Overcoming the Challenges of Long-Term Remote Work

Are you starting to see the long-term effects of remote work?  From what I’ve seen, some organizations are achieving great results, some adapted well at first and are now running into challenges, and others are struggling.  This is not surprising.  I conducted several research studies* many years back on what is necessary for remote work to be successful and three components are necessary: the right job, the right person, and the right organization. 

Job

Some jobs are easily done remotely, like coding, writing, and marketing.  As we’ve discovered over the past few months, other jobs simply cannot be done remotely, like food delivery, emergency response, lab work, and hair styling. Some industries, however, have made very creative adaptations to enable remote work during COVID-19, like gyms providing video classes, judges conducting telephonic hearings, and schools providing online learning.  If people are struggling working remotely in your organization because of the job requirements or structure, there may be ways to change that to make them more successful.

Person

Because of COVID-19, we’ve had to move people en masse to remote work without consideration to whether they are suited to it.  Certain personality characteristics correspond to success at remote work, both due to the person’s satisfaction with doing it as well as their manager’s satisfaction with their performance.  For example, a highly extraverted person may feel lonely and isolated at home while a highly introverted person may not communicate enough.  For those who are miserable working from home or who are not productive or collaborating effectively, it may be worth finding ways for them to come into work at least in a limited way.

Organization

Certain characteristics of the organization help and hinder remote work.  The culture and infrastructure are the two most important factors.  Many organizations are overcoming the IT aspect of the infrastructure, but other systems, processes, and cultural norms may need addressing.  For example, hierarchical, highly centralized organizations fare worse with remote work.  Organizations with a lot of community and friendship may suffer going remote if systems aren’t put in place for people to keep in touch.  I’ve seen this start to become a problem for a number of organizations.

If you’d like to talk about how to solve any of these long-term remote work challenges, please set up a call with me.  I’ve been consulting with organizations on leading remote teams for twenty years and have a pretty good handle on how to help.

*Research Studies:

Connell, J. B., Sorenson, R. C., Robinson, K., L., & Johnson, S. T.  (2004).  The Birth of a Telecommuter Selection Instrument: Results of a Validation Study.  Proceedings of the International Telework Academy 9th International Telework Workshop, (Crete, Greece: September 6 – 9, 2004).

Connell, J. B., Sorenson, R. C., Robinson, K., L., & Ellis, S. J.  (2003).  Identifying successful telecommuters.  Proceedings from the International Association for Development of the Information Society International Conference:  WWW/Internet 2003, (Algarve, Portugal: November 5 – 8, 2003).

Sorenson, R. C., Robinson, Connell, J. B., K., L., & Ellis, S. J.  (2003).  Factors affecting the success of telework:  A collection of case studies.  Proceedings from the International Conference on Advances in the Internet, Processing, Systems, and Interdisciplinary Research, (Sveti Stefan, Montenegro: October 4 – 11, 2003).

Racism: How Can We Influence Change?

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It’s taken me a while to write this blog about racism because I really didn’t know what to write.  I had so many things to say but I was afraid to say the wrong thing.  I am not alone.  I hear this a lot, especially among white people who are in support of black people.  Speaking up these days seems to be very risky.  People are losing their jobs, being shot at, and receiving death threats on social media for stating their opinions.  A person is convicted before being heard and people immediately call for expulsion before engaging in dialogue. “You’re either with us or you’re against us.”  There is no gray area, no room for compromise, no room for mistakes.  And when I say “people” in this instance, it’s people of all colors on all sides.

There are a few social psychological principles that help explain what is going on here.  The first is group polarization.  This occurs when like-minded people collect in a group and individual members want to stand out as being very supportive of the group’s position and they take more extreme positions.  The group gradually moves further away from its original viewpoint to a more extreme version of it.  This is what has happened to both Democrats and Republicans in America today; they both have moved further away from the center.

The second principle in effect here is groupthink.  There are many aspects of groupthink, but the driving force is cohesiveness.  People within the group feel the need to agree with each other unequivocally to keep the peace in the group.  People in the group think they are morally superior to the morally inferior people outside the group and they shut themselves off from dissent and from outside opinions and data.  They get caught up in their own self-righteousness and begin to think they are invincible, and they make irrational decisions that tend to be one-sided and lead to costly mistakes.  The mishandled Bay of Pigs invasion is the most famous example of groupthink.  It happens in the business world too, with the collapse of Swissair being one of the quintessential examples.

How do we avoid these costly group tendencies?  We must not only embrace but seek out different opinions.  If we only stick to what we know and people who make us feel comfortable, we will not grow, and we will likely fail.  We have to prepare ourselves to be uncomfortable and help others around us understand they will need to be uncomfortable during disagreement and change.  We have to stretch the boundaries of safety to be vulnerable, to be hurt in the process, and to be resilient enough to get through it.  Running to safety is not going to help.  This is where I diverge from a number of my peers who are also trying to support black people.

My father once gave me some very sage advice.  He said, “You don’t want to marry someone you never argue with.  You want to marry someone who you can work through your arguments with.”

I did my master’s thesis on dissent.  I looked at how true conflict was necessary to change other people’s beliefs and that just taking the position of the Devil’s advocate was not enough.  You need to rock the boat, to create discomfort, and get people to start questioning what they are seeing as the truth if you want them to change their minds.  There is a ton of research on productive conflict that will tell you it is uncomfortable and you may run into friction with others, but the key is to keep the disagreements on the issues and not turn them into personal attacks. 

This brings us to another place where I diverge from current trends.  I believe that to make positive change, it is imperative to forgive mistakes along the way and learn from them.  There is an abundance of research that shows behavior change is a process and we usually don’t get it right the first time.  Think of how hard it was to adjust to the world of COVID-19.  How many times did you reach out to shake someone’s hand, touch your face, forget to bring your mask, or mess up a zoom call?  Now think about what it was like to adapt to the sexual harassment laws.  It was confusing at first and people wondered, what is okay to joke about?  Can you compliment someone’s new clothes?  Can you hug a coworker?  Is it okay to ask someone you work with out on a date?  All of us had to shift our thinking to adapt to this new way of being and it’s clear that we are still in the process.  The same is true for extinguishing racism.

If we are all putting up walls and are refusing to listen to “the other side” and are incinerating people who disagree with us who are on the same side, we will fail to make progress.  Let’s continue with Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream and employ dignity, respect, discipline, and nonviolent debate to mobilize our society to make change.

Employees just want to have fun!

Thoughtful businessman drinking coffee and thinking at workplaceHelp! My employees are experiencing quarantine fatigue! My employees are disengaging! How do I motivate my team remotely?

Shortly after school went online, my daughter said to me, “They’ve taken away all the good stuff from school and made the bad stuff even worse.”  There’s no more lunchtime with friends, prom, spontaneous trip to Starbucks after school, and classes have gone from hands on interaction to dreadfully long zoom meetings where half the kids turn off their cameras.

Work is the same way.  If you ask most employees what makes work good, it will be the people they work with.  People like going to work because of the social interaction—and that’s exactly what’s missing right now.  There are no “water cooler” conversations, no Friday lunch outings, no after work activities.  We just go to dreadfully boring zoom meetings.

Managers have good reason to be concerned that their employees are not motivated because they aren’t.  Quarantine fatigue has set in.  How do you keep your employees engaged when they’re not working face-to-face?  There are lots of ways to incentivize performance remotely (see my free webinar for tips), but, right now, fun is the answer.  It’s time to add fun back into work.

Fun goes beyond the now-cliché virtual happy hour.  It means setting up the infrastructure and culture for people to engage with each other about personal things, enjoy humor, and feel connection.  Here is a small list of ideas that are working for leaders I work with.

  • Fun zoom meetings that are not about business. Introduce your families or pets, most creative dish you’ve made with limited ingredients, best vacation you’ve ever had, and so on. These can spawn themed Slack channels or email lists for continued engagement.
  • Fun Slack channels or email lists. Favorite playlist, favorite theme (jazz/hard rock/show tune/etc.) song of the day, Netflix binges, kids activities, pets, and so on.
  • Games. There are many online games available that are approachable to everyone. Try a 4:00 game time during work hours.  Break people up into teams to increase engagement and bonding among team members.
  • Virtual coffee and virtual lunch. Go for smaller, more personal meetings with team members and colleagues. Take someone to coffee or lunch one-on-one like you might normally do at work.  Just set it up virtually.  Perhaps you can even do a socially distant coffee or lunch in person and offer to drive to a park our other outdoor setting near where they live.
  • Teambuilding activities. We offer several teambuilding activities that are fun and engaging and are more relevant to work.  The Invisible Path game helps build trust and communication, the Strengthen Your Team activity uses the Gallup StrengthsFinder tool to help team members appreciate each other’s contributions, and our more sophisticated business simulation brings out the competition and challenge for people who crave that.

No matter which path you take, try to get your employees to smile again.  It really helps build morale.

Coronavirus Tips: How to work from home when your kids are home too

Kid reading for school lying on floor at home

With schools closing down and workplaces going online, many of us are finding ourselves in uncharted territory.  It’s not just that we have to work from home, but we have to do it with our kids running around the house.  The fact is you’re going to be more distracted working from home over the next few weeks when the whole family is home with you.  But there are best practices to help you stay focused without ruining your relationships with your spouse and children.

  • Get privacy. If you have a separate office in your house, use it and close the door.  If you don’t, create a temporary office in a separate room where you can close the door and have quiet.  It may mean taking over the dining room table or bedroom during the day and cleaning up your work materials at the close of the day.  Privacy is not only for you, it’s for your colleagues and clients, and it will help the kids adjust better too.
  • Set boundaries. No doubt kids will see being at home with you as an opportunity to spend more time with you (unless you have teens or college age kids, which may require creating more space).  It will be up to you to set the boundaries early on and stay disciplined.  They will likely try every trick in the book to get your attention at first, but if you stick to a routine, they will adjust.
  • Personalize your plan. You know what works best for you and your family.  If you Family lying outdoors smilingneed to take a lot of breaks to check on the kids or to maintain your own sanity, do it.  Set your plan to work for 1 hour then take 10 minutes off to socialize, get coffee, stretch your legs, or whatever you need.  But set a timer and get back to work.  If you know that saying good-bye to your kids will trigger a huge separation issue, plan to see them only at lunchtime and the end of the day.  If you need to trade off childcare responsibilities, figure out a plan that works for you and your partner.  It may take a few tries to get it right.
  • Be flexible and forgiving. Adjusting to working from home takes time and experimenting.  Be patient with yourself, with your colleagues, and with your family.  Plan ahead for mitigating and resolving frustrations.  That may include creating “safe words” to use with your family or boss to compassionately tell them to back off.  Humor can be of use for this.  For example, if you choose a safety phrase of “purple dinosaur,” you could say to your 5-year-old that you need to meet with a purple dinosaur to mean that you need to step out of the room and calm down.  Respect them when they say it too.  With your boss, it could simply be, “I need to take a quick personal break and I’ll call you right back.”

The last word for this time of the Coronavirus crisis is that it is only temporary.  You can set up routines that won’t last forever, like giving your kids more screen time or shifting your work to the evenings or playing tag in the yard at lunchtime or calling your coworkers just to chat.  We’re all on edge with the ambiguity of the illness and the effects of cabin fever.  Treat yourself and others with compassion during this period of time.  Think about how you will want to look back on it.

Coronavirus Workplace Tips: Manage a Virtual Team

Man sitting at desk working from home on laptopHow do you lead your employees who work from home?  How do you manage a virtual team?  What are the best virtual communication hacks?

Two important challenges arise when we ask our employees to work from home.  First is the technology challenge and second is the leadership challenge.  To keep your team members productive, make sure they have the technology they need, are trained on how to use it, and have quick access to IT help to solve tech problems.  This should be delegated to your IT department or service provider.  You do not want to have to shift your role to IT support to keep your team up and running.

What you will need to do as a virtual leader is to shift your management style.  No matter what your leadership philosophy is, going virtual will impact it.  If you are normally hands on, for example, you will need to make peace with the idea your team working without you when they are working from home.  If you are normally more hands off, you will need to find ways to check in more with your team to make sure things are going smoothly.

Working virtually is not fundamentally different than working in the office, but leadership challenges tend to amplify in virtual teams.  Communication, trust, and engagement are three areas that are impacted the most.  Here are some tips on managing virtual communication.

Make a Communication Plan

Set the expectations of how often and by which method you want to communicate with your team.  Questions to consider:

  • For what types of issues should they call you? Each other?  Send a text?  Email?
  • What is a reasonable response time for each mode of communication? Hours, days?
  • How do you want to be able to reach them? Should they have their phone ringers on?
  • Should they send out a message or set a flag in your chat room when they are taking a break, like for lunch?
  • Would it be useful to set up some group chats or channels for specific projects or issues to reach multiple people at once?
  • What should they update you on and how often?

Use Effective Virtual Communication Techniques

Recommendations:

  • Choose the right modality. Use voice or video for any emotionally charged interactions, like performance feedback, disagreements, and sensitive issues.  If text-based interactions seem to be going down an emotional path, immediately pick up the phone or open a video channel.
  • Practice active listening. Ask others to summarize what they heard and understood to make sure you are on the same page.  Similarly, summarize what they tell you to make sure you understand what they are saying.
  • Communicate the same message more than once and in multiple modalities, such as verbally, followed up by an email.  Ask for confirmations for receipt of text-based messages.
  • Assume the best of others. When someone does not respond in a timely manner, don’t make up a dozen reasons why they are ignoring you.  Check in with them.    Ask if they got the message.  More often than not, they didn’t see it or they got tied up and meant to get back to you.

To see more tips on building and maintaining trust in virtual teams, and engaging employees on virtual teams, stay tuned.  Here are tips on running virtual meetings.

The truth about using personality tests for hiring

DispleasureShould I use a personality test for hiring?  Are personality tests legal for hiring?  What are the pros and cons of using personality tests in hiring?

Many people are skeptical about using personality tests for hiring—and they should be.  But not for the reasons you may think.  Personality tests can be extremely effective in screening out problem employees at all levels of the organization, including executives, but they have to be used correctly.

Before even contemplating whether to use a personality test in your hiring process, think about what else you will be using to gather information about the candidates.  A personality test alone is not sufficiently predictive of job performance.  Other factors and methods of assessment need to be included in your hiring process to select good candidates.

What is the best predictor of job performance?

Cognitive ability, or intelligence, is the single best predictor of job performance across all jobs.  If you were to include just one assessment, a test of cognitive ability would be your best bet.  However, many of these tests suffer from adverse impact, which means they predict differently for people in different ethnic groups.  Employment laws and our societal values suggest that we use other measures instead or in combination with intelligence tests to make sure we are giving people of different backgrounds equal opportunities for employment.

What is the worst predictor of job performance?

Interviews are typically the least predictive method of assessment because employers often don’t conduct them in a systematic or uniform way across candidates.  Rather, individual employees typically decide whether they like or connect with the candidate and rate them accordingly.

What methods should I use to assess job candidates?

You may have noticed that we’re talking “apples and oranges” because cognitive ability is a characteristic of a job applicant whereas interviewing is a method of assessing candidates.  This is a very important point and one to carefully consider.  You can measure cognitive ability in an interview, with a test, or with a job sample, or in a number of other ways.  Some of these methods of assessing cognitive ability will be more accurate and more predictive of job performance than others.

The bottom line is you want to choose the right factors to measure and the right methods of assessment to use in your hiring process.  Now, back to personality.

Does personality predict job performance?

Personality is not the best predictor of global job performance, but it will predict certain things that are critical to job performance.  That is, if you use a high quality, multi-factor personality test.  The popular tests that you see out there generally are not appropriate to use for hiring and, if you get sued, you’ll probably lose if you are using them.  What you need is a highly “reliable” and “valid” measure of personality.

Which personality test should I use?

We use several different personality assessment instruments that were designed for hiring.  One of them is the personality test battery in the Hogan Assessments.  We use the Hogan for hiring leaders and executives because it is one of the best assessments of derailing factors.  In other words, the test can tell you how likely the candidate is to exhibit tendencies associated with the dark side of leadership—the kind of leaders you don’t want in your organization, the ones who are out there for themselves, who bully others, who take great risks and give little credit to others and who will run your department, division, or entire organization into the ground if given the chance.

These leaders, unfortunately, are often very good at fooling interviewers, but they are not so good at fooling quality tests of personality, such as the Hogan.  These kinds of tests typically require a qualified person to administer and read the test and often are administered by external consultants, like us.  An external assessment is a great way to get objective data about your candidate to incorporate into your hiring process.  When you look into the cost of such an assessment, you will find that it is far less expensive to assess a few candidates on the front end than to fire a bad leader once they are employed in your company.

Joanie Connell Writes Second Book

Joanie Connell has just signed a contract to publish a book with the American Psychological Association (APA).  The working title is Consulting to Technical Leaders: Transforming Technical Experts to Managers and Leaders, and it will be a part of the Fundamentals of Consulting Psychology Series.  Stay tuned for more information.Fundamentals of Consulting Psychology Book Series

4 Excuses Not to Delegate: Are You Using One?

Successful bossThere’s so much pressure to perform these days that it’s tempting to keep control over projects and minimize room for failure.  Why do managers resist delegating?

“They’re not ready.”

This is a typical reason leaders give to keep doing the work themselves instead of letting someone else take it on.  What they should be asking is, what would it take for them to be ready?  Also, what are they ready for now?  In other words, even if they aren’t ready to take on the whole project, what aspect of it could you let them take responsibility for?  And what do you need to do as a leader to get them ready to take on more?  This is an opportunity for you to coach and mentor and facilitate learning for your team members who, more than likely, crave growth opportunities.

“We can’t afford a mistake.”

This is the fear that drives managers to hover over their employees and make them feel useless.  Of course, there is always a risk of failure or a mistake, but it’s always a risk no matter how closely you supervise your employees. The downside of over supervising your employees is that they won’t learn how to take care of things when something bad does happen. And even if they could, they wouldn’t have the power to. Ask yourself: when you’re away from the office, can your employees get things done without you?  If not, this is a wake-up call for you to empower your team.

“They won’t do it as well.”

This is another reason for managers to do the work themselves instead of trusting others to do it.  Maybe it won’t be done exactly the way you would do it and maybe you won’t even know exactly how it’s done. But if you hire good people and train them, you can trust them to do good work.  You never know, maybe they’ll even do a better job than you!  This may be yet another fear that drives you to keep the work to yourself.  But, in the end, it is better for you, for the company, and for the individual for them to do better work than you.  Now you can stick to leading and growing your own skills.

“I don’t have time.”

Not having time to delegate is a classic excuse yet it’s one that causes managers to work excessively long hours unnecessarily. It’s often quicker for an experienced person to do something him or herself, but if you keep doing it yourself, you’ll have to keep doing it.  That’s where the overwork comes in: if you do the work and are responsible for leading the team, you will quickly run out of time.  In other words, you don’t have time not to delegate.  It may take more time initially to train someone, but the savings will begin to show up very quickly.

“One of the most difficult transitions for leaders to make is the shift from doing to leading.”  Jesse Sostrin states in To Be a Great Leader, You Have to Learn How to Delegate Well, in Harvard Business Review.  As a leader, if you keep doing the work, you will reach your output capacity quickly.  If you have a team of people who contribute to the output, you can scale and have much greater impact.  The reason for teams to exist is to increase productivity.  In high-performing teams, each team member does what he or she does best and relies on others to contribute in different ways.  Effective leaders facilitate this process.