The technology around us is ubiquitous, to the point where we barely give it a passing thought – unless it doesn’t work. We accept what we’re comfortable with, and that becomes the basis of our working routines.
But what does this mean for employees who struggle using collaboration tools?
Or have a kludgy internet connection?
Or whose homes are busy and crowded, making remote meetings a challenge?
These challenges, and many like them, can be nearly invisible to both employees and their managers – because even though an employee’s circumstances may not be ideal, to them, the situation is “normal.” Leaders who can identify and help resolve these issues will, in effect, be removing a barrier that’s keeping the employee from doing their best work. At the same time, the employee will also be feeling cared for, valued, less frustrated…and their engagement will rise.
Put another way, you’ll be ensuring that your tech engages – not enrages – your team.
Why bother with this now?
With the Delta variant playing havoc with return-to-office planning, leaders need to evaluate how working from home can be improved. Readers may be asking ‘Why now?’ and it’s true, we are well past any novelty associated with remote work. However, there are two reasons why now is a very good time to minimise employees’ tech challenges:
- The booming job market is increasing remote-first/remote-friendly competition for your people. Technical challenges could provide the impetus for those who want to work from home to seek employers who prioritise the remote employee experience, and;
- In an era of heightened awareness of the impact of unconscious bias, working remotely can contribute to an employees’ challenges. Employers who strive to ensure equality for their remote workers will reduce risk, as well as actively improve the work experience for their employees.
‘The danger as business shifts from remote to hybrid working models is ensuring a level playing field for all employees. Proximity bias still poses a threat. While the pandemic has swept away many misconceptions about the need to be physically located in a specific workplace, the challenge remains to ensure employees working remotely aren’t disadvantaged in a hybrid model,’ writes Magda Ibrahim for Raconteur.
Hardware is no longer hard to afford
The solutions to many of these technical issues are simple and relatively inexpensive. Green screens, video conferencing lights, and noise-canceling headsets with good microphones are small investments that can go a long way toward not only making the employee’s job easier but boosting their confidence as well.
Likewise, since the beginning of the pandemic, wireless signal boosters have increased in power and dropped in price. The point is, for a relatively small outlay, employers can reconnect with their remote employees – and improve their connections to their peers and clients.
Soft skills as a service
The pandemic required many to quickly adopt new technical skills, and we encountered plenty of bumps – up-close views of nostrils, frozen screens, and difficulty with humorous filters, including the unforgettable incident in which an attorney joined a virtual hearing as a cat. Humor aside, leaders should still be cognizant of the fact that the many collaboration tools we rely upon today still pose challenges to individuals and their teams, and all of these can make people feel left out, isolated, and disengaged. The top three we’re seeing: misalignment, distraction, and impinging upon employees’ work-life balance.
Misalignment is one of the most difficult to diagnose challenges exacerbated by collaboration tools. A litmus test offered by the Digital Workplace Alliance: If your team spends most of their day in unstructured chat or email threads, you have a problem that better online collaboration tools will not solve, and that problem is misalignment.
Misalignment occurs when there’s a lack of clear leadership or direction, and it becomes visible when projects begin to accrue scope creep and employees go off on tangents as they attempt to fill in the gaps in their direction and understanding.
Collaboration tools can be immensely useful – if used correctly. However, without some initial training, many employers find that their new tools rapidly become unwieldy, with message notifications rapidly spinning out of control. Left unchecked, some messaging and collaboration tools can rapidly become distractions, siphoning away peoples’ time and attention.
Another form of distraction occurs when employees hop back and forth, between projects, conversations, and tasks. In real life, these sorts of rapid-fire shifts in topic and conversation aren’t likely. However, in the world of collaboration, moving quickly between channels, tabs and tasks is becoming a norm. However, instead of helping people move more quickly, people can actually lose momentum when leapfrogging between applications. Why does this happen? They lose continuity and context and have to play catch-up, often on the fly, which can result in more time expenditure, or operating with incomplete information.
The rapid increase in usage of digital technologies as employees transitioned to working from home contributed to the increase in hours worked we observed in 2020 by enabling others to “see” whether a person was active, and giving rise to the “always-on” phenomenon.
‘Putting Slack notifications on snooze can be a simple but important way to maintain a healthy work-life balance, yet some firms have found that many employees won’t do this without prompting,’ noted reporter Charity Scott in the Wall Street Journal.
In these circumstances, when a manager sends an after-hours message which then starts a conversation with the employee, they are not only reinforcing the desirability of the always-on culture, they are also actively signaling their disregard for the employee’s personal time – a habit that can swiftly lead to burnout and disengagement.
How to ensure tech engages, not enrages
Consider what people do, not where they do it
When allocating technology tools, consider what employees are really doing, versus where they are working or (worse) generalised assumption of the role’s responsibilities. Let’s look at a software developer and a salesperson, for example. The easiest assumption in the world to make is that the developer will be head-down and immersed in code, whereas the salesperson will spend the majority of their time on virtual calls with clients and prospects. However, that assumption ignores the fact that your developer likely spends significant amounts of time in meetings and collaborating with others. It’s just as important for them to be seen, heard, and understood on a Zoom call as it is for your top seller – especially if they’re working with a global team, where in-person meetings are the rare exception.
Train teams on best practices for new tools
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to implementing new technology. Getting everyone up to speed with basic training and user etiquette will help achieve a positive and productive experience, which will ultimately result in more user adoption. Setting common ground rules and expectations – such as ensuring people know how to mute notifications if they’re doing focused work and delay sending messages at night – will go a long way toward creating a collaborative environment that builds (rather than destroys) connections.
Ask them what’s working
Ask your team what tools and processes are working, and where the organisation can improve. Probe into whether people are feeling left out or looped in, or if their personal time is being eaten away but persistent messages and notifications. We could be willing to bet that the insights you receive from your employees will not only lead to immediate improvements but will be invaluable to the future of work within your organisation, as well.
‘Quarantine-induced work from home is definitely not the same as intentionally designed remote work, but many companies are conflating them as exactly the same thing,’ says Darren Murph, head of remote for Gitlab, in an article for Computerworld. ‘When you’re intentional about it, collaboration is easier, team building is easier, culture building is easier.’