Unprecedented times demand unprecedented responses. As communities, businesses, and countries work to lessen the impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic many workers find themselves working from home for the first time. This creates new challenges as peers and managers try to develop new ways of working, communicating, and motivating without the benefit of physical presence. Fortunately, some sectors of the economy had previously embraced work-from-home options, or virtual teams. The lessons learned from those organizations can benefit those struggling to deal with a new reality.
Many managers consider work-from-home and virtual work as a technology problem (Larson et al., 2020). They ask themselves which online conferencing tool is most secure, or which employees need access to a VPN to complete their tasks. These considerations, while important, represent the easiest part of managing a virtual workforce. The psychological impacts of this style of work, and associated implications for communications practices and motivational strategies, are seldom as well considered. In this article we will explore some recommended best practices in the following areas: communication, oversight, developing and maintaining employee perceptions of equity and trust, and fostering positive mental health and well-being during stressful and isolating times.
Problems Associated with Virtual Teams
Virtual work teams tend to have several problems. Communication flows very differently on virtual teams compared to teams that meet in person. This is due several factors. There is reduced access to important cues such as vocal tone and body language, which increases the potential for misunderstandings. The asynchronous nature of many interactions hampers the ability to seek clarification in a timely manner and discourages casual social exchange. Technological challenges occasionally disrupt information flow. Many workers are also simply not used to working virtually and have not yet refined their communication strategies, processes, and basic approach to suit the medium (Larson et al., 2020). As a result, task and process related confusion is more likely to emerge and team members often report feelings of stress and isolation that impair motivation (Kirkman et al., 2002).
These communication issues all come together, contributing to “people problems” that further hamper communication and productivity. For example trust issues get magnified in this type of setting, so people may be less willing to share information. Equity concerns may emerge as people are less able to view each other’s contributions. Rumours thrive under these uncertain conditions and can themselves negatively influence the team (Larson et al., 2020).
The emotional stress created by the current pandemic and the associated unplanned switch to work-from-home models are likely to magnify each one of these issues. People do not process information or deal with change well when stressed and fear feeds rumours (King and Behnke, 2009). Furthermore there was little time to acquire familiarity with needed technologies or develop appropriate policies, norms, and supports.
Communicating Clearly and Effectively: Channel Richness
As listed above, the first major set of problems relates to the absence of many information cues that are available in face-to-face interactions. Communication channels such as e-mail, telephone, in-person meetings, and online discussion groups differ in their ability to convey information. Rich communication channels, such as face-to-face meetings, are more personal. They allow us to process multiple cues simultaneously (such as eye contact, vocal tone, and body language), as well as engage in rapid back-and-forth feedback. All of these help to clarify understanding. Virtual teams, however, often rely on the poorest communication channels, such as e-mail, text messaging, and memos (Walsh, 2019). Poor communication channels are best used for routine communications. Non-routine communication, such as emergency pandemic plans, have more potential for misunderstandings, especially when the topic involved creates anxiety that interferes with information processing (King and Behnke, 2009). As such many managerial communications related to the current crisis should use the richest communication mediums available in a virtual setting. Video conferencing is a good option since it allows people to see and hear each other and interact in real time. The content shared in a video conference can then be reinforced with written materials so there is a verifiable record of important details.
When use of e-mail and text messaging is unavoidable then emoticons, which have traditionally been considered unprofessional in work related communications, help clarify the intended emotional tone of a message (Loglia and Bowers, 2016). This is very useful when dealing with channels in which tone is highly vulnerable to misinterpretation (Lo, 2008). Since most workers are currently anxious this practice is especially important to avoid unnecessary, stress-driven misunderstanding and conflict. This new practice may require leaders to set an example in order to establish the new norm given the aforementioned professionalism stigma related to emoticon usage. You may also need to provide an “emoticon interpretation primer” for workers who are less familiar with the meaning behind some symbols, particularly older workers and people newly arrived from other cultures (Krohn, 2004).
Implementing Best Practices: Communication Policies and Timing
In addition to being aware of delivery mechanisms and channel richness, following some proven best practices can maximize communication effectiveness. The following suggestions will help with the twin problems associated with using primarily asynchronous communication methods and employee lack of familiarity with virtual work. Communication norms and timelines should be formalized to make sure that everyone receives all needed information. You may, for example, introduce a temporary policy regarding which platforms are to be used for organizational announcements instead of letting different managers use different methods. Similarly you could explicitly outline expectations for things like how often employees are expected to check e-mail, acceptable turnaround times for responses, etc. Supervisors and managers should also communicate more often with their individual direct reports. Given the ever-changing nature of the global pandemic response you may need to update employees daily instead of weekly or monthly. Information should ideally be available in multiple formats since some people process written information better while others learn more from video and other visual mediums.
Managers and senior executives are reminded to be attentive to supporting and fostering upwards as well as downwards communication. Executives cannot know what problems and challenges their employees and customers may be facing without hearing from the frontlines, yet most companies are currently focused only on ensuring that information flows from the executive team to the workers. This deprives them of an opportunity to learn and respond more proactively to emerging issues in a new and unfamiliar working environment. Make sure that pandemic communication strategies include electronic suggestion boxes, virtual town hall meetings, and other tactics that allow the C-suite to hear about conditions on the ground.
Rumour management is also important. In times of high stress people’s imaginations tend to take over and in an information vacuum they may assume the worst. For example they may fear for the stability of the company and their jobs. Timely, forthcoming communication can lessen the potential for damaging rumors. Silence will almost always be interpreted negatively in a high-change and uncertain context (Elving, 2005), so even if you have nothing more to say then “we are still assessing options”, communicate that to staff. Do not lie. Trust is crucial in a crisis. If you believe there may be layoffs, for example, but you are unable to comment yet it is better to tell people you cannot comment yet (but you will shortly) than to offer false reassurances of security.
Fostering Equity and Trust: Mitigating the “People Problems”
Another challenge of managing a virtual workforce is maintaining a sense of equity. Most workers are very concerned about equity on either a conscious or subconscious level and their perceptions heavily influence motivation. The equity theory of motivation tells us that people compare their efforts and rewards to the efforts and rewards of others. If there is a perceived imbalance, for example if a peer is putting little effort in but still reaping the same rewards as others, workers respond in one of several ways. They may deliberately reduce their own productivity. Alternately, their sense of self-efficacy may be severely undermined, leading to lack of confidence that negatively impacts performance. Some may even choose to leave the organization (Shore and Strauss, 2012). Unfortunately, working from home tends to exaggerate and inflame any existing equity concerns, as well as create new ones, since workers can no longer see each other to easily compare efforts.
Equity concerns piggyback on a bigger issue within virtual teams: trust. Employees who have worked together for long periods of time and developed positive relationships will be less vulnerable to trust issues. Co-workers who had pre-existing conflicts and co-workers who are newly thrust together, however, will have a trust deficit that is magnified by the lack of monitoring inherent in a work-from-home model (Horwitz, Bravington, and Silvis, 2009). This has broad impacts across the organization. For example peers who do not trust each other may be slower to share important data, less likely to seek innovative ways to foster productivity together, and less likely to engage in mutual support and problem solving (Rutten, Blaas-Franken, and Martin, 2016). Furthermore it is well known that e-mail, the go-to communication channel when working from home, can be hard to assess for emotional tone. Teams who do not trust each other are more likely to interpret ambiguous messages negatively, potentially creating unnecessary and harmful inter-personal conflicts (Lowry et al., 2015). This is even more likely when people are under pandemic and lockdown related stress since our ability to regulate our emotional responses is diminished under high stress loads.
Fortunately there are several well established best practices that help avoid and mitigate equity and trust issues on virtual teams. Firstly, as mentioned earlier, develop a virtual work contract that explicitly spells out expectations for productivity, communication format, and communication frequency (Lilian, 2014; Wolfe, 2010). These contracts should make team goals and individual accountabilities very clear, preferably with specific dates attached to each task, while still acknowledging the need for flexibility due to people addressing unpredictable health and family related needs. (This could take the form of every employee being assigned a pre-designated “back-up” person who takes over responsibility for their deliverables if needed.) Once the contract is established monitor team and individual progress carefully and make it broadly known that progress is monitored. It is very important that this monitoring be treated as “checking in” to offer support and resources, not as an audit with punitive consequences since the latter implies lack of trust (or managerial empathy) and further increases stress levels. That said, just the fact that someone is checking in does still serve a control function. That reality will be recognized by employees concerned about equity and social loafing.
Other strategies to increase trust focus more on generating positive perceptions regarding the competence of coworkers. When introducing new coworkers who have not previously worked together highlight the qualifications and expertise of each party. Knowledge about competency levels helps foster trust, which is derived from our impressions about someone’s competence, benevolence, and integrity (Usoro et al., 2007). Similarly make a point of celebrating and highlighting both team and individual successes. This helps combat rumors that specific individuals are not contributing just because they are now less visible. It is worth noting that the team members who are most susceptible to false perception of non-performance are the team members who are subtly stigmatized in many other ways in workplaces and broader society – notably people of color, women, indigenous people, and people with disabilities (Synder et al, 2010; Penny, 2001). Managers should be especially sensitive to the potential for bias in co-workers assessments of such workers. Objective, metric-based assessments of all employees can also help mitigate these issues.
You can also increase trust by fostering perceptions of peer benevolence. Managers can do this by creating opportunities for positive, friendly, casual social interaction among coworkers. This tactic has the side benefit of also countering some of the isolation experienced by virtual workers and thereby reducing stress. Consider scheduling optional social gatherings online such as lunch chats, “virtual coffee breaks”, or similar interactions. Do keep them optional however since forced, non-goal directed socialization can itself be a stress point for some personalities.
Finally, trust of leaders is also important for maintaining positive work attitudes and high task performance (Kim, Wang, and Chen, 2018). Clear and honest communication of the type discussed earlier is important to maintain that trust. In addition, managers should make sure the employees have all the resources and supports necessary to work from home so they do not feel abandoned. That may include adjusting technical support processes, paying for home office equipment, offering relevant online coaching and training, and other accommodations. Beyond these displays of thoughtful planning and competence, however, managers and executives must also remember that their perceived benevolence and integrity are relevant to trust. Kindness, supportiveness, and consideration are even more important than usual. Simple acts such as remembering to ask about employees’ well-being when calling before launching into task related matters, offering paid sick leave without requiring doctor’s notes, or taking a moment to thank people can go a long way towards helping employees believe that managers are on their side.
Mitigating Employee Stress
Stress can be an extremely destructive force. People under extreme stress exhibit a host of physical, psychological, and behavioral symptoms including but not limited to diminished immune response, heart and digestive issues, anxiety, depression, emotional exhaustion, diminished productivity, reduced problem solving ability, struggles with empathy and perspective-taking, and treating people like unfeeling objects, which is termed depersonalization (Leiter, Bakker, and Maslach, 2014; Asatiani and Penttinen, 2019). The uncertainty of the current global situation combined with having to adjust to virtual work for perhaps the first time is a recipe for extreme stress with all its attendant consequences. Especially when we consider that many people are simultaneously experiencing difficult, crowded and/or atypical home situations due to a lack of daycare, school closures, and the need to care for vulnerable relatives who can no longer leave their homes. Employers cannot eliminate these problems but they can help mitigate them and reduce the negative impact in several ways.
Firstly employers should, as mentioned earlier in this article, communicate often and honestly. Managers should be considerate and focus on supportive behaviors as much or more than task-related matters, while also ensuring appropriate resource availability. Organizations can also offer very concrete supports. Healthy lifestyles, including exercise and good nutrition, mitigate stress. Employees who are paid at or below poverty levels will find accessing proper nutrition a challenge as supply chain disruptions lead to price increases (Yeung, 2020). Employers who have the capacity to do so should consider providing increases to a living wage (the preferred option), or temporary subsidies. Employers who do not currently offer fitness subsidies that workers can use as they wish should start, and ones who offer it should consider increasing the amount offered. This will allow employees to access home exercise equipment and streaming fitness programs. Employers who have onsite staffed fitness facilities that are now closed could ask the trainers to record workouts to be accessed electronically as their work-from-home option.
Since many schools and daycares are currently closed employers can also help employees manage their childcare and home related stress by offering flexible work-from home schedules rather than requiring people to work specific hours. (A focus on objective performance outcomes rather than “time seen” will help with this transition.) Generous, paid family care and bereavement leaves should be offered to all, including part-time and contract workers, so that employees are reassured that they can take appropriate steps to support relatives in need. These simple steps can drastically reduce day to day stress caused by a lack or work-life balance and attendant role conflicts.
The next weeks and months will be difficult for many of us as we adjust to new, if temporary, workplace realities. The uncertainties about the duration and scope of the pandemic will create a mentally challenging environment for many exactly when they are also struggling to learn new modes of work. By communicating carefully and fully, providing appropriate supports and resources, ensuring equity, maximizing trust, and minimizing stress where we can, we can all do our part to help bring our organizations, teams, and ourselves through these difficult times.
The author would like to acknowledge the efforts of the anonymous reviewers. They went above and beyond to curate a list of specific citations that could enhance this work. Their careful feedback and suggestions improved the article significantly.
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Katherine Breward is an Associate Professor at the University of Winnipeg. Her research is centered around labour market entry for historically disadvantaged populations, with a particular focus on best practices in disability accommodation. Her research has appeared in the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies, the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, the Case Research Journal, the Western ABC Bulletin, and Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion: An International Journal. Dr. Breward is also a strong advocate of case-based teaching and an award winning case writer. Cases designed to allow for practice of applied skills and cases designed to increase empathy for “the other” feature strongly in her teaching, particularly in human resource management courses such as “Recruitment and Selection” and “Leadership and Fairness in Complex Organizations”. When not working Dr. Breward enjoys spending time on her 25 acre orchard with her family and a menagerie of pets and reading inclusive science fiction and fantasy.
Recommended Citation: Katherine Breward. (2020). Optimizing Work From Home: Virtual Communication Strategies and Best Practices. the Western ABC Bulletin, 2.1.