By Stuart Duff is a Partner and Head of Development at the Business Psychologist firm Pearn Kandola LLP
With the introduction of further lockdown measures across the UK, employees are becoming used to the routine of working from home. While those who have no alternative may still be commuting to their workplace every day, the Government’s advice to ‘work from home if you can’ saw office workers packing up their desks once again and returning to home working.
We all know that there are both positives and negatives of working from home, whether you have a home office set up or find yourself telecommuting from bed five days a week. There are a number of obvious and immediate benefits to remote working, all of which can make us more productive than we ever have been – the lack of a commute and lack of office distractions to name just a couple.
But, if we’re doing more than ever before and perhaps exceeding our employer’s expectations, why doesn’t this new way of working feel quite right?
Humans are social animals by nature – bouncing off others and working collaboratively is what we do best. Even the most introverted employees will tell you that going to work is about being part of a team.
Remote working doesn’t allow teams to communicate in the same way as they would in the office. Processes have become less collaborative, and relationships have taken a back seat. While we’ve all adapted to the change of working from home well, the only contact we now have with co-workers is over video conferencing in meetings that are scheduled and regimented. Very rarely do we spend the first ten minutes of a call catching up, and as a result, we’ve lost many of those important but unplanned and spontaneous opportunities to connect with others.
In losing important interpersonal connections, our work quickly becomes transactional. For example, for a leader to delegate a task to a team member, all they need to do is send a quick email. On the receiving end, employees don’t get the understanding of why they’re being given an extra item to add to their to-do list, simply because it’s harder to delegate and create a sense of understanding when you can’t look into someone’s eyes.
As a result, leaders face a challenge in keeping employees engaged, whilst also championing productivity and fostering a culture of inclusivity.
Thought, task and people leadership
While task leadership is about driving others to complete their goals and deliver results, thought leadership looks to the future and initiates change where it’s needed. People leadership focuses on motivation, engagement and development of colleagues, with the purpose of getting the most out of employees as individuals. Working from home and a lack of spontaneous conversation has created a focus on task leadership, while both thought and people leadership have diminished.
Though this has made us more productive in the short term, what are the longer-term risks of this way of working?
Without the presence of thought leadership within our team, many of us are solely focused on what’s going on right now. The difference between this and our usual way of working is that we’ve taken our eyes off the future. That, in turn, can lead to a diminished sense of inclusion and belonging, as employees no longer associate themselves and their future with the workplace. In the current climate, ensuring that employees feel secure and can be confident in their future as a member of your team is vital.
In addition, the lines between working life and home life have become increasingly blurred, leaving employees less engaged and feeling detached from the in-group. We surveyed 500 people throughout lockdown, half of whom were furloughed, and the other half worked from home. Both groups equally felt less engaged and committed to their work, whether they were actually working during this time or not.
Throughout the pandemic we have seen anxiety levels rising in relation to work. Not only are employees concerned about the risk of furlough or redundancy, but certain unconscious pressures, such as receiving emails later in the evening or being the first to communicate in the morning, will also lead them to over-commit their time to prove themselves and please leaders. Many employees will strive to go the extra mile, work an extra hour, but in doing so will take on too many tasks. The only way to complete all of those tasks is to extend the working day, and it doesn’t take long for this to become an ingrained and unhelpful routine habit.
People leadership is vital during challenging times, and though it has been made more complex due to the pandemic and regular working from home, it’s now more important than ever. Lower levels of employee engagement and motivation can stunt development, and fewer opportunities to connect results in teams feeling unsupported by their leaders. Over time, this can cause feelings of isolation to develop, and employees will begin to disconnect, further resulting in low levels of emotional trust between colleagues. Conversely, cognitive trust – believing that employees are productive and committed to achieving what is expected of them – is likely to remain the same whilst working from home and perhaps grow over a long term.
When emotional trust in a team is low, team members may perform the basic tasks but important team factors such as openness, mutual support and encouragement will fall, leading to lower creativity, lower energy, and lower involvement. Without these open, meaningful conversations in personal, levels of emotional trust fall leading to disengagement.
This feeling of disengagement can spiral negatively over time, meaning that employees won’t actually be as productive as we’d presume with a new task-focused way of working from home. Not only that, but spending less time with colleagues doesn’t allow for employees to learn from those around them, further stunting their engagement and perhaps inhibiting development. That’s why it’s vital for leaders to recognise and address the issue.
What are the solutions?
As we’ve identified, the main issue with working from home is a lack of personal communication. From our own research into the business case for video communications, we found that close contact, and most importantly non-verbal cues, significantly increases trust between team members and will enable trust to be built more quickly. Face-to-face communication also enables a sense of shared identity and stronger interpersonal bonds to be created.
While it’ll never be the same as speaking to someone in person, video conferencing is currently the closest thing we have to face-to-face conversations. And, although we’ve become much more familiar with the technology throughout the pandemic, we need to keep making advances in this area to improve the employee experience from home.
Where you have the opportunity, add an extra five to ten minutes on to the start of every meeting for personal conversations. As a leader, you should be asking your team how they are first, as opposed to what they’re doing. These interpersonal conversations should help establish trust between co-workers, and allow you to re-emphasise their value by showing that you care.
Communication really is key, so make sure to speak to all team members about what’s going on in the business and what the plans are for the future. This allows you to incorporate both thought and task leadership whilst working from home.
Similarly, leaders should encourage team members to call each other and catch up – both about work and their personal lives – as opposed to sending emails and instant messages where they can. One of the best ways to do this is to lead by example; don’t leave it to your team members to check in on each other, ensure that you’re proactively reaching out to remote employees and check in on their wellbeing.
As we look to the future, and a number of organisations hope to offer working from home on a more permanent basis, it falls to leaders to think about technology and what every employee needs to feel a part of the workplace. Providing extra screens where a live feed of the office can be seen, so that home workers can feel the office around them, for example, could be a way to boost inclusivity.
Any organisation planning to introduce a more flexible approach to working, and within that a mandatory working-from-home regime, should also provide guidelines on the best practices for working remotely.
The executive team, through HR, are responsible for helping employees manage their time and make better choices during these uncertain times. As leaders, it’s your responsibility to help your teams find what works best for them, ensuring that they are working in healthy, sustainable ways going forward.