Remote working: Common problems, easy-ish fixes

Now you’ve been largely working at home for two weeks or more, you will be clear on what is working, and what isn’t. If you were to think about which aspects of working from home you’re currently finding the most difficult, which would you say?

There seems to be a growing consensus around what people are finding difficult, and the challenges seem to converge around three areas: (1) the challenges of working with/leading a team; (2) problems with individual work; and (3) mental health and well-being. So, what can you do to reduce issues, now and in the future?

1. Working in a team

If: You’re struggling to be the great team you usually are

Then: Remind yourself what makes a great team and make changes where necessary

The good news here is that if you look at the research, the same qualities make for a good remote team as they do a face-to-face one. According to the excellent research by Google on team excellence (called Project Aristotle), team excellence requires five things:

  1. They need a sense of psychological safety. People on teams with high levels of psychological safety feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.
  2. They need to feel as though they can depend on other team members – who will produce quality work on time, and not shirk responsibilities.
  3. They need structure and clarity: knowing what’s expected and how to fulfil these expectations.
  4. They need a sense of meaning: finding a sense of purpose in either the work itself or its output is important for team effectiveness.
  5. They need to feel that their work has an impact, holding tight to the subjective judgement that their work is making a difference.

If: There’s tension in the team because everyone wants different things from the online environment

Then: Make sure you have team norms that work online

Team norms are essential in order to operate in a way that preserves high quality work, good mental and physical health and a strong sense of team. You need set ways of doing things – when you meet, how you meet, for how long. How you acknowledge good work, deal with problems, and escalate to your managers. Some questions you may want to ask yourselves in order to set these norms:

  • Are you going to try to mimic what you usually do?
  • Will you keep regular team meetings the same length of time or are you going to try something new?
  • Is there going to be an expectation that everyone has their video switched on, or not?
  • How and when will you give feedback on work?
  • When and how are you going to show appreciation of one another’s work?

If: You’re feeling as though the team is less glued-together and/or chatty than normal

Then: Don’t underestimate the value of small talk

In the online environment, small talk can go out of the window, and this can make team members feel more isolated. Make an effort on this, by asking people how their days are going; talking about the DIY they’ve been doing or the box set they’ve been bingeing; or how homeschooling is going. Some teams establish a virtual watercooler – something like a Slack channel, WhatsApp group, or Microsoft Teams thread where they set aside time and space to chat. You can prompt conversations by asking open questions there, such as what are they using their former commuting time for; or what’s the most interesting thing they’ve cooked since they’ve been homeworking. Others play computer games, and others still organise a book group, or all to listen to the same TED talk and share their thoughts on it. Anything to stoke the flames of conversation that isn’t just task driven and is more about maintaining a shared social bond and therefore a culture.

2. Working individually

If: You’re struggling to complete some of your work

Then: Look realistically at what elements of your role can/can’t be completed from home

We all have elements of our role which can’t be easily translated to online environments, and I have been hearing from quite a few people who are only just starting to realise this. The obvious tasks would be those involving groups working with physical objects: prototypes, huge print-outs of spreadsheets. The other category would be work with physical objects that you haven’t been able to relocate to home: confidential documents or out-of-print texts for example.

There’s also another whole category of tasks that can be done online, but have little value if everyone is working from home. Planning on-site events to invite clients to, or team away-days may now have to wait until we have more certainty over when this period of social distancing and compulsory working from home is going to come to an end.

And then there’s a third category of things you are working on which, because your company is now trying to save costs, you won’t be able to do. Events, learning and development, office overhauls – these are all examples of activities which I’ve heard from clients have been put on hold for the foreseeable future.

That’s fine. There are some things that it’s just hard to do much about, from home. And it’s probably better not to give yourself a hard time about it.

That said, there’s a host of other activities which you can do that you may not have had time to turn your attention to before now. Tasks I’ve heard people turning to, relieved that they can ‘finally get around to them’ include online professional development activities – both soft skills and technical skills; catching up with colleagues, clients and those in your wider network you don’t get much of a chance to talk to; hauling your CV into this new decade; sorting out your LinkedIn profile and social media presence if either are important for your current/future career; and getting around to that pile of work-related reading that’s been towering over you physically or virtually for the past few years. I’m going to be writing something about some leadership development activities you can do in the comfort of your home office in my next post.

If: You’re feeling unmotivated, and finding you’re procrastinating a lot

Then: Create a schedule and stick to it

If you’re not used to a lot of solo, or home, working, then this is probably the strangest element of the new set-up. Commonly, people who are new to homeworking talk about the struggles of getting up, motivating yourself to get going, and keeping going. What’s the secret?

Key to this is to start by prioritising tasks for the day ahead. Or, even better, set out this list at the end of the previous day. What do you absolutely have to get done? Once you’ve worked that out, then commit to it. A good way of doing that is by printing out a schedule/to do list and sticking to it. Turning off news alerts, email alerts, social media alerts and any other distractions will help you to stay focused on the list, as will ticking times/activities off as you go.

And, if all of that doesn’t work, you can ask someone to hold you accountable. It’s much more difficult to justify to someone else why you’ve not done a task than it is to justify it to yourself. It doesn’t have to be your boss – it can be a colleague, team member, your partner, or even a friend.

3. Looking after your mental health and wellbeing

If: you’re feeling isolated

Then: seek out people you can talk to (about it?)

This is a common problem for those who are working from home anyway. They often report a sense of isolation (as well as being ganged-up on by others; feeling shunned; left out of projects…the somewhat depressing list goes on). In some ways, the problems at the moment are less because they are shared, and people are having regular conversations (or should be) about the potential negative effect on mental health and emotional wellbeing that social distancing causes. In other ways, they are exacerbated, because we are all feeling the same challenging feelings.

The good news is that talking to others about it is very much on the table right now. And, there are lots of resources out there to help with anxiety, distress, and isolation caused by social distancing measures. In particular, they recommend talking to people – not just about your feelings, but more generally. A realisation that you are not alone is critical. To increase a sense of togetherness, use video calling as much as you can. If you look at what creates an experience as close to face-to-face as can be, it’s video conferencing – not just audio.

Remember, that if you feel as though your problems are severe, you should seek help from the relevant professionals. Mind in particular have created really great resources, and The Samaritans are always available, and have pulled together some great resources for coping.

And, if you’re not feeling these strong feelings, then you can use your own stability right now to reach out to others and help them. The WHO have highlighted the likely mental health problems from the Co-vid 19 outbreak and measures that can help. The action of helping in itself will increase your wellbeing and may safeguard you from difficult to handle emotions and feelings in future.

If: You’re feeling burnt out

Then: Establish more clear boundaries between home and work and stick to them

Another common problem with working from home is that day bleeds into night; work-life into home-life; and as such, it feels as though an ‘always-on’ culture pervades. This is made more extreme at the moment because so many people who are employed are worried about their jobs, and many are juggling home-schooling, too. So the days can feel relentless and as though time-off is a small window when you collapse on the sofa and fall asleep (this particular example is taken from my current experience!). Ultimately, this can lead to burn-out, so it needs bringing into check as quickly as you can.

You need to solve this – through your use of time and space. First, the schedule that I talk about above is the critical tool here. You need to create a schedule – with time limits on it – and stick to it. If you’re struggling to, then get a partner, or a friend, to interrupt you when you said your working day would finish. And don’t be tempted to go back to it afterwards! In a similar vein, construct a space for work. If you’re lucky to have a home office, then use it! If not, and you’re perched at your kitchen table, then pack away all your work stuff out of sight at the end of the working day, and make your space feel like your home again. Very few of us have spare cash floating around at the moment, but if you do, then this article highlights a few items you could think about purchasing to improve the feel of your home working space and to help demarcate the line between work and home.

Are there any challenges you’re struggling with that I haven’t mentioned? If so, let me know! I will update the article to include more research-led solutions to the problems you are facing.


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