BY LYNN A. ISABELLA, Frank M. Sands Sr. Associate Professor of Business Administration, Darden School of Business
Remote work has had its challenges, which many of us have experienced, felt deeply and been reminded about constantly.
Research that I have done regarding interpretations during a change suggests that as one adjusts to key events (and certainly the pandemic qualifies), we see “double” — the old and the new overlapping, what was and what is, the pros and the cons. Initially we tend to focus on what we are losing, are missing or what used to be. But then we start to see what we are gaining as a new picture comes into sharper relief. As the workplace begins its return to normal, many of us are seeing a silver lining.
And we like what we see. Remote work offers benefits if we move with intention about the aspects important to us. Here are five advantages:
Advantage No. 1: Interacting over screens serves as an equaliser. While we remain aware of individuals’ positions within the organisational hierarchy (i.e., who our boss is, who are our peers and subordinates), hierarchy is tempered. We are all put on a level playing field — same size, same frame, identical “Brady Bunch” squares. The result is that we talk to each other differently, more as equals.
Advantage No. 2: Our onscreen persona can be designed based on what is important to us at the click of a button. Literally! We control our environment and virtual presence. We can have fun if we want, be serious when we need to. We can purposefully craft our actual physical space to portray the persona we want seen by others. Or we can use a virtual background to put ourselves anywhere — in a lush garden, at the beach, in the woods, in a library, in front a blank but intriguing wall or surrounded by a company-created virtual background. What is more, we can change that background and thus our persona whenever we want.
Advantage No. 3: We accelerated our learning agility. Necessity is the mother of invention, and we all have become more technologically savvy. We discovered new tools. We have expanded our knowledge about virtual collaborations and found what works best for us. We expanded what is possible for us online, both professionally and personally. We made major purchases (e.g., houses, cars) or interviewed for and accepted new jobs without setting foot in our new place of employment. We figured out how!
Advantage No. 4: “Found time” helped us be more productive. Days did not get longer than 24 hours. But the minutes saved by not commuting, walking from one meeting room to the next and being interrupted by colleagues added up to more time that was ours to control. We could devote that time for work projects (current or catch up) or for long needed conversations with colleagues or subordinates. Alternatively, we could and did use that time for ourselves: e.g., take quick exercise breaks, start dinner or a load of laundry, read an interesting article, learn a new skill, engage with those we care about, or simply just think and reflect to gain perspective. With more “time away from work,” we accomplished more at work.
Advantage No. 5: We saw more of the whole person, which opened up new ways to build relationships. Being virtual humanised us because we see more than just the person who comes to work. When the cat jumps up on the keyboard, a child runs through the background or the dog barks, our colleagues are humanised. We are reminded that they, like us, are balancing life with the work they do. When we bring all of ourselves to work, we create more connection points, more situational awareness and understanding, more opportunities to connect as people, not just as work colleagues. This article was a by-product of some of these advantages. The authors built a relationship and found common interests over the course of months sharing observations and insights about their experiences — one starting a new job in a new city, the other in a face-to-face business that turned virtual overnight.
The advantages identified here are not the only ones. And we are not saying that working virtually will overtake being in the office. However, work may end up being a combination because of the advantages.
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