Remote Working – What Have We Learned From 2020?

Remote working improves productivity.

Even way back in 2014, evidence showed that remote working enables employees to be more productive and take fewer sick days, and saves money for the organisation.  The rabbit is out of the hat: remote working works, and it has obvious benefits.

Source: Forbes Global Workplace Analytics 2020

More and more organisations are adopting remote-first or fully remote practices, such as Zapier:

“It’s a better way to work. It allows us to hire smart people no matter where in the world, and it gives those people hours back in their day to spend with friends and family. We save money on office space and all the hassles that comes with that. A lot of people are more productive in remote setting, though it does require some more discipline too.”

We know, through empirical studies and longitudinal evidence such as Google’s Project Aristotle that colocation of teams is not a factor in driving performance. Remote teams perform as well as, if not better than colocated teams, if provided with appropriate tools and leadership.

Teams that are already used to more flexible, lightweight or agile approaches adapt adapt to a high performing and fully remote model even more easily than traditional teams.

The opportunity to work remotely, more flexibly, and save on time spent commuting helps to improve the lives of people with caring, parenting or other commitments too. Whilst some parents are undoubtedly keen to get into the office and away from the distractions of home schooling, the ability to choose remote and more flexible work patterns is a game changer for some, and many are actually considering refusing to go back to the old ways.

What works for some, doesn’t work for others, and it will change for all of us over time, as our circumstances change. But having that choice is critical.

However, remote working is still (even now in 2020 with the effects of Covid and lockdowns) something that is “allowed” by an organisation and provided to the people that work there as a benefit.

Remote working is now an expectation.

What we are seeing now is that, for employees at least, particularly in technology, design, and other knowledge-economy roles, remote working is no longer a treat, or benefit – just like holiday pay and lunch breaks,  it’s an expectation.

Organisations that adopt and encourage remote working are able to recruit across a wider catchment area, unimpeded by geography, though still somewhat limited by timezones – because we also know that synchronous communication is important.

Remote work is also good for the economy, and for equality across geographies. Remote work is closing the wage gap between areas of the US and will likely have the same effect on the North-South divide in the UK. This means London firms can recruit top talent outside the South-East, and people in typically less affluent areas can find well paying work without moving away.

But that view isn’t shared by many organisations.

However, whilst employees are increasingly seeing remote working as an expectation rather than a benefit, many organisations, via pressure from command-control managers, difficulties in onboarding, process-oriented HR teams, or simply the most dangerous phrase in the English language: because “we’ve always done it this way“, possess a desire to bring employees back into the office, where they can see them.

Indeed, often by the managers of that organisation, remote working may be seen as an exclusive benefit and an opportunity to slack off. The Taylorist approach to management is still going strong, it appears.

People are adopting remote faster than organisations.

In 1962, Everett Rogers came up with the principle he called “Diffusion of innovation“.

It describes the adoption of new ideas and products over time as a bell curve, and categorises groups of people along its length as innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. Spawned in the days of rapidly advancing agricultural technology, it was easy (and interesting) to study the adoption of new technologies such as hybrid seeds, equipment and methods.

 

Some organisations are even suggesting that remote workers could be paid less, since they no longer pay for their commute (in terms of costs and in time), but I believe the converse may become true – that firms who request regular attendance at the office will need to pay more to make up for it. As an employee, how much do you value your free time?

It seems that many people are further along Rogers’ adoption curve than the organisations they work for.

There are benefits of being in the office.

Of course, it’s important to recognise that there are benefits of being colocated in an office environment. Some types of work simply don’t suit it. Some people don’t have a suitable home environment to work from. Sometimes people need to work on a physical product or collaborate and use tools and equipment in person. Much of the time, people just want to be in the same room as their colleagues – what Tom Cheesewright calls “The unbeatable bandwidth of being there.”

But is that benefit worth the cost? An average commute is 59 minutes, which totals nearly 40 hours per month, per employee. For a team of twenty people, is 800 hours per month worth the benefit of being colocated? What would you pay to obtain an extra 800 hours of time for your team in a single month?

The question is one of motivation: are we empowering our team members to choose where they want to work and how they best provide value, or are we to revert to the Taylorist principles where “the manager knows best”? In Taylors words: “All we want of them is to obey the orders we give them, do what we say, and do it quick.

We must use this as a learning opportunity.

Whilst 2020 has been a massive challenge for all of us, it’s also taught us a great deal, about change, about people and about the future of work. The worst thing that companies can do is ignore what they have learned about their workforce and how they like to operate. We must not mindlessly drift back to the old ways.

We know that remote working is more productive, but there are many shades of remoteness, and it takes strong leadership, management effort, good tools, and effective, high-cadence communication to really do it well.

There is no need for a binary choice: there is no one-size-fits-all for office-based or remote work. There are infinite operating models available to us, and the best we can do to prepare for the future of work is simply to be endlessly adaptable.

Measuring Psychological Safety in your Team

measuring psychological safety

We know psychological safety is crucial for high performance teams, and particularly so for technical delivery teams. Innovation is so critical for creating products that delight customers and serve critical business needs, and psychological safety is a fundamental enabler of innovation.

Below are ten questions that you can ask yourself or your teams to determine the level of psychological safety in your team. Rate agreement with the below statements on a scale of 1 – 5. 5 being “completely agree” and 1 being “completely disagree”.

When carrying this exercise out with your team, perform the survey anonymously – if it’s possible that your team are psychologically unsafe, they will be more likely to be honest if the survey is anonymous. If the team are very psychologically safe, then it won’t matter if the survey is anonymous or not.

It is also important to allow for qualitative, verbose feedback for each question as well, because that verbose feedback will facilitate and clarify some of the actions that you may need to take in order to improve these scores.

  1. On this team, I understand what is expected of me.
  2. We value outcomes more than outputs or inputs, and nobody needs to “look busy”.
  3. If I make a mistake on this team, it is never held against me.
  4. When something goes wrong, we work as a team to find the systemic cause.
  5. All members of this team feel able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  6. Members of this team never reject others for being different and nobody is left out.
  7. It is safe for me to take a risk on this team.
  8. It is easy for me to ask other members of this team for help.
  9. Nobody on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  10. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.

To explain the context behind each question:

1 – On this team, I understand what is expected of me.

It is essential that team members understand what is expected of them in terms of delivery (speed, quality, cost, and other factors) and behaviour (everything from dress code and punctuality to coding standards) to foster psychological safety. Ensure tasks are clear and well defined, behaviour expectations are explicit, and negative behaviours are dealt with.

2 – We value outcomes more than outputs or inputs, and nobody needs to “look busy”.

Outcomes (such as revenue generated or satisfied customers) matter more than outputs (emails sent, lines of code written, or meetings attended). If the team focus on what truly matters to the business, they are safe to make decisions that can improve outcomes, even if those decisions reduce output. The ideal is a team that possesses enough psychological safety to decide not to do something that could make them look good in the eyes of others, but doesn’t deliver outcomes for the business.

3 – If I make a mistake on this team, it is never held against me.

A psychologically safe team will never blame a member of the team for a genuine mistake if their intentions were good. Indeed, by enabling mistakes to be made without a fear of blame, you enable innovation and risk taking that can drive your organisation ahead of the competition. Utilise systems thinking and DevOps approaches to prevent mistakes before they happen or mitigate the impact of mistakes when they do.

4 – When something goes wrong, we work as a team to find the systemic cause.

Related to the previous point but important enough to warrant its own question, a system of discovering the root causes of mistakes and failures means that not only do team members feel able to take risks without being blamed, but every single “failure” is an opportunity for learning and improvement. By building psychological safety through these retrospective exercises, everyone on the team gets to learn from mistakes, meaning mistakes are a gift, not a threat.

5 – All members of this team feel able to bring up problems and tough issues.

In a psychologically safe team, all members of the team are able to bring up problems and tough issues, ranging from personal struggles to concerns about other (even senior) members of the team. This psychological safety is crucial for allowing both vulnerability to show when you’re struggling and need help, and courage to raise difficult topics.

6 – Members of this team never reject others for being different and nobody is left out.

Evidence shows that diversity in a team results in higher quality products and happier team members, but diversity in itself is not enough: it is crucial that team members are all included in decision making and delivering results. To facilitate psychological safety (and high performance) every member of the team needs to be invested in the decisions made and the outcomes generated. This is particularly crucial for remote and distributed teams, where it is more difficult to see if a team member is becoming disengaged.

7 – It is safe for me to take a risk on this team.

Mistakes happen unintentionally, but risks are about taking actions that might not work, or may have unintended consequences. Psychological safety provides the framework for positive risk-taking, enabling innovation and ultimately, competitive advantage.

8 – It is easy for me to ask other members of this team for help.

In psychologically unsafe teams, team members try to hide their perceived weaknesses or vulnerabilities, which prevents them from asking for help. In a psychologically safe team, members prioritise the team goals over individual goals. Helping others helps achieve the team goal, and because team members feel safe to ask for that help, psychologically safe teams achieve more of their goals than unsafe teams.

9 – Nobody on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts. 

In an unsafe team, members compete with each other to achieve their individual goals, and may even undermine other team members if it could benefit them or it is perceived that doing so may elevate their “rank” within the team or organisation. In a psychologically safe team, that counter-productive competition doesn’t exist, and the success of the team is more important looking good in the eyes of others.

10 – Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.

We all bring our own unique experience, skills and knowledge to the teams that we’re in, but we also bring our own prejudices and biases. In a psychologically safe team where members are valued for being their true selves, biases are less likely to manifest. Indeed, team members may feel safe enough to identify, raise, and discuss their own biases or those of other team members. By doing so, we provide space for each individual to maximise their potential from utilising their own unique skills and talents.

Regularly Measuring Psychological Safety

By measuring the degree of psychological safety on your team, you can begin to build your own unique strategy for developing and maintaining it. For instance, this may involve running more regular retrospectives or by workshopping the team’s values and behaviours.

Measurement is only a tiny part of the process. Download a complete Psychological Safety Action Pack full of workshops, tools, resources, and posters to help you measure, build, and maintain Psychological Safety in your teams.

Remember to be patient: this is a journey, not a destination, and work on your own psychological safety too. You can’t effectively help others if you don’t look after yourself.

Take this survey for yourself.

Psychological Safety in Remote Teams

A sudden adoption of remote working.

In early 2020, due to the Covid 19 outbreak, many organisations around the world went through a sudden digital transformation and many teams became remote. With this near-instant operational pivot to distributed and remote teams, organisations and the people within them encountered new and difficult challenges such as poor internet connectivity, inadequate home offices, and trying to manage simultaneous family and work life.

One of the biggest challenges is the impact of being physically distant from our teammates on our psychological wellbeing. Distributed teams have fewer opportunities for spontaneous, casual conversation; team members have more difficulty picking up non-verbal cues in conversation, and people are more likely to feel alone, anxious, unsure of what to do, and may even experience self-doubt or imposter syndrome.

Fundamental requirements for high performing teams

Psychological safety is the number one requirement for high performing teams. Without it, a team will never achieve high performance and the members of that team will not be able to realise their full potential. Now that many of our teams are distributed and remote, psychological safety is even more difficult to build and maintain.

Here are ten things you can do, whether you’re a leader or a member of your team, to help foster and build psychological safety, and increase the performance and happiness of your team and yourself.

Ten key actions to improve psychological safety in remote teams.

1. Set the stage.

We’re all going through difficult times, whether it’s financial concerns, supporting vulnerable friends and relatives or just dealing with the mental load of what’s happening in the world. Be honest about this with your team. Be explicit about the challenges ahead, and show your vulnerability. Without you showing vulnerability, your team will be unlikely to, and it’s a key part of building psychological safety. Be positive and enthusiastic about facing these challenges. 

management and leadership

2. Make sure everyone knows what to do.

Knowing what to do, when to do it, and what good looks like is crucial for remote team members. It’s far more difficult to ask for advice or assistance when remote, and self-doubt will creep in quickly. So make sure team members know what is expected of them, and ensure that workloads and deliverables are realistic. 

3. Focus on outcomes, not outputs. 

Outcomes matter more than anything else. Whether your desired outcome is satisfied customers, revenue generated, uptime, or something else, focus on that, and ensure the team remain focussed on it. Resist the temptation to revert to more traditional, “lazy” styles of management by measuring outputs, lines of code written, story points completed or meetings attended. And certainly avoid falling back to input-driven management by logging hours worked – we already know that is a route to reduction of psychological safety and it’s the last thing a distributed team needs. 

By keeping the team focussed on what really matters to the business, psychological safety will be improved, because team members will know that their hard work makes a difference, and they can contribute to the success of the organisation.

outcomes vs outputs

4. Build a culture of appreciation.

When we’re all in the same place, appreciation and thanks are much easier to communicate and tend to be passive or automatic. With distributed teams, much more effort needs to be made to ensure team members feel valued and appreciated. This means being much more explicit with appreciation, and communicating it in multiple ways such as through video calls, emails, and instant messaging. It’s very easy to forget how often we thank each other when we’re co-located, and without that culture of appreciation, psychological safety will suffer.

5. Embrace routine and ritual.

The dramatic shift in ways of working has resulted in disruption to our routines – our start and finish times, any regular meetings, and lunch breaks have all been disrupted. Routines help us as humans feel more comfortable and psychologically safe when the world around us is changing and there is so much uncertainty elsewhere. 

Ritual also plays an important role in team cohesion, particularly so with distributed and remote teams. Every team will have its own rituals and ceremonies, from ringing a bell at a sprint kickoff, to having end-of-week drinks on a video call. Whatever the rituals are, keep them up in order to build psychological safety.

ringing a bell

6. Establish work boundaries.

Work has invaded our homes and our personal space and time. It’s very easy to allow work to spread out, particularly if strict boundaries are not set. Help your team set these boundaries, and enforce and model them. This may be ensuring that team members can turn off their phones after 6pm without worrying about missing important messages, or purchasing home office equipment so they don’t need to work from their kitchen table. 

To maintain psychological safety, team members need to be able to remove themselves from work and maintain their own personal, home and family space.

7. Use the many species of video call.

Video calls aren’t just for meetings. To bring back the feeling of cohesion and togetherness that is so important for psychological safety, try out different kinds of video call, such as “good morning” meetings to start the day, or by having an “always-on” watercooler style meeting where people can drop in and out as desired. Feeling more connected to team mates will build psychological safety and improve communication.

8. Be actively inclusive, or risk being passively exclusive.

In an office setting, it’s easy to see if someone is not engaged or is pulling away from the team. With a distributed team, this is far more difficult even on video calls. 

A critical stage of psychological safety is “contributor safety” – everyone needs to contribute if the team is to achieve high performance, and in distributed and remote teams, if you’re not being actively inclusive, you’re risking being passively exclusive. To build psychological safety, invite participation, ask questions, and always ensure that everyone has spoken at least once before ending a meeting.

one person withdrawn from the group

9. Adopt Hanlon’s razor.

First published in German in 1774, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote in The Sorrows of Young Werther: “Misunderstandings and lethargy perhaps produce more wrong in the world than deceit and malice do. At least the latter two are certainly rarer.” A sentiment later attributed to Robert J. Hanlon, hence “Hanlon’s razor”.

That is to say, it is important to assume the best intentions. If an email or message comes across as rude, blunt, or offensive, assume it was a miscommunication or misunderstanding. If in doubt, ask for clarification, ideally via video or voice.

To avoid others falling into the same trap, embrace emojis and gifs in your communications, even if they’re not your usual style. Emojis and gifs can help build and maintain psychological safety by ensuring that your communication is received in the most positive way possible.

smiley emoji helps to reassure intention

10. Put your own oxygen mask on first.

If you’re struggling with your own psychological safety, you will not be as effective in helping others with theirs. Find a mentor to advise and help you, eat healthily (but remember to treat yourself), exercise, meditate, and take time away from work; essentially, do whatever you know helps you maintain a happy and healthy approach and pace of work. As leaders of teams, many of us get so focused on caring for our team members that we minimise or neglect our own needs, but if you don’t look after yourself, you can’t look after others.

Take your time.

Finally, be patient. These are difficult times, and it’s to be expected that we will all experience challenges that impact our psychological safety and that of our team members. Utilising the ten behaviours above will help you and your team maintain psychological safety and improve not just team performance, but happiness too. Remember, happy teams aren’t happy because they’re high performing: they’re high performing because they’re happy.

Check out information about how to measure psychological safety in your teams here.

Download a complete Psychological Safety Action Pack full of workshops, tools, resources, and posters to help you measure, build, and maintain Psychological Safety in your teams.

For more information about building psychologically safe teams, read more about DevOps and psychological safety, read about high performing teams and psychological safety, or get in touch if you’d like me to speak or work with you.