When the global pandemic hit, millions of workers’ lives were flipped upside down as they transitioned to working from home. Suddenly, kitchen tables became workspaces and conference rooms for remote meetings as well as second-grade classrooms. Families with two working parents jockeyed for the “good Zoom space” where they could focus — and have a relatively professional background for their videoconference. And those employees who live alone dealt with the isolation and other challenges of a socially distanced age.
Despite the myriad challenges, employees and companies alike had no choice but to adapt to remain successful. The crisis showed us that people will do what they need to do to survive.
However, over time, the “do anything to survive” attitude gets old. Fatigue sets in. Eventually, we want our kitchen table to be the place where we sit down to have dinner after putting work away for the day. We get sick of looking at the piles of second-grade worksheets on our desks and our always-open email. Organizations must work to support their newly remote employees to keep them engaged, and happy, in their roles.
Moving Into the “New Normal”
As more workplaces reopen and the way we work changes yet again, it’s becoming apparent that things won’t go back to the way they were. Remote work is here to stay. (Thankfully, remote K-12 education is, for the most part, not.) Among those employees whose jobs can be done remotely, workers overwhelmingly favor fully remote schedules or hybrid work environments where they work from home several days a week.
The way we work will be a “new normal.” And it’s incumbent upon leaders to support workers in this new environment. We know that successful change management isn’t about telling people what to do or simply giving advice. It’s about getting the entire team to share their ideas and help carve a path forward. When you get their commitment to change, rather than just their compliance with new directives, you get the insight and dedication you need to make your next moves a success.
The best way to motivate and engage your team through any sort of change is to simply ask your workers questions to gauge how they will prepare for the shift and how you, as a learning leader, can support them.
Consider the questions below to get started.
Question 1: What does your home workspace look like?
The kitchen island, your bed, the coffee table, the couch—none of these make for a good long-term workspace or even a place that inspires productivity. Make sure each of your workers has a dedicated workspace that is quiet and optimized for work. Ideally, this includes a clutter-free space where they can shut the door.
If someone on your team doesn’t have a dedicated space where they can close the door, encourage them to signal “do not disturb.” They can put on headphones even if they’re not listening to anything or put up a sign that says, “on a deadline.” According to our productivity research, featured in the new book “Not Today: The 9 Habits of Extreme Productivity,” extremely productive people (which we refer to as “the XP”) signal “do not disturb” better than most. Almost one in three of the XP makes a habit of signaling “do not disturb” when working from home. However, less than one in ten people outside of the XP do the same.
Your team members’ work and learning environment matters: The physical space around them can either make them feel energized and focused or deflated and demotivated. Encourage your team members to set up a work and learning space that works for them and help them create it.
Question 2: What do you need to make your home workspace more effective for you?
Encourage workers to ask for what they need to make their home workspace more efficient and conducive to getting their work done. For example, employees who spend ample time sitting may need a sit/stand desk or ergonomic chair. Those who are on videoconference after videoconference may need ring lights for video calls, a second monitor or a noise-canceling headset.
Employees should know that you want them to be comfortable and equipped with a space that is going to work best for them. Investing in a $20 ring light or $150 desk can go a long way in making people feel supported and valued.
Question 3: How can we, as a team, stay better connected while working remotely?
Remote workers don’t have the chance to connect with teammates in the halls. Water cooler conversations don’t happen spontaneously. Relationships don’t develop as naturally.
As human beings, connection is incredibly important. Without that connection to each other, commitment to the organization — and the work — wanes. There’s nothing more demotivating than feeling like your organization and co-workers don’t care about you.
Gather ideas from the team about how they want to stay connected. It could be having more conversations on informal collaboration channels or scheduling regular virtual hangouts or simple one-on-one check-ins. Even asking how people’s weekends were on a Monday morning videoconference can go a long way in building relationships among team members.
Question 4: What do you need to do for yourself to step away from work daily?
Having well-rounded workers is important because we all learn from our experiences outside of the workplace. Often, we can apply lessons learned from our time off in our day-to-day roles. One of the traps of remote work is people staying inside, in their house, all day long, for multiple days on end. The work is always there, and always “on,” so it’s tempting to just keep working beyond what would be a typical workday. This is not healthy for anyone.
Ask workers how they plan to get out of the house. Encourage them to go for a walk in the afternoon, run out for that afternoon coffee or meet a friend for lunch. Volunteering is another way to get out of the house and engage with other people while doing good for your community. Help your team find what works for them to step away from the “office” regularly.
Question 5: What boundaries do you need to set?
Remote work means that work and life blend more frequently. But that blending shouldn’t mean that work takes over every minute. Encourage your team to think about hours they may be on and off. Depending on your organization and culture, having flexible work hours is a huge benefit of remote work. Need to go to the doctor in the middle of the day? No sweat. Get your work done early in the morning or at night.
I’m an advocate for focusing on performance outcomes rather than hours spent sitting at a desk. However, you may find that a committed team has a hard time turning work off. When you ask your team what boundaries they need to set you’re telling them it’s ok to turn it off when working from home. As a leader, do your best to respect those boundaries or at the very least let your team know that you don’t expect them to respond to your emails during off-hours.
If you notice someone emailing or on Slack after-hours, check in to ensure they are setting proper boundaries. Communicate your expectations about taking time off and model that behavior yourself. Your team will often take their cues about work hours from you, so encourage the behavior you want by exhibiting it yourself.
When asking the questions outlined above, you might be surprised at what comes up. Remain curious rather than getting defensive and keep asking questions. Then share ideas across the team. The more you involve your team in discussions about remote work and learning, and how to make it work for them, the more engaged and productive they will become.