As the “world’s largest work from home experiment” continues in full force this week, many business leaders are scrambling to put the correct tools in place to ensure effective virtual collaboration within their newly distributed teams. But according to two Canadian professors, software won’t make or break the success of a remote team, but worker skills will.
In 2018, Roberta Sawatzky MA, CPHR from the Okanagan College School of Business, and her son, Nathan J. Sawatzky, an Online Social & Safety Designer at Supercell, embarked on an international tour of coworking spaces and remote work meetups to research the necessary competencies for success in a virtual, technology environment. After extensive surveys, interviews, and data analysis, the “value of competencies along with research regarding the empowerment of virtual teams on their effectiveness was evident.”
“We saw that telecommuting was going to be critical in the future of business, but we wondered if organizations were ready for the shift in workplace. More importantly, we worried about whether or not the skills and competencies required for success in this context were clear and identifiable.” Roberta explains.
In February 2019, they collaboratively published the academic paper of their results, along with a corresponding industry report titled, Remote Work: Competencies and Motivation. In this research, eight skills are showcased as essential to success in a virtual workplace. How do you and your colleagues measure up?
Self-Check: Can you accurately and succinctly convey and interpret thoughts and ideas through digital messages?
In remote work, you’ll learn that over-communication is just communication. Virtual workers don’t have drop-bys, hallway meetings, and handshakes to stay connected and visible. Additionally, nonverbal communication is extremely limited, which can inhibit effective communication. Therefore, we are what we share. Go above and beyond in communicating what you’re doing, by writing comprehensive but succinct messages, promptly responding to others, speaking transparently about needs and feelings, and proactively asking questions.
Self-Check: Can you take initiative without being prompted or rewarded?
Because remote work can’t be physically supervised, productivity is measured by results. So, if you’re extrinsically motivated, the feedback and praise that you’re wanting isn’t going to happen until after your project is over. A teleworker must be able to start and pace appropriately on their own, then identify more work to be done after that project is complete. In other words, you can’t wait around for your boss to drop by with a new assignment. It’s your job to stay busy during work hours, and sometimes that even means ambitiously making new work for yourself.
Self-Check: Are you going to fulfill expectations without supervision?
When you can’t see or talk with your team at any given time, you have to believe they are working just as hard as you are to meet your goals, and vice versa. Doubt, worry, and micromanagement will only divide your team and slow output. You can build trust within your team by celebrating progress together, creating a safe space for failure and questions, evenly distributing workloads, and, most importantly, being trustworthy yourself.
Self-Check: Are you in control of your own time, tasks, and energy?
If you’ve been depending on your boss walking by to snap you out of a YouTube rabbit hole, or seeing your office mate walk to the conference room to keep you on schedule, you’re going to be in a world of hurt when working remotely. “Freedom” from the office comes with the caveat that you’re now independently responsible for your own self-management and staying on task throughout the day. This can take some time to learn and master, but starting with a time-blocked schedule and prioritized to do list can help.
5. Curiosity & Critical Thinking
Self-Check: Can you independently analyze, evaluate, and strategize an issue?
Working independently requires being independent. The people on your team are no longer within arm’s reach for support and assistance. So, be resourceful and creative as you solve the problem alone. Think through questions like: What is the problem? Where is it coming from? Is there anyone that can help me overcome my barrier? Are there any resources that I currently have that could help me solve the issue? Do as much as you can alone, but also remember that many problems require collaboration to solve, but when working from home no one is going to notice you looking stressed and come over to offer assistance. So, if you need help, exercise skills #1 and #2 and proactively ask for it.
Self-Check: Can you adapt to and accurately prioritize the impact of changes?
As the world is now poignantly aware, decisions about and within remote work can be made extraordinarily quickly. Well, get used to it. If a brick-and-mortar office is symbolic of permanency and stability, then it’s understandable that a virtual workspace is complementary to that with agile workflows and quick communication. The pace of the virtual business world is notoriously fast. Tools, deadlines, and developments are no longer arduously discussed and contemplated in meetings before implementation, a quick call or notification can mean a full pivot in direction, and workers need to be able to “go with the flow without compromising the integrity of the assignment.”
Self-Check: How do you and your team know that you’ve been productive throughout the work day?
The number one concern of managers that are new to remote work is whether or not their team members are staying productive. Based on the other critical skills of self-motivation, trustworthiness, and communication, it can be deduced that it’s the worker’s responsibility to not only be productive, but prove that they were, and to confidently claim ownership for their work by meeting deadlines, fulfilling commitments, and accepting consequences. Prove that you’re engaged in your work regardless of location by demonstrating a new kind of “presence” — instead of physically arriving at the office, “show up” to work with full attention and accountability. Your coworkers won’t be able to see you at your desk, but they’ll certainly be able to see your commitment to your work.
Self-Check: Are you aware and considerate of other people’s feelings
In the academic report, Sawatzky stresses the importance of this final skill, noting that “empathy is the glue that binds all the competencies together.” Without nonverbal cues to watch that signal someone’s mood, reactions, and emotions, our emotional intelligence has to be stronger than ever. How might the message that we’re about to send be interpreted? My colleague said they’re “busy;” does that mean they’re stressed and would appreciate assistance? Sawatzky advises, “Being diligent in asking appropriate questions and listening to not just what is being said, but also the sentiment behind those words, contributes to the success of a remote worker.”
With millions of workers around the world suddenly and unexpectedly working from home, no time could be more relevant to understand and evaluate these habits in each member of our workforces. Their ability to demonstrate these skills virtually could make or break the success of business and economic continuity during our global corona virus contingency plan.
I am a remote work strategist who collaborates with global organizations to start, strengthen, and leverage virtual workforces. As the president of the Remote Work Association and CEO of Distribute Consulting, I specialize in advocating for the impact of workplace transformation on corporate and economic growth.