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Fostering Positive Environments for Remote Work, Part 1

Enterprise UX

Designing experiences for people at work

A column by Jonathan Walter
August 2, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted how we do our work in unprecedented ways—some of which have arguably been positive. While many people have expressed a desire to return to their workplace after 16 months in lockdown, 41% of Americans want to continue working remotely on a part-time, hybrid basis because they’ve experienced an improved work-life balance. As remote work continues to reshape the policies of many large companies—including those who are beginning to encourage their employees to return to their physical offices, even if just part time—it’s important to step back and reflect on what we’ve learned from this shift to remote work. Companies must continue to help employees feel supported and satisfied in their jobs—wherever they are.

In this column, which is Part 1 of a two-part series, I’ll share my experiences with managing remote UX professionals and teams. I’ll provide some tips for avoiding pitfalls that could arise if managers and leaders are not mindful of how remote work affects their employees. Although I’m writing this column from a manager’s point of view, anyone can work with their manager or other leaders in their company to foster a positive, remote-working environment. I’ll cover the following tips in Part 1:

  • offering flexibility in camera readiness
  • creating safe spaces for employees to vent and connect
  • demonstrating trust
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Offering Flexibility in Camera Readiness

Not everyone has an ideal remote-working environment. Some designers might be creating UX wireframes amidst the bustle of young, exuberant children; others could be conducting user-research activities from a cramped closet in their apartment; while still others might be leading stakeholder meetings from their kitchen table—the only place in their home that is conducive to using a notebook computer or desktop computer and monitor. The pandemic visited itself upon us. We didn’t choose to go into lockdown. Leaders who have expected their employees to be constantly camera ready during this challenging time have squandered a critical opportunity to demonstrate empathy and trust to their team.

If you’re a manager or leader, resist pressuring employees onto camera. This could happen in subtle ways—for example, your constantly being on camera, which signals your expectation of others. Are there times when being on camera is necessary? Of course. Conducting an interview or giving a presentation to an executive are scenarios for which being on camera is appropriate—and ideally, being dressed for the part. However, there are psychological pitfalls to being constantly on camera:

  • enduring a sea of faces staring at you
  • having to invite others into your home

Enduring a Sea of Faces Staring at You

In normal social and work settings, others who share your space would be sitting about a table or standing around you in a room. A virtual social or work setting flattens this spatial dynamic and places everyone right in front of you, and those others are staring right back at you. For many introverts, this intensely concentrated social interaction triggers anxiety and stress. It’s overwhelming for most people, exacerbating other common problems that arise within virtual environments—such as our reduced ability to perceive nonverbal social cues and our inability to know where other meeting participants are looking.

Having to Invite Others into Your Home

Background-effects features in virtual-meeting applications such as Microsoft Teams have become popular, but are not perfect. Nevertheless, this capability helps employees obscure their surroundings, adding a layer of privacy—and in some cases, fun and spontaneity. However, employees still must invite their coworkers, superiors, and subordinates into their homes. This reinforces the perpetually blurring line between work and family life, which increasingly takes both a mental and an emotional toll on workers over time. In their UXmatters article, “The Role of UX: 2020 Benchmark Study Report and Analysis,” authors Michael Morgan and Pabini Gabriel-Petit observe:

“When working from home, it’s nearly impossible to keep work at work and reserve time for one’s home life. Unfortunately, the perception exists that one should always be available when working from home. This perception creates undue stress on workers.”

Employees feel that they must be constantly on. Their stress extends to the hygiene of their personal workspaces, too. Employees who are coping with the distractions of their personal workspaces and surroundings—environments that are ostensibly under their own control—often worry about how they could be perceived by others. This further drains their cognitive and emotional capacity, which, in turn, negatively impacts their ability to perform their job effectively.

If you’re an individual contributor, share any concerns you might have about being constantly on camera with your manager or your company’s leadership. It’s easy for people who work within stable, predictable, remote environments to assume that everyone else enjoys a similar work-at-home environment, so should be just as amenable to being on camera.

When inviting people to meetings, require them to be on camera only if necessary and clearly communicate the rules for each meeting. Throughout the day, alternate between meetings that require participants to be on camera and others that don’t—again ensuring that you clearly communicate whether a given meeting requires being on camera. Employees then know what to expect for each meeting. Having this level of certainty and predictability reduces anxiety—and everyone would certainly benefit from having less anxiety, especially given our present circumstances.

Creating Safe Spaces for Employees to Vent and Connect

Even though technology has done a lot to help us to remain efficient in our jobs when working remotely, we still need more casual ways of interacting with our colleagues. While it’s impossible to replicate the spontaneity and dynamics of in-person communication, there are some things that anyone can do to foster similar communications in a remote environment, as follows:

  • setting up a virtual environment for casual communication
  • scheduling optional meetups

Setting Up a Virtual Environment for Casual Communication

Create a casual, water-cooler environment that’s only for individual contributors. If you’re a people manager, this means you shouldn’t partake. As much as it could be tempting for managers—who have their own needs for connecting—to engage with their employees in these environments, people tend to censor themselves and remain alertly on whenever their manager or another superior is in a virtual room.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should allow any bad behavior to take place within these company-owned environments. I’ve asked senior members on my team to keep an eye out for discussions that risk becoming overly political or are otherwise inappropriate. Team members should first deal with such issues as a team—for example, on a casual Microsoft Teams channel—before escalating them to leadership.

Furthermore, making room for informal discussions helps your social capital to increase and gets new ideas flowing, both of which fuel innovation—a win-win for companies and employees. In their Harvard Business Review article, “What a Year of WFH Has Done to Our Relationships at Work,” authors Nancy Baym, Jonathan Larson, and Ronnie Martin reveal that the time people are spending in meetings has more than doubled over the past year. Plus, the number of chat messages that each employee has sent each week have increased by over 40%. “If workers are bogged down with meetings and feel overloaded and overworked, asking them to spend time expanding their network and sharing ideas will fall flat,” say Baym, Larson, and Martin.

Scheduling Optional Meetups

While not everyone wants to socialize with their coworkers outside the bounds of their work, many people do, and they depend on these social opportunities to feel more satisfied with their job. It’s important for managers and leaders to encourage their team members to get together and blow off some steam—even when this happens during work hours. This is far preferable to expecting people to gather after work hours, cutting into their limited personal time. Remote work has resulted in many employees working longer hours, so encouraging people to make space within their day to relax and talk to their coworkers—being off for a while—helps break up their day and communicates a commitment to their well-being.

Back when my team was fully collocated, groups of folks would often get together and go for walks around the campus grounds, especially when the sun was shining. To maintain this tradition, we’ve instituted meetings during which individual team members can optionally go for a walk—wherever they are—and call into the meeting using their phone. This has been an effective way of socializing and getting some much-needed exercise. While our work and personal lives have blurred, its important to pay attention to any possible resulting benefits and allow people to take advantage of them.

Demonstrating Trust

When employees don’t feel trusted to do their job, they’ll withdraw and take fewer risks in their project work and personal career development. However, when managers give employees agency to take risks or lead projects that would stretch their abilities—even though they might not always result in success or earn rewards—employees’ confidence, skills, and experience grow. Managers demonstrate a lack of trust when they micromanage their employees or continually check up on them—which does sometimes happen within virtual environments, too. While it’s unlikely that any manager would self-identify as a micromanager, many demonstrate a lack of trust when they do the following:

  • make one-on-one meetings feel like one-sided check-ins
  • attend meetings that don’t require their presence
  • over-rely on the chain of command

Avoiding One-on-One Meetings That Feel Like One-Sided Check-ins

One-on-ones, or O3s, as some refer to them, are valuable meetings because they give a manager and an individual team member a chance to discuss numerous topics, including barriers to execution in project work, career growth, or simply what’s happening around the company. But when managers approach these meetings merely as a means of checking up on their employees’ progress, they miss valuable opportunities to build their employees’ confidence and make them feel that they are valuable contributors to the company’s success—which they are. I’ve adapted my O3 meetings to focus more on what I can share with employees—such as organizational updates, looming projects or opportunities, and what senior leaders are communicating. There is power in this knowledge. Employees feel more empowered when they understand not only what impacts them but also what impacts the overall company. This has been especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not Attending Meetings Other Team Members Can Attend

The best managers demonstrate servant leadership: They work for their team members, not the other way around—which is, unfortunately, the way most people perceive manager-to-employee relationships. Managers and leaders serve their team best when they focus their time and efforts on removing barriers to execution that would negate their employees’ ability to do their job effectively and feel satisfied with their career.

If you’re a manager or leader, and you’re attending meetings and activities that don’t necessarily require your presence—especially if one of your team members is already attending them—it’s important to take a step back and question your priorities. Not only could you be demonstrating a lack of trust by shadowing your employees—especially if they’re good performers—you’re probably not doing what your employees need or expect from you. What meetings are you failing to attend or initiate in support of your employees because you’re spending your time shadowing them or participating in redundant activities?

Refraining from an Over-reliance on the Chain of Command

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s how quickly we can feel isolated from others and how great a toll this isolation takes on our well-being and satisfaction with our work. Managers who expect to be the only voice of authority for their team members and who shield them from upper management too much miss important opportunities for helping their employees gain the recognition of senior leaders. Contrived games of telephone, in which a C-level executive conveys a message to a vice president , who then passes the message down to a director or senior manager, and so on, has existed in companies for decades. These also operate bidirectionally, by limiting employees to communicating only with their immediate supervisor, who must then raise any critical issues to the next level in the chain of command. While organizational ladders have their value, they can also perpetuate employees’ feelings of isolation and invisibility.

So, if you’re a manager or leader, encourage occasional skip-level meetings, enabling your direct reports to meet with your superiors, ask them questions, and get to know them. Invite your superiors to meetings and read-outs in which your team members are going to showcase their UX design deliverables or research findings. Find ways to loosen the rigid chain of command. Your employees will grow in their confidence and feel recognized as a result.

If you’re an individual contributor and feel that your manager is not demonstrating a level of trust that would enable your growth, increase your job satisfaction, or grow your ability to take risks, discuss this with your manager. Highlight specific instances in which you were given autonomy and demonstrate the successful outcomes you achieved. Moreover, you should explain your desire to be trusted and how it would make you feel rather than assigning blame or coming across as accusatory. For example, an effective approach would be saying, “I would feel more trusted if I were given the opportunity to lead this project, which I know I could do successfully, given my recent accomplishments with Project [insert name].” Avoid saying something accusatory such as, “You never trust me to lead projects.”

Conversations are more productive when you can avoid stating absolutes—such as never or always—and instead communicate how a certain action or behavior—or the lack thereof—makes you feel. Supplement communications about your feelings with examples and outcomes that support your manager’s ability to put their full trust in you.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic and the rapid uptake of technologies that facilitate remote work have significantly shifted the ways in which leaders of large companies think about typical, in-person office environments and how employees should do their work. These leaders have recognized the benefits of a remote or hybrid workforce, whether because they’ve become manifest through their company’s performance and productivity, or employees have expressed them directly through the feedback they’ve provided. At a societal level, we’re now in a unique position to identify and benefit from the best of all modes of work—whether remote, hybrid, or in-person. We must approach this evolving landscape with our eyes wide open or risk squandering valuable opportunities.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll share some additional tips and observations, including some ways in which managers and leaders can prioritize the experiences of remote meeting attendees, which is often a challenge when the majority of attendees are in person. Our future promises the creation of hybrid work environments that would improve employees’ flexibility, job satisfaction, and well-being. 

User Experience Team Lead at Rockwell Automation

Cleveland, Ohio, USA

Jonathan WalterJon has a degree in Visual Communication Design from the University of Dayton, as well as experience in Web development, interaction design, user interface design, user research, and copywriting. He spent eight years at Progressive Insurance, where his design and development skills helped shape the #1 insurance Web site in the country, progressive.com. Jon’s passion for user experience fueled his desire to make it his full-time profession. In 2013, Jon joined Rockwell Automation, where he designs software products for some of the most challenging environments in the world. In 2020, Jon became User Experience Team Lead at Rockwell, where he balances design work with managing a cross-functional team of UX professionals.  Read More

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