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Many of us are now full-time home workers, with many also experiencing this for the first time. In the weeks and months ahead remote working will affect how we work, how we relate to co-workers and how we can maintain a healthy work-life integration, especially as we begin to bring some groups back into the workplace. Regardless of whether or not we’re in an earlier group of people to return to a regular workplace, it’s important to remember:
We are in a state of collective trauma and grief, one that is shared by all, with all of us being reminded of it every day.
This trauma and grief is also anticipatory; in other words, grief for what we could lose—our jobs, relationships, physical health and mental health. This is chronic ongoing stress as we just don’t know.
To be real and vulnerable, we need to share our experiences and acknowledge our grief and the grief of others, which in turn validates our sense of loss.
Dealing with uncertainty
Uncertainty will remain our constant companion for the foreseeable future—it’s almost impossible to predict what’s going to happen, which flings us between different emotional states sometimes daily. Talking openly about uncertainty and being able to understand its effect on ourselves and others helps ‘normalise’ it—signalling that it’s both safe and necessary to express uncertainty, and setting a new culture that embraces it. At some level perhaps we could even appreciate its benefits—after all, uncertainty drives curiosity, which is a fundamental motivator for learning and expanding our way of knowing and doing.
Dealing with grief
Psychologist Dan Auerbach says that if we make blanket statements that ‘we’re all going through the same thing’, we will marginalise people who feel more profound difficulty with adjusting than others. It is important to acknowledge individual reactions—there are different expressions of sadness. There could be tears, screaming or simply withdrawal. Perhaps people might ruminate on stories of ‘what used to be’ or yearning for a return to normal. There is also the real possibility of ‘survivor guilt’ getting in the way of expressing how we feel. In Australia we might hesitate to admit anxiety or depression as we are not in Spain or New York.
As we have all been on some level of hyper-alert for a considerable time now, we are much more vulnerable and sensitive, and perhaps have a reduced capacity to focus or be productive. Signs of difficulty include irritability; being detached; speaking more negatively than usual; being more preoccupied than usual; less likely to laugh; feeling chronically tired; drinking frequently.
If you observe any of these signs in yourself or others, try reconsidering commitments or expectations.
It is important, too, to remember that this collective grief is not something we get over and leave behind. We move forward with it, hopefully with resilience and new ways of communicating and working.
Those who are motivated by personal achievements and have a self-belief and control over their work will continue to thrive, but for the rest of us, acknowledging and being open about the current challenges is important.
This is NOT business as usual, so leaders who can admit this are probably going be more successful when motivating a team—still focusing on the positives, but being genuine. Vision and strategy still come into play of course, but social competence is going to be even more important, and making sure a team can stay connected (including the challenges each team member faces in terms of childcare, home office setup, broadband connections, and how they’ve adapted themselves to working from home) is going to be very important in the current situation.
In any team, trust and straightforwardness are critical to effective communication. But we’ve lost the ‘tearoom’ and the informal small talk, the side conversations, and any subtle visual cues. In order to continue cultivating working relationships, we need to understand ourselves and how we tend to behave or interact with others—finding new ways to relate. It's all about self-awareness.
During this time, even though we’re physically apart we’ve learnt to connect with each other on a much more human level—we’ve virtually been into each other’s homes. This has cultivated a certain level of openness, authenticity and vulnerability that we might not want to lose.
It’s also important to recognise that a certain level of work commitment is healthy and productive, but this can easily tip over into an unhealthy preoccupation. Monitoring (or self-monitoring) this remotely can be challenging. Strategies to improve the effectiveness of remote teams could include regular communication, self-management tactics and conscious socialisation unrelated to work.
Video conferencing fatigue & cognitive dissonance
Cooperation is a key factor in remote working. We still need to socially interact right now—very few people can perform their jobs without any contact with others. We also still need to connect in a social way.
Video technology is an amazing tool to connect us when we work remotely, but it is also wearing us down. We have had to adjust the way we communicate with colleagues, sometimes in back-to-back meetings that consist of grids of faces we are staring at all at once and where we can’t feel their presence through body language and touch. According to Insead Associate Professor Gianpiero Petriglieri, “our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not”. He further says, “it’s easier being in each other’s presence, or in each other’s absence, than in the constant presence of each other’s absence.” It’s easy to see how this level of dissonance is exhausting.
Loss of conversational flow and meaning
The way we talk to each other is different now— virtual conversations feel a little more forced, with loss of a level of incidental small talk as well as the natural silences we get in face-to-face interactions. Silence can now lead to anxiety—did I say something wrong? ... is their computer frozen?
As well, the reciprocal nature of paying attention that comes from making direct eye contact is lost. The required accommodation can be emotionally draining.
Physical presence, mental absence
The more people involved in a virtual meeting, the less responsibility people feel to contribute and the more likely they are to tune out. Maintaining engagement is so much harder. Not only is it possible that people will miss crucial information, but constantly feeling distracted can be unsettling and stressful.
Addressing video fatigue
The obvious suggestion is to have less video meetings, saving them for smaller scale, high-value conversations. For those more essential meetings the following recommendations could be helpful:
Set up a meeting process: set up a process that is relevant to the type of meeting you are having, and which is communicated in the meeting invite. A structure optimises engagement and minimises distraction.
Agree methods for gaining attention: have a mutually-understood visual signal that you are about to speak. This minimises the event of people talking at once, and then having to repeat themselves through words being ‘lost’.
Encourage active listening: create links by reflecting back what was just said, checking for meaning and then inviting more commentary.
Name the undercurrents: keep an ear out for common gripes and name them in a useful way, for example: It seems there could be a problem with feeling motivated as a group. What could we do about this?
Normalise the issues: we all get distracted and tired when video conferencing—it’s OK to say you’ve lost track.
Take a break: help people ensure they have breaks between meetings—allowing for a mental buffer helps the brain to recover. Turning the camera off is also a good way to take a break from too much stimulation, or even dial in from your phone at times—this can be less stressful, and you can freely move around without distracting others.
Returning to the ‘office’
At first we were anxious about having to isolate. But now restrictions are being eased, and people are gradually making their way back into their workplaces (and life in general), some of us feel stressed again. Now, instead of talking about the stress associated with feeling isolated, we could find ourselves talking about noise, being with crowds or having to travel.
This response has a name: ’reverse culture shock’ or ‘re-entry syndrome’. It’s not uncommon—people often experience it when returning from living overseas. You don’t just come back and pick up from where you left off. Added to this, restrictions may be repeatedly eased and reinstated in response to cases occurring—this fluctuation will make reintegration harder.
Remember that others are not necessarily on the same page—our experiences in isolation are all different. So we need to go slowly, to redevelop shared experiences. Spending time together will help that happen.
The world has changed, and we have changed.
Adaptation and the ‘new normal’
We are coming to learn and question the nature of what is essential—of what really matters—letting things go and resetting objectives in a rethink of the way we live and work. But what will this ‘new normal’ be? How will work be delivered? Will we slowly return to our old ways?
To make this future the best it can be requires an adaptive mindset. Perhaps VUCA, a way of thinking developed in the US Army War College that has since become a strategic leadership approach, is useful to reflect on here.
VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) describes a military situation where things could change in a moment, in unknown ways, and with no clear way to respond. A fair description of the current circumstances!
We no longer know the ‘answer’. The implication then, is how we help others to understand and accept that situations are often ambiguous, and that uncertainty will be a constant companion.
Already, rapidly changing technology, automation, climate change and an increasingly disruptive business environment have made such an agile mindset valuable—the pandemic just made it crucial. So we need to pay attention to the kind of culture we want to create, and take deliberate steps to achieve it.