‘7 Habits Of Highly Effective People’, once surmised using concentric circles to help visualise our areas of influence.
It’s important that these are established as early as possible for effective remote working to eliminate as much uncertainty as you can. More importantly, perhaps, is the need to help teams be comfortable in embracing the unknown together. This requires a solid foundation of trust.
I’ve looked for signs of behaviours that positively reinforce the messages I want to create and take the time to acknowledge. This also means providing feedback on adverse behaviour. I’ve found the NVC (nonviolent communication) method very useful.
“When…. [observation], I feel …… [emotion]
Because I’m needing some …. [universal need]
Would you be able to ….. [request]?”
4. Purpose is best when co-created
There are times when I hop out of bed, ready to start the day. And then there are the other times where I’m grateful for the lack of commuting time. Connecting meaning to the work we do can be a make or break for building the right momentum, especially in distributed teams. I’ve seen many attempts to do this and it can be haphazard at best, especially when the truth could simply be that the individual would like to get paid.
Teams that I have seemed to have been more successful with have turned to co-creating goals and outcomes. Often a top-down approach to cascading a vision is counterproductive. For me, it needs to be both top-down and bottom-up. You need to be able to connect individual pieces of work that are meaningful to the team, for the greater good.
To build a more sustainable emotional connection, we need to tap into people’s personal beliefs and attitudes. This takes more time but it is highly rewarding.