Zoom conference calls, unexpected background interruptions, and the eternal question of what’s an acceptable dress code – these are just some of the considerations workforces around the world are facing with social isolation being the new normal.
While large-scale remote working may be a new reality for many of us, it has been the subject of rigorous scientific study for decades. As a result, there is a substantial body of research evaluating how to work at home effectively, tackle isolation, and maintain motivation.
This has also allowed for the separation of intuitive – but unfounded – speculation about best practice for managers and employees from the approaches best supported by evidence.
With this in mind, we have brought together our first-hand expertise in organisational psychology with a critical understanding of the latest evidence in effective remote working strategies to identify what works, what’s been talked about but isn’t evidence-based, and gaps and new opportunities organisations should be considering.
Armed with this analysis, you should be able to cut through the noise and ensure your workplace uses effective practices needed for staff to thrive remotely.
Let’s dive in.
1.1: What works?
Based on our research, there are some key elements to a successful remote working programme. The priorities effective leaders implement include:
Here, communication ‘richness’ is key; face-to-face is the richest, even when achieved digitally. The more face-to-face interaction between co-workers, the less teleworking reduces job satisfaction. Ensuring that your team gets enough face time is a proven way of helping integration, identification with the company, trust with colleagues, and knowledge sharing.
Re-prioritising control strategies
We tend to judge performance based on what people look like they’re doing, and important traits such as how people perform in a crisis or how decent they are to co-workers are predominantly gleaned from observable actions. However, in a WFH system we need to downplay this behavioural system a little and focus more on output.
This shift in strategy helps your people to feel part of what’s going on in the organisation, as they are contributing towards goals and feel trusted to do their work. Give clear criteria for results, specify what needs to be accomplished, and give explicit performance-reward links to gain knowledge of how well people are working without needing to see them. When objective criteria like goals and measurable targets are not used to evaluate performance, WFH decreases job satisfaction. When criteria are used, this negative effect disappears.
Replicating the informal
Don’t let meeting agendas become the basis of daily interaction. Short, frequent communications with purpose help employees feel connected and included. Acknowledge contributions and provide feedback spontaneously. This kind of regular interaction also removes uncertainty, which has been shown to contribute to exhaustion.
1.2: What’s out there, but not proven?
Naturally, there are protocols that managers believe anecdotally but aren’t entirely evidence-based. We would recommend proceeding with caution when faced with these assumptions:
You will be more productive or satisfied when WFH
Productivity and/or satisfaction gains while WFH have been identified in plenty of papers, however the results suffer from various kinds of reporting issues that cloud their findings. A key consideration here is that while staff have been found to work harder from home if they feel that it is an exclusive benefit to them (reciprocity), when it isn’t (like now) there is less of an effort. Performance is not automatically improved.
You must be organised to succeed
While diligence and organisational skills are seen as being particularly important in a WFH setting, these traits are no more integral for teleworkers than they are for office-based staff. From a research perspective, it is the idiosyncratic details of individual jobs, not general job traits, that determine whether a specific individual can effectively WFH.
You will have a worse (or better) work-life balance
There are conflicting judgements made here; while some studies show WFH reduces conflict by giving more time at home, others show it increases conflict by blurring the lines between work and leisure. Ultimately, your individual situation with children, home offices, or other concerns will determine what happens, so bear that in mind when acting on advice.
1.3: What are potential new opportunities?
With this unprecedented level of remote working, organisations are now faced with an exciting opportunity to see what works most effectively for them. It will be interesting to see who goes beyond the basics to explore other WFH considerations. A few of these gaps include:
Replicating the commute
In certain contexts, positive effects of mimicking a commute have been identified as it gets you into the right mindset for the working day. While it is not entirely clear why this work (i.e. whether it cues your time to work or just reduces distraction), exercise is always good – so consider taking a cycle ride or a jog during your usual commute time.
Assessing isolation effects
Evidence indicates that the concern for losing professional and social ties exceeds the actual loss experienced. In normal circumstances, isolation is predicted by feeling out of the loop and passed over for promotion compared to office-based colleagues. However, with COVID-19, obviously this is different as everyone is at home and should theoretically be free from these concerns (in fact, astronaut training shows that 30 days of isolation has no effect on mood or cognitive tasks). That said, most studies on teleworking have been on people who occasionally come into the office – long periods of whole-office remote working have not been well studied.
Improving improve social ties
Time in the office is beneficial for establishing a wide-ranging network of colleagues – so-called ‘weak ties’ – which have been shown to be beneficial for creative collaboration. Remote working may provide opportunities to expand networks that would normally be very difficult, as it’s easy to sit in/join meetings you normally wouldn’t.
2.0: How to nurture your remote team
Impetuses for working can be divided into a few separate reasons, categorised by being either internally motivated (what we want to do ourselves) or externally motivated (what we feel we are made to do by other forces). These range from the enjoyment of the work itself or value of its impact to the motivation from emotional threat or possibility of gaining a reward – and the externals are completely independent of the actual content of the work.
We want to minimise the externals and maximise the internals; in order to do so, there are several actions based on behavioural science techniques that you should adopt:
- Schedule a regular huddle where people reflect on an enjoyable moment, a moment where they made an impact, and a moment where they felt like they progressed during the week. Get them to consider questions such as: What did I do/learn that I enjoyed? What did I do that I felt had impact? What do I want to achieve next?
This is also a good learning opportunity for managers – if people are struggling to identify their impact, or if it feels like their motivations are more external than internal, you need to make these larger goals clearer to them.
- Explain the why behind the work of your team. Now, more than ever, it’s key that employees not only have explicit and clear criteria for their immediate goals, but they also have an understanding of the broader impact of the organisation to foster identity.
- Create opportunities for team members to help each other out. Having staff use their skills to assist others supports the feeling of belonging that helps identification with the organisation and keeps people motivated.
- Provide feedback using specific examples and emphasising impact.
More generally, the reasons why different types of intervention work can be divided into two categories: common and specific factors. For example, in psychotherapy, different schools focus on different forms of treatment (for example, cognitive training vs exploring dreams) and these approaches are known as their specific factors. But there are features that are shared by both (and all) approaches, such as empathy and affirmation from the therapist, and time spent talking through feelings. These are known as common factors.
There are many common factors, but although there are many different techniques that are specific to particular forms of therapy, as long as they involve an empathetic relationship, collaboration on goals, exploration of feelings and time, they are likely to be helpful to an extent.
Remote activities to keep employees motivated and engaged likely share a similar distinction between common and specific factors. From what we have seen, we know that face-to-face communication, output-based control strategies, internal motivation and informal feedback (among other things) are important. These are our common factors. As long as an activity is fulfilling some common factors, it is likely to be better than nothing – however it ends up manifesting itself.
Ultimately, the best practices are those that are tailored to your culture and/or brand, for which the insights presented above should be just a starting point. While we would always strongly recommend using evidence-based techniques as the basis of remote working policies, it is important to acknowledge that organisations have their own ways of working, challenges and goals; the most effective solutions need to be responses to these unique circumstances.
If you’re interested in learning more about the behavioural science behind working from home, our team have created an evidence-check guide. Have a read here.