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How to work with people who aren’t good at working remotely

Three strategies that will help you collaborate with challenging coworkers when you’re all working from home.

How to work with people who aren’t good at working remotely
[Photo: yaoinlove/iStock]

Most of us have spent the majority of 2020 working from home now, and there’s nothing to suggest that the remaining months of the year will see a significant change.

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There are at least two good reasons for this. Keeping workers safe should be the number-one priority for businesses, even if that means putting up with potential short-term deficits in productivity or motivation. The other is that most people are now used to working from home and many are actually enjoying it more, and even performing better than when they were in an office.

Many, but not all. In fact, working from home is still not a natural arrangement for a large proportion of the workforce, and there’s a difference between getting used to a temporary arrangement and adapting to it in the long run. Those who transitioned from an office to a virtual-only environment will have seen clear individual differences in people’s ability to adapt to the office-less age. Some are still struggling.

Among the obvious barriers to working from home include having to balance parenting or other family responsibilities (working from home is generally easier if you are single and have no dependents), lacking a comfortable setup (e.g., fast and reliable Wi-Fi, space, silence, etc.), and being naturally sociable and gregarious (the more extroverted you are, the more lonely you will feel working from home).

The good news is that you can make it a bit easier for others to work from home, even when they are not naturally prewired for it. Try following these three recommendations.

Understand people’s preferences

We often talk about working from home as if it were a single, unitary activity. However, there are as many individual preferences and approaches to working at home as there are to working in an office, so your starting point should be to understand people’s personal circumstances and tendencies. This is harder to do when you can’t see people in person, not least because you must navigate the delicate balance between knowing about their arrangements—which will inevitably include information about their private life—and respecting their privacy.

You can still do this by focusing on work-related matters, allowing your colleagues to disclose as much personal information as they want. So, for example, you can ask them how they prefer to connect (e.g., video calls, email, WhatsApp, messages, or the humble phone call), when (e.g., what time of the day/week/month, how often, how spontaneously versus planned in advance, and for how long), why (e.g., with or without formal agenda, to catch up, to work on specific projects/tasks, or simply to socialize or gossip), and whether they welcome informal contact (e.g., Zoom drinks, group meetings, book clubs, etc.).

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Although these are rather obvious dimensions, we don’t often take the trouble to understand where people prefer to be and end up imposing our own preferences on others. Of course, every company has its own cultural preferences, but since office-less work is likely an unchartered era for most organizations, their culture—”how we do things around here”—will likely be redefined precisely based on people’s preferences. Most of the problems people experience at work could be mitigated if they devoted more time to understand others, especially now.

Be flexible, but above all be predictable

The ultimate measure of making it easier for others to work with you is to adjust your behaviors to fit their preferences, which will make you rewarding to deal with. Regardless of whether you manage this or not, there’s one key attribute you must consider if you are truly interested in helping others to work with you. That is being as predictable as possible.

Whatever your preferences are, turn them into a default pattern so that your colleagues are not surprised, and they have an easier time adjusting to you. This pandemic, like any major crisis, has been a huge shock to everyone because it has forced us to adjust to unfamiliar, unpredictable circumstances. Most people strive to make their environments as familiar and predictable as possible so they can experience a sense of control.

Along the same lines, we all prefer to deal with people who are predictable so we can prepare and plan for their reactions, preferences, and behaviors, and minimize the unnecessary extra stress of having to guess their intentions or second-guess their thoughts and views. Much has been said about the critical importance of trust in a time of heightened stress and anxiety, and rightly so. The amount of trust we have in someone is proportionate to the degree to which we can predict their behaviors. So, let your pattern of behaviors be crystal clear while you and others work from home. Don’t add an extra layer of complexity by introducing more changes to people’s lives.

Be kind and caring

Empathy goes a long way. Even before the pandemic, the business world woke up to the realization that empathy matters, especially for leadership. The global health crisis has exacerbated this. There has never been a better time to show your kindness to others, even if you have to do it over Zoom. Digital empathy can be clumsy and awkward, but it is still welcome by others. When your day is packed with virtual meetings, and your life is optimized for higher efficiency and productivity, life can become pretty soulless.

Even if you didn’t have a close connection with your colleagues when you were working together in person, it’s never too late to change. Ask people how they are feeling, how they are doing, and how they are managing this extended period of resilient adaptation. Above all, offer your help and support.

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Work has always represented a big portion of our existence, which means that there has always been a deep emotional and psychological component to our careers, largely embodied by our relationships and connections with others. It is a wonderful thing that we have managed to create the technologies that enable us to maintain those connectional aspects of work, even in physical isolation. But the only sure antidote to loneliness is empathy, whether you are present or not.

The good news, if you follow these suggestions, is that they will be just as useful once the new version of normalcy arrives, and we perhaps regain our physical interactions with coworkers. You will always be a better colleague, and help others enjoy their work, if you try to understand them, adapt to them, act in predictable rather than erratic ways, and choose to be kind and caring. That’s an extra incentive for trying.

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