Credit: Courtesy Tsedal Neeley

Almost a year later, what do we really know about how to manage remote work better? And how can we best prepare for the hybrid work arrangements that many businesses are anticipating post-Covid? For answers, I spoke recently with Tsedal Neeley, a Harvard Business School professor who studies global, virtual workforces and has a book called Remote Work Revolution due out in March. Here is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity:

Why do you think that remote work is a skill that people need to learn?

This is a type of work scholars and experts have been studying for almost 50 years—remote work is not new. Yet because of the circumstances under which most people migrated to remote work, for some workforces wholesale, this shift was sudden. It was in the middle of a crisis and it introduced a radical change in systems, processes, and structures. Remote work, for many organizations around March 2020, was a radical change in the middle of a crisis. People did the best they could, and have been surviving without deliberate planning and thinking about how to be effective as a remote worker or a leader of remote work. That’s what I mean, that it’s actually a learned skill versus the surviving that people have been doing.

So what is it that we learn, and the skills that we need to develop? One is that how do you even set up your remote group, workforce, or team? That has to be fully planned in order for people to find success. So you have to launch your group. Or for many groups which already exist, they have to be relaunched for the remote format. You have to be very clear about what our norms are now. We have to be very clear about what are our shared goals, have they changed especially with ecosystems melting away all around us in the last year; shutdowns, industries and companies disappearing all over the place. We really need to rethink what our common goals are and ensure that we share them.

We need to be very clear about understanding the constraints that individual members have to work remotely. Anywhere from home conditions, to potentially also dealing with remote learning for children—that has full bearing on how we operate. Finally, in the remote environment we need to be very explicit about how we ensure their psychological safety in our group. We can speak up, we can have disagreements, we can have conflict. We have to be very clear about how we will maintain informal contact, not just a professional formal contact. Informal contact is crucial to lubricate our professional efforts. So we actually have to structure those in thoughtful ways that inspire people.

I’ll give you an example. People say, ‘Oh yeah, happy hour. We’re going to do happy hour! That’s how we’re going to do our contact.’ People get very bored with a happy hour. They’re just like, ‘Okay, here we go again.’ It turns out that you have to have members of your group and team plan these informal contacts, and you have to vary them.

People get very bored very quickly if the boss person plans these, ‘Okay, I’m going to get together a happy hour.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, here we go again.’ They have to be involved in creating these experiences that are sustainable, that they want to do. That’s in line with the culture of the group. And they have to be consistently there. The other thing is, these informal contacts—when we start crossing boundaries, it’s that not everyone appreciates happy hour. In fact even in Japan, they’re like, ‘Yeah, happy hour, people get a little bit out of control’ or ‘I feel uncomfortable with our informal activities.’ So you have to make sure it’s consistent with not only the culture of the group from an organizational standpoint, but also the national cultural sensibilities that people have.

But that’s just an example of the things that you need to explicitly set before you launch in your group. And you have to do this relaunch on a regular basis. The other skills that you need to develop: how do you develop and maintain trust remotely? The research on remote or virtual work, global work, shows that even a very small amount of distance between and among people, between coworkers—the trust sentiments that one might have for another person or a group decays. So if I trust you, Kevin, you and I’ve worked together, Kevin and I really do well together. We’ve worked side-by-side for five years. Suddenly we’re separated. There’s geographical distance. Kevin is in building A and I’m in building B, or Kevin now is working from home. Suddenly the level of trust that I have for Kevin and my confidence in understanding where he is, how he is, what he’s thinking decays. So trust is quite dynamic. There are these workarounds with trust in the remote environment. So I devoted an entire chapter on this to talk about the trusting curve, cognitive trust, emotional trust, passable trust, swift trust. It’s complicated.

What’s an example of something that a manager or a team can do to reverse the decay of trust?

I talk about a trusting curve, which is similar to a learning curve. You have to cultivate and maintain trust through the frequency of interactions, through the demonstration of dependability and reliability, and through the demonstration of having care for the wellbeing of others. So there are two keys if I had to categorize these trust components in this remote environment that are really important to understand, particularly around how much trust do I really need for this task, or that I need on this project with this group that I barely see.

You are talking about what we call cognitive trust. Cognitive trust is: ‘Can I convince my mind that this person was reliable and dependable? And what do I need to gain in knowledge in order to conclude that this person is trustworthy?’ Sometimes it’s very quick. That’s where the idea of swift trust comes in. It’s very fast. On the other hand, the emotional trust that I mentioned—I want to know if this person cares about me, or if my leader cares about me. Gartner sometime in the fall did a survey, and I did a podcast with them to interpret the results of the survey. It was actually quite powerful. Their data were amazing, and they found that 40% of virtual leaders never checked in with their people to even see how they were doing in the middle of a global pandemic. You want to talk about trust decay? Those people have no evidence that people care about them in the organization because of the leaders’ lapse. And many leaders could have been overwhelmed themselves, but you need to dial up your evidence or your demonstration of these things. So I always talk about how leaders have to be very virtually present in a remote environment. It could be through email. It could be through other means. But people have to feel your presence and know that you care.

So over-communication is key?

It’s over-communication, but it’s not even me saying ‘I trust you.’ It’s me being present. It’s you getting updates. By the way, even big-picture updates to help people understand what’s going on in the company win a lot of points for leaders. Because people feel insecure otherwise, they don’t know what’s going on. They don’t know what’s going to happen to them.

Just saying thank you, too. There’s another survey where the majority of workers felt like they weren’t appreciated by their managers.

So important! And to digress a little bit, but it’s fully connected, when people send an email, it could be even an FYI email—you better acknowledge it, in a remote environment, and say thank you. ‘Got it. Thanks.’ It’s something so small, but it conveys that I hear you. I see you. I appreciate it. To send out emails, or some emails, people have labored to generate it. And there’s no acknowledgement for it. It’s a big fail. It’s okay in an in-person environment where you see people. You’ll run into them, you’ll have lunch, you’ll have meetings. But in a remote environment where you hardly see people, that is unacceptable. Some people say, well, I can’t handle saying thank you. And to all these people: if you have digital tool usage issues, then that’s a whole other problem. But our etiquette has to be different in a remote environment in order to instill confidence in others, as leaders.

Are there any tools or platforms that are particularly good at creating those conditions for high functioning teams?

I think about tools obsessively and I have for a very, very long time, because I discovered that it’s the enabling or mediating technologies that actually facilitate productive relationships at the workplace. We can’t ignore them. They’re not neutral. They can actually shape relationships, which is why it’s really important to—you know, when I say remote work as a skill is a learned skill, this is one of the big ones. When you hear about tech exhaustion or ‘I have Zoom fatigue,’ that’s because people schedule Zoom meetings edge to edge. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Because not only are you inviting tech exhaustion, but not every communication should take place through video conferencing.

There are about four decades, even more than that, looking at digital tools and remote, virtual, or global work. Just the kind of tools that people need to collaborate when they’re not in the same place or in-person. And there are many very important dimensions to consider. One is the mutual knowledge problem. What happens when we are in a remote environment is we’re battling all the time against the issue of being out of sight, out of sync, and out of mind. It really happens when you don’t see people. We don’t think about them. We deal with the things that are so proximal to us that we don’t. And so we need to address the mutual knowledge problem so that people feel that others are quite present. This is where enterprise-wide social media tools like Slack, of course recently acquired, but Slack and Microsoft teams can be very helpful.

The second thing that tools have to enable is what people call social presence. So I’m calculating when I have to talk to someone, how much intimacy is needed here, how much conveyance and convergence do we need to achieve here? The work on social presence actually started in the 1970s. When we were talking about tools, information systems scholars have been worrying about this for a very long time. And that’s something that you need to think about. Some communication actually requires zero social presence and we have to identify those and not always schedule video conference meetings. Other things that we need to think about are the differences between asynchronous and synchronous communication. There are times when asynchronous communication is absolutely what’s appropriate. For example, if I have to process complex information versus simple coordination, I need to think very deeply about how do I convey the complex information that I want others to process. And then there are things like message permanence. Do we need to capture, store, and ensure that there’s a trail for future projects, collaborations, et cetera?

There are other things, like if I need to have a one-to-many communication versus one-to-one. There’s things like where we have to iterate on a particular document together as a group, we’re collaborating. Then the appropriate thing to use is a Google doc, not Zoom. And the key thing is we have to be very deliberate about what we use, why we use them—not just avoid tech exhaustion, but also to be more effective with our work. A phone call, sometimes it’s the appropriate thing versus something that has cognitive load, affects others.

The hybrid scenario that’s increasingly likely for post-pandemic operations—although maybe it’s premature to speculate now—is that office workers would be working remotely two or maybe three days a week, and then working from the office the rest of the time. Does that seem like a good approach to you, and are there any best practices for making sure it’s a high functioning set-up for businesses?

The reason it’s not premature is that many organizations that I’m myself involved with right now are mapping out their guidelines and their policies around post-Covid; people think of this upcoming summer as being kind of a pivotal shift. Hopefully the vaccines will enable that, let’s all hope, but the reality is the answer to your question—you’re not going to love it, but it’s ‘it depends.’ It depends on the work. It depends on the culture of the organization. It depends on the need to have in-person contact with others. It depends on the kind of space people make available. Is it going to be now hoteling space or are we still going to have cubicles that are permanently ours or not? Some organizations are talking about having two weeks of remote work and two weeks of in-person work, so that collaboration can happen and they feel like they maintain their culture. And some organizations are talking about allowing remote days as a reward for learning something. People are thinking about it differently.

But if we were to talk about the conditions that we know are important to consider when you’re mapping out these policies, one is that you can’t mandate it. People have to opt into remote work, because you will materially affect their home life, their existence. Number two, people’s autonomy has to be preserved, meaning we cannot micromanage. Micromanagement and remote work are diametrically opposed. You just cannot do that. The third thing is you have to make sure that people are appropriately equipped in order to do their jobs from a remote environment, not ‘Let’s survive this year and see what happens.’ You really have to make sure that people are equipped and that you’re paying for things that will be important. And not to pass the burden onto your employees. Talking about wifi and all the other things that people need, individuals are actually taking on some burden right now.

The last thing that I’ll say about best practices is that in a hybrid scenario, you have those who are remote and those who are not—that means you’re now leading a distributed organization. And when you’re leading a distributed organization, there are very important things that you need to keep in mind. Like how do you make sure that your culture and people’s sense of belonging and inclusion doesn’t feel like it’s an ‘us versus them’ environment, ‘us remote versus you in-person?’ There’s some real leadership needs there to ensure that people feel like they’re part of one organization, no matter where they are.

Are there any tactics that you’ve seen work to do that?

Yes. If you think about distributed work or even global work, it’s some of the same principles. I’ll just give you maybe an example, because it’s a very big topic. Whatever I say will be inadequate to really get into leading from a distance. But one thing to do is to make sure that there’s messaging, active messaging, that no matter where you are we’re part of the same organization. So psychologically you have to create that circle, that bubble, no matter where people are. The other thing is you have to make sure people feel like they’re pointed in the same direction, that there’s some kind of superordinate goal that they’re all after. What are we rallying around? It could be some performance metric. It could be something else, depends what the group is. So those are a couple of examples in breaking those barriers.

And the other thing is employees themselves have to be adept at being inclusive with their coworkers. Sometimes it’s making sure you’re reaching out to others who are in different places, just to build bridges and connections. But that’s one of the problems that we’re going to see in this hybrid world. From the many experiences that we know about when you have a distributed workforce, it’s this ‘us versus them’ dilemma.

The best practice seems to be also that if people are remote, their in-office time overlaps, so that they make maximum use of that.

Yes. Especially the relevant people, right? And you want to coordinate around that, which is why you don’t want to say two days a week is what we’re going to do. Because it might be three to make sure that Kevin’s and Tsedal’s schedules align and they’re meeting to collaborate. That’s why you have to remain flexible.

We’ve seen that this change has taken a particular toll on female workers. And it seems to be impacting workers of color and other people who are not in the dominant group. From where you sit, what are the best practices to counteract that?

So important. Two groups affected, for two different reasons, are female women of color and millennials. With women of color, the reason that you see them opting out is because organizations are not embracing one of the greatest gifts that comes with remote work, which is called flex time. Flex time is when we need to be able to cut up our workday in a way that’s conducive for our world now. Which means I may work from 6am until 8pm and get my children ready for remote learning for 8:30am. And then I’ll be back online at 9am, or 9:30am. And we should not schedule meetings for the team between 8am and 9am, because when you do that—this is one of the things that one of my favorite colleagues talks about—you’re building into the work of these people of color, women of color, indignities that are very hard to overcome.

So you need to actively work to make sure that there are overlapping times for people to do the collaboration work that they need to do. Which, by the way, is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to remote work, the pre-work, the post-work, the design of our groups make up 80 to 90% of what will make us successful. The overlap time we need to think about, but we do have to embrace flex time. That’s just one of the things that we need to think about. You cannot let people opt out. That’s to our detriment in a world where diversity is increasingly important. Millennials are facing professional isolation in disproportionate ways, because some of them may not be in households with other people. They’re profoundly isolated and increasingly becoming companies’ problems, not individuals’ problems.

Who is your professor friend who talked about building indignities into work?

Frances Frei. She has a book called Unleashed with Anne Morriss. And you could think about that book as leading in diverse organizations. It is a fantastic book that captures the challenges of women, LGBTQ+, and people of color in the workplace. It’s my new favorite book. She’s one of my favorite people anyway. I’m biased, but it’s a fabulous book. You should look at it.

People say that with remote work creativity suffers, because it’s hard to do that when you’re on your own. Have you seen any organizations or teams particularly effective at nurturing creativity?

I haven’t actually seen any empirical evidence that says that creativity is affected by virtuality. One of the things that I tracked are groups like agile teams that are used to the in-person who no longer have it. How do you maintain innovative work and creative work, et cetera? You use tools very differently. Even when you brainstorm, there are things that you do. How do you disarm people so that they can be very creative and relaxed in a brainstorming session? You do icebreakers, you do different things, you share meals if you’re in-person. How do you do that remotely? Well, a deceptively simple tactic is you have people make funny faces as an icebreaker on Zoom. You say, okay, what we’re going to do next is I’m going to make a funny face and say ‘My name is Tsedal.’ And all of you have to make that same funny face and say, ‘Hi Tsedal.’ And by the time the eight people have done this, not only are they laughing but they’ve embarrassed themselves in this kind of fun way. You’ll have the best brainstorming session you’ll ever have. There are many tactics, others use these whiteboards. So don’t believe the hype—not true, not true.

My sense is that there also isn’t evidence that suggests that remote necessarily means that there’s lower productivity, right?

There’s a lot of evidence that says there’s higher productivity. In fact, people have been surveyed recently—and even talking decades, the first study that came out around productivity and remote work was around 1993. Productivity goes up with remote work, not down. What I’m worried about nowadays is actually hyper productivity, where people are getting burned out because companies and organizations are seeing, wow, this is exceeding our expectations of kind of raising the bar. And people are getting burned out. And the boundaries between home and work are getting increasingly blurred. Even yesterday, I was with 200 leaders and I polled them about productivity. Has productivity increased? These are all top leaders of organizations. Consistently, over 90% said it’s increased. And this is exactly what you would find.

You mentioned burnout, which is an issue that a lot of managers are concerned about. All of the surveys suggest that employees are feeling burned out, that there’s a mental health toll. Are there any specific measures that organizations can put in place to to deal with that?

There are many things to consider. I talked about this, and I think there’s a Boston Globe article that focused fully on burnout, which was a really good piece. The author, Alyssa Giacobbe, put together an immediately significant piece where she really looked at the problems.You have to face it fully and reduce people’s hours, and model the behaviors that you want to see. Burnout is happening because of this hyper-productivity excitement that people are facing. But now you’re seeing Google and others are saying, please take time off, take Friday off,  because they’re seeing people’s well-being is being undermined. This is where employee assistance programs need to be dialed all the way up. Managers need to lead people out of this issue. This is what I mean, remote work is a learned skill. Do you see what I mean? People are burning people out because they’re seeing higher productivity.

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