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When Remote Work Backfires, This Is Usually Why

Change can be uncomfortable, and wanting to avoid face-time is only human. When that happens, remote work policies are an easy scapegoat.

When Remote Work Backfires, This Is Usually Why
[Photo: Ewan Robertson via Unsplash]

Jim’s firing took place in a cramped, gray conference room with squeaky chairs and the smell of stale doughnuts. He’d been in that room before—though not much lately, he realized. In retrospect, that was as good a sign as any that his career with his company was careening toward an unhappy ending.

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He’d been hired to manage a massive corporate rebrand two years before. The assignment pinched him between rank-and-file middle managers on one side and senior execs on the other. But it came with a lot of power and some important perks, one particularly sweet benefit being that Jim could work from home an awful lot.

Remote work is getting a bad rap lately. IBM recently earned heckles for instructing thousands of employees to march back into the office or else find new jobs. But much of the time, remote work policies take the fall when other issues are to blame. One of them is simply the way people tend to react when they’re trying to change entire teams, departments, or companies—in other words, the problem is often behavioral, not technological or organizational.


Related: IBM’s Remote Work Reversal Is A Losing Battle Against The New Normal


Using Technology And Distance As A Crutch

Initially, Jim (a former coaching client of mine), dived into his role with an intense focus. He wasn’t surprised when he met with some resistance; sometimes he even forced through a few painful changes. But he felt they were getting there.

As the overhaul progressed, things naturally got tense. Jim was pretty self-aware, though. He knew he felt uncomfortable coming out of many of his work encounters, but he tried to ignore that feeling—no matter how persistent it was and how much it grew. He could also sense the effect he was having on others, occasionally adding to their discomfort while trying to get them to change the ways they worked.

Over time, those feelings built up on both sides, and Jim figured out a few avoidance tactics—which often involved taking advantage of that remote-work perk. “Unhappy communications staffer wants to meet? Let’s work that out by email,” Jim thought. “Designer timelines don’t match C-suite demands? They can probably get together without me.”

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“Program managers hate the new logo? Couldn’t we handle that with a screen share?!”

The more uncomfortable things got, the more Jim defaulted to working from his retreat position. And ultimately that made his superiors nervous because he didn’t seem to be doing anything—one of the most common complaints when remote work policies go south. Finally, Jim’s boss made him come in that one last time.

But the moral of the story isn’t that remote work is doomed to fail, or that you shouldn’t take advantage of your company’s flexible work policies if it has them—far from it. Jim’s tendency in that direction was just a symptom. His larger problem was that he kept dodging discomfort until it ultimately landed him in that dingy conference room. If you’re going to successfully make changes in your workplace—whether you show up in person five days a week or five times a year—you first need to learn how to deal with uncomfortable interactions. Technology and distance can’t be your crutch.

Good, Old-Fashioned Alienation (And How To Avoid It)

You’ve probably experienced something similar yourself, or seen it happen to others: A work situation starts out all right but inevitably gets uncomfortable. That discomfort isn’t addressed, it grows, and alienation follows. Eventually, either the project dies or someone gets fired.

This often happens when you’ve been given a mandate to make a big change. Lucky you, you’re about to piss a lot of people off. If you can handle that gracefully, well done—you’ve mastered a major life skill in addition to pulling off an especially hard leadership task. But if you’re a mere mortal and you stumble into thickets of discomfort for everyone, welcome to the club.

Work gets uncomfortable, that’s a reality that stays pretty much constant no matter how much the workplace evolves. But it’s often to mistake these fundamental human factors for signs of broken work cultures or busted work policies—and then to scrap those, rather than dealing with the underlying, and decidedly low-tech issue.

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The better approach starts with catching yourself falling into avoidance and inattention early on. Learn to be alert for the signs of your own discomfort and indicators of coworkers’ and superiors’ discomfort. Then act fast. Here’s how:

1. Explain why, and acknowledge the past. People need to know why all the change and disruption you’re proposing is actually necessary. And they simultaneously need their past efforts acknowledged. No matter how awful the past work appears to you, remember that over the years it helped the company grow and prosper. Describe why the past model was created, used, and then outgrown. Acknowledge why it was successful and why a change is needed now, in a tight narrative anyone can understand.

2. Keep talking, keep listening. Don’t just stay in touch—push your communication beyond the basic requirements of your company culture, even if that also means going beyond your own comfort level. If you’re in a meeting-centric culture, check in with everybody by phone or email before and after meetings. Flip that around and press for extra face-time if email and Slack are your team’s default tools.

Whatever you do, push yourself to communicate (do you need to apologize to someone?) in ways you’d rather not (wouldn’t that apology mean more if you made it face to face?).

3. Look for ways to compromise everywhere. Many company cultures insist that outcome (or product) is king. I’m here to tell you that process is every bit as important. If your job involves making someone else uncomfortable—and inevitably most jobs do—pay attention to how things happen as much as what results. When others share their ideas, take them up with genuine consideration. Start every day—and every meeting and communication with your colleagues—with a beginner’s mind, open to learning regardless of the source.

4. Stay attuned. This is probably the hardest because it’s difficult to define—it’s not an action you can cross off a to-do list. How much more rewarding just to pound out deliverables! Staying attuned is much subtler. It requires taking stock and continuously asking: “How did my communications affect others? What might I have overlooked or passed over too quickly? What signs should I take into account tomorrow?”

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No matter what kind of work culture you’re tasked with shaking up, you really only need to follow one rule: Stay connected and humble. That may not always mean being physically present, but it always means staying tuned in, recognizing when you’re pushing people outside their comfort zones, being as patient and empathetic as possible. Avoidance is everyone’s knee-jerk reaction when the going gets tough, but fighting it isn’t a tech challenge—it’s a human one.

About the author

Ted Leonhardt is a designer and illustrator, and former global creative director of FITCH Worldwide. He is the publisher of NAIL, a magazine for creative professionals.

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