More Trust, Less Fuss: An Interview with Prof Jacqueline O’Reilly’s Team at DIGIT on Remote Working

Martino Tramontin •

An interview with the team at DIGIT, the Digital Futures at Work Research Centre – a collaboration between the Business Schools at the Universities of Sussex and Leeds.

Remote working is no longer a nice-to-have: it’s a part of modern business strategy and culture. But it’s a double-edged sword. Get it right and you’ll improve productivity; get it wrong and employee engagement and efficiency break down. Which is why, at Soldo, we want to provide you with more than just a toolkit for remote-workers. In this series, Soldo is working with leading academics and business experts to give you the bigger picture on remote working: from management to wellbeing, finance to HR.

The Digital Futures at Work Research Centre aims to advance our understanding of how digital technologies are reshaping work, impacting on employers, employees, job seekers and governments. It is led by the Universities of Sussex and Leeds with partners from Aberdeen, Cambridge, Manchester and Monash Universities. We spoke to:

We began by asking how managers can keep employee engagement positive in a remote working environment – Petros took a surprisingly optimistic tone from the workplace upheaval caused by Coronavirus.

Petros: The Coronavirus pandemic caused many businesses to rapidly invoke remote working. And people don’t realise it, but I think there’s a very specific advantage to that sudden change. Compared to other forms of virtual work – working with partners across the globe, for example; the pandemic’s rush to remote working meant there were already established relationships from a social perspective. People know one another. They have developed trust by working face-to-face, so they can take that on board. This helps teams to build a successful virtual configuration to work remotely.

Those relationships mean a degree of cohesion and trust have already been built in their teams. And that’s not just nice. Cohesion and trust are prerequisites for creativity and innovation – the characteristics we need for high-value business. 

Emma: Going on from Petros’ point on relationships, much of the research says that whatever your relationships in your normal team, trust or no trust, positive relationships or more challenging relationships, they will be amplified in a virtual environment.  If there’s a lack of trust in your day to day team exchanges, when it comes to how you operate virtually, you are likely to find that this is exacerbated. You’ll see excessive cc-ing, or line managers obsessively capturing audit trails.  Leaders must be mindful that the virtual environment can actually cause greater problems if they don’t have a cohesive team to start with. 

The other important issue is the way in which we manage our boundaries:

Working in a virtual environment, all these boundaries can become blurred. It’s important to try to find ways in which employees can re-enact those boundaries to ensure that, even though their work and home lives are now integrated, the difference between work and home can still be established.

Just to make that more challenging, the research I’ve done suggests that there are individual differences in the extent to which employees want those boundaries to be strong, and to which they’re happy for those boundaries to be more fluid. That variation must influence the way leaders manage their workers in a virtual environment. They need to understand those individual preferences for different types of boundaries. 

So, for those who like to separate work from home life and have very distinctive boundaries, the more their managers can support and facilitate that, the better.  

Others are actually happy to have more fluid boundaries: they will thrive without clearly defined work times, for example – they’re happy to take their smartphone along to their child’s assembly! Where there’s less need for separate boundaries, again managers can facilitate that freedom to help those types of people to work more productively and with great satisfaction. 

Managers therefore really need to get to know their individual workers’ preferences and priorities, which can be quite resource-intensive.

Cohesion and trust are prerequisites for creativity and innovation – the characteristics we need for high-value business.

Jacqueline: While we’re talking about managers, there’s a huge issue around how far managers trust their workers in the remote environment. Remote working isn’t completely new, and it’s not something that’s black and white: in many cities, for example, employees don’t go into work on a Friday. It’s become common practice in the past five years or so, and it’s given managers an opportunity to begin to loosen the reins with their workers.

I think it’s quite important as a manager to give teams space when they’re home working.  Sometimes they will say, “I need to disconnect because I’m feeling really overwhelmed at the moment – I’ve got my kids bouncing around the house and I can’t work properly”. Of course, it’s fine – let them go and walk the dog, don’t demand check-ins every day. Staying connected is important both for effective management and motivation, but you don’t need to be monitoring constantly. Give them some slack and be human – employ a bit of emotional intelligence as well.

Petros: The other thing is to select the right technologies. People tend to assume that technologies like Zoom are perfectly suited to every task, but that’s wrong. Yes, video-conferencing feels more natural because you can see your colleagues and you can speak to them at the same time, synchronously. But it’s not the right tool for every application.  My research suggests that different technologies are appropriate for different types of tasks. Sometimes even the telephone, however old fashioned it might be, is still the best tool. There’s no perfect recipe. 

Emma: Generally, if a task is ambiguous, complex or not so straightforward, you want to use a communication tool that has more richness in terms of its social cues. With a telephone call, you can get to the nugget of a problem effectively because you have vocal cues. It’s a richer medium, and therefore ideal for something complicated or sensitive.

If it’s a very straightforward, non-ambiguous, or quite tangible idea that you’re trying to convey, then text based communication can be more effective. So the tool depends on the task and the level to which you need to engage just as much as the people or the business.

It’s worth noting that sometimes the reverse is true: there are times when you specifically don’t want too much in the way of social cues, for example an exchange that maybe have legal ramifications. In that case, email and other text-based communications will be more appropriate. 

Jacqueline: Yes, we need to build a new architecture of how organisations communicate. Rule one: don’t send so many emails! Colleagues compensate for presenteeism by constantly peppering off email after email and nobody can keep up. Email is the bluntest communication tool and it can do a lot of damage.  

Similarly, don’t video-conference for too long. 90 minutes is the absolute maximum.  Nobody likes three hour meetings, so nobody is going to like three hour Zooms. It is utterly exhausting: my colleagues and I are totally Zoomed out! The other day we were going from nine o’clock in the morning to four o’clock in the afternoon and there’s no gap to even get a cup of tea, and that’s got to stop.

Managers must build the new architecture of a platform, a skeleton architecture, with the manager at the centre who will know everything that’s going on, but allowing employees to talk to each other in smaller groups within that system.

Emma: The other issue is that we’re all resource-depleted because of the pressures of constant communication and juggling our work and home lives. That has the potential then to exacerbate our anxieties. And so, when we’re reading someone’s email, or when we’re engaged in a Zoom meeting, it’s easy to misinterpret what people are saying, to consider exchanges to be uncivil or in some way unprofessional. Similarly, we end up sending messages that are more abrupt, curt or pestering; all because we’re resource depleted. We’re not thinking about the impact of our exchanges on other people. 

Jacqueline: We did some work with Walmart, in America: they keep their meetings to 15-minute phone conversations and they make decisions very quickly. They may sometimes seem a little curt, but they come to a meeting prepared. There’s no waffling about, they know the key questions they need to ask, make decisions and then work out a plan to implement them. 

I think managers must build the new architecture of a platform, a skeleton architecture, with the manager at the centre who will know everything that’s going on, but allowing employees to talk to each other in smaller groups within that system. 

A good analogy is a BBC newsroom. When you’re watching the news, you see a huge room with lots of desks and people.  They all belong to the same organization, but they are working on lots of different news stories. No manager knows everything. They are managing complex, geographically dispersed projects and recognise that nobody can be everywhere at the same time.

Petros: Yes, the other big change which I feel has to happen in the virtual environment is the practice of leadership. For example, we know that in traditional face-to-face environments, one person typically acts as leader throughout a project from beginning to end. 

Instead, working remotely, it often helps to deploy a shared leadership model. So it might make sense to have one person lead one stage of the project lifecycle, due to their expertise or location.  They might then hand over to somebody else who manages the following stage and so on. We can see projects that have maybe three or four leaders according to the number of stages in the project.

The point is, the virtual team literature tells us that remote working seems to create a greater degree of complexity and responsibility per employee. And it’s impossible for one person to lead the remote environment from a distance. Therefore, there’s a need for more leaders to get work done, either at the same time, or successively one after the other. 

Emma: I agree. There’s a term that’s being used more and more now, the “ambidextrous organization”. Now, I have to admit, it effectively allows academics to have their cake and eat it, because the “ambidextrous organization” says a business should operate whatever structure and leadership model best fits the market conditions and the company that you’re running at any one time. It feels pretty open-ended. But it does focus the mind on commercial outcomes and using the appropriate operational and leadership styles in an agile way to meet those objectives.

KEY TAKEAWAYS