With remote working now set to become a standard feature of the way we work, there is much to be learned from what we have all experienced since our sudden collective shift to virtual teamwork 18 months ago.
For Jennifer Dowling, the ins and outs of successfully managing remote working teams was a focal point long before the pandemic began. Dowling is a work and organisational psychologist and director of Train Remote, which specialises in remote working, online training, coaching and team development.
Also an executive coach with the Irish Management Institute, Dowling spoke at Ireland’s Best Managed Companies awards symposium on the lessons we can all take from our sudden shared shift to remote working.
“The question for all of us now is: what can we take forward in terms of how we manage flexibility and remote teamwork from here on in? she said.
As a starting point, Dowling has identified trust as an essential ingredient in any successful remote working set-up.
“‘High trust’ teams and organisations typically adapt better to change,” Dowling said. The Covid-19 pandemic, and the huge impact it had on our lives, was unexpected. It was not the type of change we could have planned for.
“Through my own work, it became evident that teams and organisations with a high level of trust already in place adapted much more easily to remote working and other changes in the workplace brought on by the pandemic.”
To understand why this is the case, we need a good grasp of the “mechanics” of trust in an organisational context, according to Dowling.
“We need to understand that who we trust and why we trust them is quite intentional in the context of building, practising and maintaining trust.
“In this context, more organisations are now understanding the value of informal communication and connection in determining well how a team runs as a whole. This needs to be built into the hybrid working model, so that it carries through to people working together remotely.”
Another lesson we have learned from the so-called “great remote working experiment” is that, while some people have welcomed the greater autonomy and self-determination it has given them in their working lives, others have struggled.
“It has been fascinating to see the difference between the individuals who have flourished working remotely and others who have not found the transition so easy,” Dowling said.
“Autonomy can be great. It has lots of benefits to offer people and organisations, but only if people have the capacity to manage that autonomy.
“A lot of research shows that, where we give people a lot of control over their time, their schedule or how they work, they will do well if they have the skills to manage it.
“If not, they may need more support to help them develop self-management skills. Without these skills, some people actually find greater flexibility quite stressful and overwhelming. In some cases, it can lead to massive overworking.”
For employers in the months and years ahead, Dowling said, the lesson here was that they would need to equip their people with the tools to manage greater personal autonomy in a more flexible working world.