OK, so we’ve got this remote work thing down pat, right? Technically, yes. We’re Zoom or Microsoft Teams wizards, we’re used to (and actually good at) dealing with transmission delays and frozen screens, and we’re adjusting to time zone warp: being in New Jersey but on a call at 11:30 PM with your late-working California team. They’re all eating take-out dinners during the call (cute) and all you’d like to do is get to sleep because you have a 5:30 AM call with London tomorrow – and you’re one of the presenters, no less.
But that’s life these days and it’s all cool, right? Not so fast.
The part of the iceberg we can see
In this writer’s judgment, discussions about the pros and cons of remote work have lacked depth, and have been based, mostly, on our knee-jerk reactions to the events and developments of a mere eleven months. Consequently, we’ve also given short shrift to the long view. We’ve done well, all in all, playing the cards we were dealt, but this is a longer game. Discussions about technology and scheduling, although compelling, are surface issues; they’re the 10 percent of the iceberg we can see.
How we solve problems
Business is one gigantic, never-ending experiment in solving problems or – for a more positive spin – seizing opportunities. They’re one and the same, as problems are nothing more than opportunities poorly dressed. How, though, do we actually solve problems?
According to extensive structured research projects by University of Illinois at Chicago’s Associate Professor Emeritus of Managerial Studies Dr. Robert Cooke, a renowned expert in organizational culture and CEO of Chicago-based Human Synergistics International, virtual teams do not perform as well as face-to-face teams in solving problems.
Cooke explains that we use two processes: the rational and the interpersonal. Although we saw “heroic problem solving early in the pandemic,” as Cooke observed, virtuality “is not an automatic solution to either rational or interpersonal problem solving.” Data indicated that when it comes to depending on remote work, some groups just got it and some just didn’t, making adaptability an issue.
Cooke’s model of organizational culture reveals three types of behavior, whether individual, team, or organization: aggressive/defensive (marked by internal competitiveness, power grabbing, and opposition), passive/defensive (including avoidance, need for approval, and conventional thinking), and constructive (achievement orientation, encouragement, and affiliation). Among other observations, the distance of virtuality makes it easier to extend the two non-constructive cultures’ behavioral norms.
In short, says Cooke, “We’re seeing the electronic disintegration of the interpersonal process.” There’s danger number one.
What makes for a good job? Design!
Just as there’s a world of difference between the instructional design of in-person or distance learning, there is as great a difference in designing on-site or virtual jobs. We’ve long since learned that we can’t take a traditional classroom course (or degree, for that matter), plop it on a server, and expect the same result. Same challenge with designing jobs.
Job design considers technical and organizational requirements as well as social and personal requirements of the worker. Dr. Cooke referred to Hackman and Oldham’s job characteristic theory (1976) stating that work should engender three critical psychological states in individuals: deriving meaning, feeling responsibility for outcomes, and understanding the results of their work.
As a result, the theory proposes, employees’ intrinsic motivation will be enhanced, job satisfaction will grow, quality of work will improve, and turnover will fall. This is not to say that successful job design is possible only in in-person settings. It does, though, point forcefully to the difference in design and the perils of not dealing with that difference.
There’s danger number two.
Mental and physical health issues
Two mental health counselors and one medical doctor (all of whom requested anonymity due to sensitive, private nature of their work) agree that long-term virtual work could have multiple deleterious health effects on anyone. Apparently, says one, “We’re already seeing too much of it to ignore.”
On the mental health side, feelings of isolation lead to depression. Being alone day after day tends to intensify the feeling of aloneness, while in a constructive in-person environment, there could well be a support structure in place. Stigma-free organizations could decide to create a mental health counselor position, perhaps.
Regarding physical health, problems like eye strain (eight, ten hours a day on the screen), poor posture while sitting too long, inactivity, and proximity to the refrigerator and snack drawer (really!) are more than theoretical threats.
There’s danger number three.
Stop thinking? Or stop and think?
Chris Brune, retired knowledge manager and business researcher, offers this observation: “When something becomes possible, it becomes expected.”
And there’s danger number four.
With 50 years’ experience in diversified international business, I am a well-established, prolific journalist, having authored nearly 2,000 articles on job market, workplace, and leadership issues since 2003. I founded my executive career coaching practice, Amdur Coaching and Advisory Group in 1997, serving thousands of individual and corporate clients across 25 industries in North America, Europe, and the Middle East. I have worked for two global office electronics giants, held a directorship in a French-led global affiliate network, and began two start-ups. At Fairleigh Dickinson University I taught leadership courses (MBA, MAS) for 15 years, was Executive-in-Residence in the Center for Healthcare Management Studies, and co-founded the Institute for Life Sciences Leadership.