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Guidance on Remote Working From Someone Who Avoids Giving Guidance

In New York, many of us are completing our fourth week of mandatory working at home. We are the lucky ones. We still have a job. Most of us have health care. We have high-speed Internet. Our job does not put us at greater risk for becoming infected with a novel coronavirus.

However, all of us working from home see a steady stream of well-intentioned, often conflicting, advice on the does and don’ts of working remotely.

For nearly 30 years, I’ve studied workers who move around for their jobs, interacting virtually, relying on an evolving mix of digital technologies. The research groups I’ve been part of and led have studied technologists, software developers, analysts, police officers, real estate agents, office workers, scientists, freelancers and others. Relevant to today’s current remote-working arrangements, all of the workers we have studied were doing some or all of their jobs at a distance from their offices and each other.

Drawing from what we’ve learned by studying distributed work, and building on your experiences with working at a distance, here are three observations and some guidance.

First, working at a distance requires more explicitness.

Digital interactions constrain our abilities to communicate and receive social cues (“Hi, this is Steve: Can you hear me?”). Video meetings make it harder to see and hear each other. We’re likely learning to raise our hands, are working to take turns speaking, and are watching who is – and who is not – speaking. We are spending more time locating and naming files, talking about who does what, when; and, taking notes so we all remember.

Explicitness like this seems more formal and less personal, which increases the sense of social distance from each other. It may also highlight existing social gaps (e.g., I never spoke much with you when we were face-to-face: this is now very apparent online). Yet, being more explicit about how we interact is likely leading to more positive and complete interactions. It is worth adapting to this need for collegial explicitness.

Second, working at a distance highlights how our production efforts are embedded in social and personal arrangements.

Work is about getting things done. There are deliverables, problem-solving, and tasks to complete.  Remote production efforts are still embedded in the social structures of, and interactions with coworkers. Our sociality shows up in the small talk before and after meetings, informal chats: human interaction. Both the social and production aspects of work are set against our own interests, goals and thoughts.  Working is about producing, but it requires socialization and personal engagement.

Being online changes our signaling to each other and it makes socializing and personal engagement more difficult. Having online meet-ups is a partial response, for some. More important is ensuring there is time before, during, and after an online meeting to interact and to be personally engaged. This means that it may take more time to do things in video meetings. And, we need to find time to interact with our colleagues informally via text or messaging or calls: to have interpersonal connections.

It is worth the time to ensure sociality and individual engagement serve as the basis for production. At the same time, “personal arrangements” now are more visible: I may see your cat, your Sesame Street poster, or your toddler. Online work can at once be more interpersonally remote and more intimate. We need to respect each other across both dimensions.

Third, even as the technologies we are using to work remotely are imperfect, they allow us opportunities to go beyond being together.

Little windows of people in a video meeting, emojis in text and messaging, and stickers in comments on a shared document, are not the same as human interaction. They are reminders.  However, the video meeting’s chat function allows for participants to post things, share side stories, clarify conversation and do more than what is typically possible in a face-to-face meeting.

Side channels, when used mindfully, can help compensate for the loss of face-to-face emotional bandwidth. We can share screens and interact, recording and saving decisions. These software allow us to do some things that make it better than being there: providing glimpses of possibilities. Look for – and invent – these!

As social distancing guidelines are relaxed, we will return to offices and life reshaped by our experiences of distributed work. Nobody can predict what changes will persist. But, it feels safe to say that we are taking a giant and collective step toward defining the nature of work in the 21st century. Provided we focus on the value of our relationships rather than the particularities of digital arrangements, the coming years will be a testimony to our creativity and endurance during a most trying moment in human history.

Steve Sawyer

Steve Sawyer

Steve Sawyer is a Professor and Director of Ph.D. Program at Syracuse University's iSchool. His research explores the ways in which people organize to work together and use information and communication technologies.

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