Six Habits to Revolutionize Remote Work

The six habits to revolutionize remote work are according to an executive with over 10,000 hours of experience as a team leader in Fortune 100 companies and over 10,000 hours of experience as a professional facilitator. Remote work is revolutionized one remote interaction at a time. People interact better both in-person and remotely when they know each other well compared to when they don’t know each other very well. When you interact with someone you know well, you better understand the “why” behind their responses so you can figure out how to move towards your desired outcome. But you can still be surprised by the response of someone you know well because different people have different reasons for responding the way they do. Even siblings growing up together have developed different ways to fit into the family, to fit into school, and to make friends. Remote interactions have the added challenge that dysfunctional behaviors like not paying attention can be hidden. Our differences and the opportunity for increased dysfunctional behaviors necessitate new interaction habits to revolutionize remote work.

I interacted with potential new clients and facilitated workshops from afar during the COVID-19 pandemic and relied on six habits to have highly successful remote interactions. My job as a facilitator is to manage participant behavior relative to the group process needed to achieve desired deliverables. A key part of my job as a facilitator is planning to establish the context needed to achieve group results and ongoing management of the engagement needed for the group to succeed. Context for an interaction is what each person is bringing to the interaction in terms of physical, cognitive, non-conscious, social, and emotional states. To take into account physical state, you may need to factor in time of day with respect to fatigue and the need for food breaks. For cognitive state, you may need to provide content to help level-set knowledge with respect to the interaction topic. Non-conscious and social states typically manifest in emotional states as can physical states such as “hangry” when you are really hungry and grumpy. So, management of emotions is also important to a productive interaction. Three of the six habits to revolutionize remote work are about the planning needed to establish a productive context to interact and three of the six habits are for maintaining high-quality engagement.

Three Planning Habits to Revolutionize Remote Work

My golden rule for planning comes from 34th U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower who said: “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” Planning through the first three of the six habits to revolutionize remote work is very important but keep in mind that you may need to adjust or change your plan depending on how the interaction proceeds. In a remote interaction, just like in negotiation, the person who is better prepared is more likely to get more of what they want. I have learned in interactions as Louis Pasteur, the innovative chemist and microbiologist, said that “fortune favors the prepared mind.”

The first habit to improve remote work is having a prepared and engaging introduction. It is best when your introduction is customized to the interests of and desired relationships with the people involved in the remote interaction. For example, you don’t want to come off as bragging if the people in the remote interaction are new teammates – you want to come off as collaborative with access to helpful resources. You also don’t want to come off as too casual if the people in the remote interaction are a potential new client – you want to come off as experienced and results-focused. And you don’t want to come off as needy or whiny to your boss in a remote interaction – you want to come off as smart, hard-working and one who takes initiative to identify and address challenges to getting results. The purpose of the prepared and engaging introduction is to provide a basis for trust. We trust those we view as competent and of good character. So, your introduction needs to emphasize your best character qualities and competence relevant to the planned interaction. For a potential new facilitation client, I might introduce myself as follows: “Hi, my name is Valerie Patrick and I’m a PhD chemical engineer who spent 25 years leading teams at Fortune 100 companies and I have been working as a Certified Professional Facilitator since 2013. I thought I understood what hard work was until I published my first book on teamwork last year.”

A second habit to improve remote work is understanding the purpose of the interaction. Purpose is the “why” for the interaction and must make the cost associated with people preparing for and participating in the interaction worthwhile. Sometimes the person who asked for the interaction will supply the purpose. If the person who asked for the interaction does not supply a purpose, then you should articulate one for yourself. If you are the one organizing the remote interaction, then you should supply a purpose for the interaction ahead of time. I use the following format to articulate a meeting purpose: To [topic or outcome], in order to [what the group needs to improve or change], so that [what the group’s work will enable the organization or group to do after the meeting]. An example meeting purpose: to revisit the draft workshop plan in order to establish a culture of environmental sustainability so that we can decide how to proceed. A well-articulated purpose will get people to participate and be engaged. A well-articulated purpose helps align participants on something impactful and worth their time, talent, and thinking.

A third habit to improve remote work is articulating outcomes for the interaction. Types of outcomes for interactions include learning, identifying problems or opportunities, solving problems, enabling action, and making decisions. Enabling action can include building acceptance, establishing trust, ensuring understanding, framing possible problems, identifying possible opportunities, and creating an action plan. Here are some questions that can help you identify the primary types of outcomes needed:

  • Imagine that the interaction has already taken place and you are very happy with how things went. What happened to make you so happy?
  • What do you need to learn in this interaction?
  • Is this interaction about solving a specific problem or pursuing a specific opportunity?
  • Is this interaction about identifying what the important problems or opportunities are?
  • What does this interaction need to enable you to do? Build acceptance? Build trust? Build understanding? Frame possible problems? Identify top opportunities? Create an action plan? Make a decision?
  • What decisions need to be made in this interaction? After this interaction? Before this interaction?

Once the types of outcomes are identified for the interaction, you can assess what is needed to achieve those outcomes and prepare accordingly. Six types of activities for achieving interaction outcomes are as follows:

  • Gathering data for discovery
  • Gathering data for understanding
  • Analyzing application of data
  • Generating ideas
  • Prioritizing
  • Planning action

You can step through these activities for each interaction outcome to determine how to best prepare for the interaction.

Three Engagement Habits to Revolutionize Remote Work

While planning is very important to a highly successful remote interaction, planning is not enough. Remote interactions make it easy to not pay attention outside the scope of the camera if all participants are even using their cameras. I am guilty of working on something else while on a Zoom call that was not engaging. The last three of the six habits to revolutionize remote work are aimed at maintaining engagement.

The fourth habit to improve remote work is listening to inform your theory of mind. Anita Woolley, Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory at Carnegie Mellon University, has found in her research that Theory-of-Mind skill as measured by the Reading-the-Mind-in-the-Eyes test predicts team performance whether the teams are interacting in person or remotely (Anita Williams Woolley, Ishani Aggarwal, and Thomas W. Malone. “Collective Intelligence and Group Performance.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 24:6 (2015): 420–24). Theory-of-mind skill is the ability to infer the intentions of others and assess what’s going on in another person’s head such as fears, beliefs, and expectations. The late Stephen R. Covey understood our shortcomings when it comes to listening. Covey said that in order to listen to understand another person, you need to repeat back in your own words the message you heard from another to their satisfaction. When you are listening remotely, you may have fewer clues as to the message of a speaker versus in person so misunderstanding is even more likely. Listening to inform theory-of-mind takes an intense concentration to figure out where the other person is coming from which is taxing on the brain. Listening to inform theory-of-mind means vocalizing what you think is going on inside the mind of another to test for accuracy or open up a deeper conversation. Listening to inform your theory of mind builds connection with the people you are interacting with from afar.

The fifth habit to improve remote work is asking engaging questions. Engaging questions are questions that invite response. There is no magic formula for doing this well because each person is unique and something may have happened before or during the remote interaction that is distracting the other person. A simple tool that has served me well when engagement is a struggle is to remember the four types of problem-solving styles with the acronym PAIR: procedural, analytical, innovative, and relational. Your preferred problem-solving style predicts the type of thinking you like to do or that you do well. You can ask one question relative to the interaction topic that taps into each of the four different problem-solving styles to ascertain which one works best for engagement. For example, procedurals tend to like questions about process, outcomes, or responsibilities. Analyticals tend to like questions about logic, data, and efficiency. Innovatives tend to like questions about alternatives, new ideas, and different perspectives. Relationals tend to like questions about communication, engagement, and emotional impact. By asking questions that tap into these four different interest areas, you are better able to figure out how to engage another.

The sixth habit to improve remote work is meeting social needs. Human beings can’t survive and thrive without social interactions. In fact, research has linked social isolation to higher risk of heart disease, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, and death (https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/social-isolation-loneliness-older-people-pose-health-risks#:~:text=Health%20effects%20of%20social%20isolation,Alzheimer’s%20disease%2C%20and%20even%20death.). Social interactions are most successful when the social needs of participants are being met. Behavioral scientists and neuroscientists have identified five social needs we have in common. The five social needs are status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness (https://neuroleadership.com/your-brain-at-work/scarf-model-motivate-your-employees). While we all have these same five social needs, we may assign different weights to them in terms of importance and interpret them in different ways depending on context and other factors. For example, to some status is about what you know and to others it is about hierarchical power and so on. A person will express negative emotion, display violence behavior, or display silence behavior during an interaction when they experience a decrease in one or more of the five social needs. The negative emotion or behavior can often be dissipated by experiencing a genuine increase in one of the five social needs such as being appreciated for intellectual contribution. Or, someone can guess what social need was violated to cause the negative emotion or behavior and address the source as appropriate whether it is a misunderstanding or warrants an apology. To keep negative emotion or behavior from derailing a remote interaction, be mindful of your social needs and the social needs of others.

Remote interactions would be easier if we all thought the same way but then they would also lead to poorer decisions and lower innovation (https://hbr.org/2016/11/why-diverse-teams-are-smarter). More diverse teams make better decisions and are more innovative than more homogenous teams but only if all perspectives are heard. Remote interactions can be improved with six habits aimed at promoting smart and engaging teamwork. One habit is preparing an engaging introduction that highlights your competence and character relevant to the interaction topic to help establish the trust needed for high-quality engagement. A second habit is establishing the purpose of the interaction to focus thinking and participants’ time on something worthwhile. A third habit is having one or more outcomes for the interaction to guide the group process to be productive. A fourth habit is listening to uncover theory-of-mind about those you are interacting with to improve connection and team performance. And the fifth and sixth habits are using engaging questions and minding social needs to include all perspectives for better decision-making and higher innovation. Practice these six habits and you can revolutionize your remote work with others.

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