4 Challenges With No Simple Solutions
It is general consensus that regardless of any improved ability to manage the COVID-19 pandemic in the future, most organizations will maintain some degree of work-from-home options “forever,” for a variety of reasons. The obvious benefits are the savings in time and costs of traveling to and from work, flexibility, savings through reduced office space, as well as the social benefit of a reduced carbon footprint.
However, it seems that there are also significant challenges to be met in adopting work-from-home protocols. And, many organizations are scurrying to adapt their existing ways of working to support their new work-from-home protocols.
4 Significant Challenges Of Remote Working, Each With Considerations For Meeting Them
A few years ago, during an assignment with an international retailer that had recently implemented a controversial time and attendance system, I recall a specific boardroom debate. The essence of the debate was that it was relatively easy (albeit expensive) to systemize the management of employee timekeeping, but that this really only managed the time employees “physically” spent at work. The real challenge was how to create a mindset whereby employees not only brought their physical presence to work, but also their commitment to use and extend their talents to further the purpose of the organization as well as to be great people to work with.
Consider this: Regardless of any time and attendance system, when a person “crosses the physical threshold” into their work environment they do “physically clock in” to work. Cy Wakeman (author of No Ego) offers an interesting insight into this. In a different context, but perhaps relevant, she describes the mind as a binary system that is operated via a “toggle switch” that can either be up or down. She motivates that humans have the ability to choose the position of the toggle switch using self-reflection. In Cy’s context (the down position represents the low self-state and the up position represents the high self-state), the state of mind initiated by the position of the toggle switch is either one or the other. It cannot be both at the same time.
So, if this holds true for a complex mindset, how can we use it to constructively influence a relatively simple mindset, that of “I am at work, albeit from home” versus “I am at home, juggling work duties with competing for personal, domestic and/or parental priorities”?
Different interventions will activate and maintain the right mindset for different teams at different times. There are many inspiring and innovative ideas. It is suggested that creating and maintaining the right mindset must remain a priority by putting it as a discussion point on each team’s weekly agenda. Questions to be asked are: What is working? What is not working? How do we ensure that each member and that collectively as a team we are optimally productive working from home? What can we learn from other teams? And, what insights can we share with other teams?
It is a leadership prerogative to work actively and persistently to help remote working individuals and teams to switch their mindset toggle into “I am at work, albeit from home” and to maintain that position focused on important work issues for the duration of each workday, every week, every month, every year.
Focus is a significant challenge in work-from-home scenarios because distractions are many and easy to succumb to. Whilst a minor distraction may only take up to five minutes, the loss of focus and continuity of the work task at hand can cost many times multiple of this. It is then not difficult to “lose and/or not be able to account productively” for a significant part of any workday.
Think about this: Research by Cy Wakeman (previously mentioned) suggests that the average person spends as much as 2.5 hours per day caught up in a drama that is unproductive and generally only leads to feelings of unhappiness. The propensity for drama is surely heightened by situations created by the pandemic and therefore too the opportunity for people to become distracted from work by drama (from media, messaging, and social networks). Add to this all the other distractions that abound in the work-from-home environment and employees’ contributions can dilute significantly.
I would like to suggest that in the context of work from home, focus consists of 4 key elements. These are attention to the right things, active engagement, ongoing feedback, and accountability. In this regard, I found the following short video clip by Chris McChesney (author of The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals) incredibly insightful and practical in building sound team practices in this regard.
Also to be borne in mind is that during the workday at home there will be many distractions offering apparently greater and more immediate happiness that will compete with employees’ work activities. In this regard, the concept of consonance has relevance.
Laura Glassner Otting (author of Limitless: How to Ignore Everybody, Carve Your Own Path, and Live Your Best Life) promotes the concept of consonance to help people be both successful and happy. She observes that many people are successful but they are not happy because they are pursuing somebody else’s idea/path of success. It stands to reason that success without a sense of happiness may not be sustainable. In a nutshell, Laura promotes the concept that people can only be happy and successful if their (work) endeavors are aligned with what is important to them.
She explains that there are 4 elements to consonance. These are calling (having work that serves an idea bigger than oneself), connection (having work that matters), contribution (having work that benefits us), and control (having sufficient agency to connect and affect such calling).
It seems logical to me that employee consonance will play a critical role in their sustainable ability to be successful and happy working from home. Team leaders need to be helped to create a sense of consonance within their teams. A good starting point is for them to start exploring this concept amongst themselves, using a suitable facilitator from within the organization, or if necessary, an external one.
Last but not least, this is probably the biggest challenge but with the most opportunity for leverage. How can we better lead remote working teams?
Disruption and extreme events challenge leadership capability. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly done this, in the context of this article, in terms of leading work-from-home teams. How have leaders fared? From anecdotal evidence, it seems that many managers, in the absence of understanding how to lead work-from-home teams, are resorting to command-and-control management styles or are simply abdicating their leadership role to being “virtually not present.”
Do we need to just adapt our current leadership practices or is this a nudge to rethink the way we facilitate leadership learning? I believe that it is the latter.
I have been fortunate to work with and facilitate the leadership teachings of a number of great leadership gurus in great organizations over many years. It has become apparent to me that facilitating the learning of leadership is not a linear or synchronous process. It requires a multi-dimensional (the insights of many thought leaders from different walks of life), eclectic approach and cannot be separated from teaching the things that make us better human beings. Also, learning needs to be slowed down, with time to wrestle and curiously explore one concept at a time and to experiment, reflect, learn, and then integrate and weave it into the fabric of the leader and human being you want to be.
I consider myself fortunate to be currently experiencing this approach on the current free YOLB (Year Of Living Brilliantly) program facilitated by Michael Bungay Stanier (author of, amongst other books, The Advice Trap, The Coaching Habit, and Do More Great Work). The course consists of thoughtfully curated weekly input, via video link delivered by email, from incredibly diverse thought leaders as well as a call-to-action to learn from, share, and apply the incredible insights that are presented. It works. I would love to cite some relevant, brilliant insights but there are too many and it would be unfair to choose some over others.
In Summary: Thought-Provoking, Not Definitive
The aim of this article was to be thought-provoking, not definitive. The challenges highlighted are significant and the solutions are not simple. However, the challenges are surely worthy of our attention and our best efforts.