Behavioral Science and Remote Work

Woman on laptop

Communicating in bursts is the most effective.

When employees work from home, asynchronous communication often becomes the norm. Remote workers read emails and chat messages sometime after they are sent, and the same goes for feedback and comments on projects. 

Sometimes, this delay works well because it allows people to attend to communication in their own time in a way that doesn’t disrupt their workflow. But these lags can also lead to frustrating delays when responses aren’t made quickly enough. 

However, remote teams that work together can be just as productive as teams working face-to-face, provided that communication occurs in bursts. Colleagues don’t necessarily need to join a conference call or a video meeting, either—if all members are working at the same time and frequently communicating in short bursts, they can get a lot done.

This strategy straddles the best of both worlds—in between these bursts of communication, remote workers can set their own schedules and avoid the distraction of frequent messaging or email checking. During communication bursts, remote workers can make significant leaps in their collective understanding of the project at hand.

The importance of tone and body language.

The primary difference between working in an office setting and remote work is how communication occurs. Consider each of these three aspects of communication when two people talk face to face:

  • The words themselves

  • Tone

  • Body language

While people once thought body language and tone account for 93% of communication, this number is no longer believed to be accurate. That said, there’s no denying that facial expressions, hand gestures, and verbal tone add color and texture to meaning in ways we can’t capture when we text or type.

Emails and chat messages lack this added context, so they can lead to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. It's valuable to set up video conferences or even talk on the phone in a remote setting. These forms of communication allow for employees to pick up on nonverbal cues as well as the words that are being spoken. 

Humans’ desire for social acceptance.

Even when working remotely, people desire to be part of a group, and a sense of belonging and social acceptance leads to increased motivation at work. That’s why it’s important to maintain connections between remote workers. Team building activities, even when done virtually, have many benefits, and groups unite around common goals, interests, and experiences. It makes sense to foster team identity in a remote work environment. 

Psychological versus physical distance. 

When employees work remotely, it also increases psychological distance.

Psychological distance is how you perceive yourself in relation to others. Two people can be sitting in the same room, for example, but be miles apart in their minds. Conversely, two people who are miles apart can feel like they are in the same room when they’re conversing.

Decreasing psychological distance between team members allows them to transcend the barriers caused by physical distance. Technology is critical in aiding this closeness because it allows for shared virtual spaces in which people can interact. 

The importance of trust.

Trust is important in any relationship, whether between friends, life partners, or coworkers. Trust among team members is frequently an important variable when it comes to team effectiveness.

As it turns out, the connection between team trust and team effectiveness is even stronger among remote teams than it is for teams that work face-to-face. Trust can be built by allowing remote workers to have open interactions and providing common virtual spaces that teams can view together. 

Schedules, breaks, and interruptions.

The work-from-home office environment, while convenient, includes more potential distractions than the workplace. 

Some studies have shown that creating a schedule, avoiding interruptions, and allowing for breaks can make a remote work environment more productive and less mentally taxing. By creating simple plans and a basic daily schedule, remote workers can increase work productivity as well as clearly divide work tasks from time devoted to family, home, and hobbies. 

While studies show that people are often able to compensate for interruptions—surprisingly, by completing tasks more quickly and at the same level of quality—these interruptions come at a cost because they lead to higher levels of stress and frustration. Remote workers should try to minimize interruptions in their work environment to keep themselves calm, collected, and focused. 

One positive form of work interruption is a planned break. When employees take short breaks during their workday, they restore energy and motivation. When working from home, though, some people fall into the trap of trying to knock out their entire to-do list without coming up for air. Since such a relentless work ethic can yield diminishing returns, remote workers should make sure to take time out of their day to restore their energy levels. 

Work-life balance.

When your office is right next to your kitchen, creating a firm division between work and home can be tricky. If remote workers aren’t careful, they can find work bleeding into every facet of their life to the detriment of their mental health. 

These three factors all have the potential to cause problems with work-life balance:

  • Flexibility 

  • Autonomy

  • Collaboration

While a flexible work schedule can free people from having to adhere to the same timelines, it can also leave a remote worker without a clearly defined work schedule, leading to a blurring of lines between work time and home time. This lack of clear boundaries can lead to inefficiency as well as psychological frustration.

The autonomy associated with remote work can give workers a skewed perception of what they must do to maintain their status within the workplace. When they see emails from those who are working during the weekend, for example, they may think they should be doing the same. Without a full picture of what autonomy should look like, they may overwork, causing a lack of balance in their personal life. 

Collaboration is a great way to foster team spirit among remote workers. However, just because a meeting invite is easy to send to everyone, that doesn’t mean every remote worker should attend every meeting. Avoid the common trap of holding too many meetings or collaboration sessions that require attendance from employees whose time would be better spent on other tasks.

Social factors.

Research has shown that social factors have the most impact on the effectiveness of virtual teams. Employers can facilitate the social aspect of working remotely by using communication and collaboration tools. 

That’s why it’s critical to have a user-friendly virtual space with all the features employees need in one place. When team members are able to interact freely in a collaborative virtual space, they develop social connections that are important for productivity as well as motivation. 

Productivity and employee satisfaction. 

Those who are opposed to the idea of remote work believe it causes a decrease in productivity—an assumption that certainly seems possible when you consider all of the potential distractions in a home office environment. 

However, remote work has actually been associated with an increase in productivity as well as an increase in employee satisfaction—the best of both worlds. And while some of employees’ productivity increase is due to spending more time working and less time commuting, much of it is due to the calm nature of the home environment. 

Remote work success.

When you consider behavioral science and what it says about the importance of human interaction, connection, and communication, it becomes clear that successful remote work requires the right technology and the right planning.

Seek out tools to help your teams stay connected, share virtual spaces, and collaborate effectively. Workflow tracking that integrates with other applications can streamline, simplify, and optimize work management easy and convenient.

Help your employees set up their work environments, habits, and schedules to maximize their well-being and performance, and make a point to form connections and keep everyone feeling as though they—and their work—matter and are valued with positive feedback.

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