Will digital become the new norm after all ?
With a jolt of collective awareness, the human species has made a sudden discovery : if only for some minor adaptations, we can work just as well from home as from the office. Today, we gleefully log into MS Teams, we adore Zoom, L&D suppliers transform their workshops to webinars, coffee breaks are replaced by chat sessions…
Digital prophets predict that this out-of-control virus has ensured that the virtual workspace will become the new norm. At last ! Once you’ve tasted the joys of the digital world, you wouldn’t wish to go back to your old and trusted work environment, would you ?
Exactly how much joy do you derive from a digital work space ?
Don’t underestimate the value of “old” and “trusted”. After each big crisis, people long to go back to the peaceful security of what they once knew. Those first weeks back at the job, coffee breaks around the globe will resonate with lengthy discussions about the situation ‘pre’ and ‘after’ and with stories about the ‘exciting’ combination of working from home while tending to a kid or two.
Besides, in the health-care sector and in a production environment working from home is not an option but for a small minority. And even those companies that find it easy to work digitally will need to make sure that people remain motivated.
The self-determination theory of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan can help with this reflection. According to this theory, we function optimally if three basic needs are fulfilled : autonomy, competence en belonginAutonomy means that you can execute an activity according to your own insights and that you are aware of the impact that your work has.
You feel competent when you have sufficient confidence in your own know-how and when you can apply and (further) develop your knowledge and skills.
Belonging is possible when you can trust others and are trusted in return.
Working digitally usually has a positive effect on our need for autonomy and a negative effect on our need for competence and belonging.
It’s no surprise to learn that teleworking heightens your feeling of autonomy. You can decide for yourself when and how you do the job and there’s an easier flow between your private and your work life.
On the flip-side, you also need to take on more responsibility. You need to bring structure in your day, you need to stay focused during a web-meeting and not get distracted by what’s going on in the garden and you need to adhere to the 38-hour week without anyone checking on you.
Not everyone is happy with that. A clear divide between working at the office and not-working has its benefits.
Self-discipline is not simple either. Your calendar needs to be up-to-date at all times, you need to be reachable and you need to deliver results without someone to encourage, stimulate or threaten you.
Yet, most teleworkers confirm that the drawbacks don’t measure up to the advantages : you avoid traffic jams, you can quickly run out to run an errand, you are at home to accept a delivery, you can do your laundry while working… If you work from home, you are likely to experience more freedom, while being less frequently disturbed. In fact, you will probably attain the expected result quicker.
You feel competent when you can do those things that you are good at and when you get the tools that you need to work well.
Quite often, the latter tends to be lacking when working from home. Frustration runs high when the internet connection fails or when the conference call wasn’t as effective as one would have hoped. And at the end of the day, the kitchen chair isn’t as kind to your back as the one at the office.
You may learn quickly how to work with digital tools but you do need to adapt the way you work. Skype meetings aren’t the same as gathering around a table, a quick exchange of information through chatting isn’t the same as passing by your colleague’s desk on a whim.
A world-wide research by IBM, has proven that the most important skills that you will need in order to experience joy at work in a digital work environment are the following : a flexible attitude, good time management, team-collaboration and the ability to communicate well.
But more than anyone, it’s the managers who will need to learn or finetune new skills. They need to guide their collaborators without visually controlling them. They will need to trust their team members to deliver the results they asked for. Trust presupposes openness and a lot of clear communication.
This is the issue and it’s an old tune : managers still communicate too much about operational actions and not enough about the bigger picture. They still put too much emphasis on how to execute a task as opposed to on the added value the result will provide.
You can keep repeating that you need a different type of leadership in a digital work environment but that is not enough.
Each significant change (“lean”, “the New Way of Working, “agile”) demands that you re-examine your entire organisation and that you allow staff and management on every level to develop new skills to be successful. It remains to be seen if all promoters of the virtual workplace are ready (and able) to do that.
The elephant in the room when we talk about the virtual workspace, is our simple human need to “belong”. Social contacts with colleagues, frequent (and informal) feedback, spontaneous recognition for a job well done, attention to what goes on in a team member’s life, … these are the things that give us a feeling of belonging.
In a digital work space, this is so much harder to do. Watching your colleague drink a coffee on a screen while you yourself are sipping your camomile tea, isn’t the same as bumping into each other at the coffee machine. When you work too often or too long from a distance, you literary become invisible and you miss out on big and small company news. And giving informal feedback to a colleague who’s working at home is not that simple either.
In organisations who made the switch to “the New Way of Working” the biggest concern is usually : what about our social contacts ? Unfortunately, the response is often dismissive. “We’ll make sure that you can videochat”. “You will get to know new colleagues via Yammer”. “Why don’t you set a little time aside in your virtual meeting to catch up ? ”.
Precisely during theses days of “lockdown light” it became crystal clear how much people need simple human contact. And that includes human contact at work.
This is confirmed by extensive research : two days tele-working is about the limit for most of us. When you remove yourself from the office longer than that, the bond with your company and with your colleagues loosens and that is detrimental for your motivation.
Towards a new balance
Whether working digitally will finally experience its great break-through, remains the question.
To prepare yourself for the post-corona era, try to self-reflect : what do you need in order to get a feeling of autonomy, competence and belonging ? Are these needs fulfilled when you work from home ?
For managers there’s an additional question : What can you do to give your team members the right amount of belonging, competence and autonomy ?
Ultimately, team members and managers need to have that conversation. Only then will they manage to find the right balance between the personal need of each team member and the needs of the organisation.
Today, we are forced to collectively improvise. But these new try-outs can pave the way to new habits and maybe that will get us closer to the ‘ideal work-world’.
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