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The Dangers of Always Being 'On' When Working Remotely

The Virtual Training Team is a 100% remote company. We prefer to work remotely but there are some challenges that we have had to overcome to work effectively as a team.  I have been working remotely for almost five years and like many of my colleagues, have never been to a VTT office.  At VTT we have managed to develop a warm and caring culture where we both support each other and constantly strive to improve our offering. 

As you may well know, there are unique challenges posed to those working in remote teams.  In this article, I will outline the dangers of always being ‘on’ and share some tips on how to overcome these dangers.

The danger of Teams

In 2017, researchers at the University of Texas conducted a study on Working Memory Capacity and Fluid Intelligence in relation to smartphone location. What they found is staggering. 

  • Fluid Intelligence is important to creatives as it involves being able to think and reason abstractly and solve problems.
  • Working Memory Capacity is the capacity to selectively maintain and manipulate goal information without getting distracted by irrelevant intervals over short intervals.

The researchers tested three locations: desk, pocket/bag, and other room.  They found that the smartphone is the hub of the connected world and that this comes at a cost. 

Working remotely comes with a unique set of challenges; one of which is a lack of visibility. Managers are less able to see their team’s activity while working remotely. This can create a lack of trust and often results in higher levels of monitoring and micromanagement. In practice, this may be reflected in the expectation to always be available, replying to any message or call instantly. This of course, can disrupt employee’s workflows and negatively impact their wellbeing and job satisfaction.

A recent study by HBR highlights the importance of trust. Researchers looked at managers’ attitude to trust and monitoring, while also studying how these affected their team members. 49% of employees with high levels of monitoring reported being anxious most of the time, compared to only 7% of employees with low levels of monitoring. Work-home conflicts followed the same trend. Both job satisfaction and productivity levels were also affected by lack of trust.

The Effect of Monitoring on Virtual Teams - HIgh levels of monitoring negatively impacts anxiety and work-home conflicts

Meeting Fatigue

We’ve all been there: you look at your schedule in the morning and half of your workday is already reserved for meetings – this of course is on top of your core tasks and other modes of communication. According to an Atlassian study we spend an average of 62 hours a month in meetings and half of these are unproductive. In these unproductive meetings 91% of us daydreamed, 73% did other work and 39% slept during the meeting. If sleeping during a meeting isn’t bad enough, we take an average of 45 minutes to recover after a poor meeting (Source: Medium).

If you work as part of a team, you need to be intentional in your communication to collaborate effectively without disrupting workflow. If your colleagues are in a flow state and you disrupt them, it will take them some time to get back into a focused work state.

What can you do about it?

What can you do when your workdays are interrupted frequently, and you feel pressured to respond to any incoming messages instantly? While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, here are a few practical tips that we at VTT have been experimenting with internally:

Virtual Coworking

At VTT we have optional virtual co-working twice a week. We all join a Teams call together and then alternate between Break Time (during which we socialise or solve any problems that have come up) and Focus Time (during which we individually work on our tasks, muted with cameras off). These virtual coworking sessions are a great way to get to know your colleagues better, talk non-work-related stuff, but also get some good quality focus time in.

As this is also a meeting and your colleagues know where you are, you don’t need to check the Teams chat and if there is an urgent issue that you need to attend to, a colleague can join the meeting and ask you to leave.  We haven’t had an urgent issue arise during one of our co-working sessions yet, but in theory this is equivalent to knocking on the door of a meeting room at an office.

At the start of each focus session, we all say what we are working on, so there is an added factor of accountability. We have found that since doing these coworking sessions, our meetings have been more productive, as we do less socialising during formal meetings.

Quiet Mornings

Another technique that we have been experimenting with here at VTT is Quiet Mornings. Personally, I work in a creative role and need blocks of time where I can focus and get into a flow state to work design of workshops and other delivery material. I feel most productive in the mornings, however, this is the time where our Teams chat is most active as people are logging in, the world wakes up and sends emails and there are announcements.  I frequently get distracted and lose my flow state during this time. 

A quiet morning involves closing your Teams app completely. Whether this be to work on a specific task or used as general focus time, not having to log into Teams in the morning can be a tremendous help in getting your mind focussed on a task and get into that flow state.

Be Right Back!

Take a break, have a coffee or tea in your garden or just step away from your screen for a few minutes.  Set your Teams status to be right back.  At VTT we don’t tell our colleagues when we are taking a break and are encouraged to take small breaks throughout the day.  Since I started taking small breaks I have seen an increase in my focus and productivity.  It sounds simple but it was a big step for me to set my status to be right back.

Asynchronous Collaboration

When needing to collaborate, our first instinct is often to schedule a meeting. However, we should really make use of the entire repertoire of remote collaboration tools available to us. So, before you schedule that meeting, ask yourself: Does this really need to be a meeting? Some alternative communication methods to consider are email or messaging, shared whiteboards or word documents or project management tools like Trello.

Shared Expectations

We try our best to communicate our expectations clearly with team members. This can sometimes look like sending an email but flagging it as non-urgent (e.g., “This is not urgent. Please feel free to respond to this tomorrow.”). We have also been making an effort to have discussions about how Teams is affecting our workflow. We are very lucky to have managers who are encouraging us to take regular breaks and to work offline (think jotting down notes with pen and paper). The only condition is to mark ourselves as ‘away’ on Teams – this took some getting used to, as many of us were afraid of seeming like we’re not working but having these conversations with colleagues and managers has really helped ease this anxiety. The key here is to have shared expectations of what is and isn’t acceptable so that nobody feels pressured or annoyed.

Intentional Social Time

We have purposeful gatherings every Friday at 9am where we come together for a quiz, Pictionary, or other team-building activities.  We even have a voluntary podcast club and meet every fortnight to discuss a podcast that we each listened to. This is on top of our optional co-working mentioned above. Each of these initiatives allow colleagues working in different areas of the company to come together and bond.

Interested in reading further?  We have an excellent blog post on Performance Management for Virtual Teams. 

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