I recently had the chance to speak with Emma El-Karout, the founder One Circle, a community of virtual HR consultants, about the challenges to the brain when working remotely and/or leading remote teams. Here are some ideas that came out of that conversation.
What’s exciting about remote work in terms of the brain?
Aside from the fact that more remote work does seem to be the wave of the future, there are definitely at least a couple of advantages from a brain perspective. One, the vast creativity of being able to draw on a global pool and the varied perspectives and talents that come with that. And two, the reduction of stress from team members being able to have more control over their work environment (and lack of commute). For example, some of us find noisy co-workers distracting and even stressful, and the ability to work in the quiet of our own homes is a blessed relief. Being able to get more sleep and have more time with family because you have gained hours in your day also tends to reduce stress.
What’s challenging about remote work in terms of the brain?
I think there are some general challenges, communication challenges, and productivity/focus challenges. In this blog, I am going to look at the general challenges with some ideas about what to do–in a later blog I’ll address communication and productivity (in the meantime, I’ll share a link to my blog on why video chat is not the same as real life). Here are a few general issues that seem to be particularly challenging:
1) Lack of informal social time — this relates to connection as well as the “meeting after the meeting.” For remote teams, team time tends to be focused on efficiency and productivity. And this makes sense because when we are not being fed in terms of social connections, we tend to want to be done with things and get off the call or video conference.
This of course happens IRL (In Real Life) as well, but in-person, we generally have even a minute or two to say hi, or “sheesh, what a day,” or ask someone how their weekend was, or provide or get a quick clarification on a memo. We walk down the hallway or ride in an elevator together–and often ideas and information are shared as well as what we might think of as the normal “social grease” of how are you and hey what’s up? And IRL, for most people it doesn’t feel like extra time–I think this may be largely in part because we are often doing something else “productive” while we are connecting. We’re getting coffee, moving from one place to another, making copies, even just waiting for everyone to arrive at the meeting and shuffle their papers. Chatting and being human together doesn’t then feel like an extra task.
ADVICE for LEADERS:
- Take some of the money you’re saving by having folks work remotely and invest in creating and supporting strategies for informal connection (company parenting groups, game tournaments, etc.) This will not only provide avenues for human connection, it also shows that the company understands this is important, even–and perhaps especially–in a virtual environment.
- Start all meetings with a check-in that is about the human being, not the human doing. For example, what sort of weather are you today? What is one thing you did this weekend that filled your cup? What’s one non-work thing that is on your mind today? It’s important to know that if you are the leader, you don’t have to fix or change anything–it’s enough that people just get a chance to be there as their full selves.
2) Feeling isolated (this is of course stronger if remote is not the norm in company). We are social, tribal beings by nature. According to anthropologist Jared Diamond, for about 95% of human history we moved and worked in small kin groups. Being so separate is relatively new to us as humans, and much of who were are at our core is modulated by our core need to belong. Loneliness is not just an emotional state, it is actually processed more like hunger–as a biological drive. And while working remotely doesn’t necessarily mean we feel lonely, being physically together can provide some natural protection from it.
ADVICE for LEADERS:
- Stay tuned in to how your team is doing emotionally. Again, as mentioned above, you need to check in with the human being, not just the human doing. If this is not your skillset, have your company bring in training on coaching skills for managers so you can learn how to do this easily (it’s really not so hard).
- One way to make personal connection easier with individual team members is to suggest (if possible) that you each go for a walk during a regular touch-base. Being in motion (especially outside) relaxes the brain and it can be easier to both ask and be asked the “how are you really doing?” questions.
- AND/OR–take some of the money you are saving and make sure your team has coaches. There are so many benefits to coaching in terms of creativity, contribution, etc., and it can also help the person recognize and be proactive about their own needs and emotional state.
3) We’re simply less creative and efficient when we are on our own. Our brains want to conserve energy as much as possible (a biological principle called economy of action). Being with others in person makes our brains process more efficiently. We regulate our own emotions better, get more creative ideas, and generally feel calmer when we are with others (unless, of course, the others are the source of your stress).
ADVICE for LEADERS:
- Do make time/budget for real-life gatherings. One of my colleagues said that when she worked with remote teams at IBM years ago, they found that one IRL meeting gave them 3-6 months of productive remote work.
- Since brains process less efficiently, understand that people may have less bandwidth, so keep meetings shorter and encourage personal “reset time.” Emma El-Karout shared with me that her team has a norm of working 90 minutes and then taking 20 off to do something non-work related.
- Be even more intentional about using “out of the box” creative strategies. For example, ask people to use metaphor, to draw a doodle, to close their eyes, breathe, and say the first image that comes to them. What can happen naturally when we are together may need a bit of priming in the virtual space.
Thanks again to Emma at One Circle for inspiring these thoughts. To see our interview, please check back after June 18.