Opinion: Working from home is making us better workers—and better humans
A meme that has been circulating, poses the multiple-choice question “Who accelerated digital transformation in your company?,” bringing levity to an otherwise dire crisis. (Spoiler: the answer starts with a C, but it’s not the CEO, CIO or CFO.)
Yes, it's the coronavirus.
Amid the pandemic, we’re spending so much time in front of screens that yoga teachers are starting to incorporate exercises to counter eyestrain (even as they, ironically, also appear on screens).
As we get pinged on multiple apps and devices on a minute-to-minute basis, an unexpected and welcome truth has come to light: Remote technology has brought out, rather than obscured, our humanity.
Virtual environments make people more real
Virtual environments place people on a more even playing field.
Working from home hasn’t equalized our circumstances. In some cases, it may have even exacerbated them. Colleagues with children or those caring for the elderly must shoulder extra responsibilities. Some of us live in crammed, shared spaces that are not ideal working environments. These are some of the truths about each other’s lives that we may never have known, if not for virtual calls.
Recently, our colleague’s child barged into her makeshift office in a shed as she facilitated a call with senior clients. She half-joked about how her son had been in pajamas for three weeks. Sharing unfiltered moments like this increases our empathy for one another and creates deeper bonds than our “normal” of commiserating over lunchtime food options.
To build that shared empathy and psychological safety further, we’ve adopted the practice of “check-ins” at the start of virtual meetings. We ask everyone to share, either round-robin style or in the chat box (if it’s a large group), “what has your attention personally or professionally?” During the pandemic, people have shared worries about a partner losing their job, a migraine brought on by the extra stress, and the joy of finally learning how to cook. These generous shares build emotional connections, allow for cognitive offloading so they can focus better, and remove potential misunderstandings.
Instead of being annoyed that someone is looking at their phone, you instead have compassion that they are checking in on an ailing parent. This empathy-building makes everyone feel empowered to speak and participate. In fact, when people speak in the first five to 10 minutes of a meeting, they tend to participate more during the meeting, which in turn brings a wider range of perspectives that the group can explore.
WFH makes us more global and diverse
When physical borders are removed, we are able connect interpersonally across locations, take advantage of global experts and increase the diversity of perspectives.
A large airline client of ours in Latin America has been (unsurprisingly) hugely affected by the coronavirus pandemic because borders closed and people were ordered by their governments to stay at home. More surprising, however, is that we gathered 40 creatives from around the world (Bucharest, New York, Santiago, Tokyo, etc.) for a virtual hack to come up with solutions.
Previously, we would likely have limited this to colleagues that sit in the same office or are located in Latin America. The new videoconferencing reality served as an enabler rather than obstacle. We brought in valuable perspectives based solely on expertise rather than geography and effectively ideated with the help of the Planner Tool in Microsoft Teams, which can mimic sticky notes and flip charts.
Experimentation over perfection
Since nobody has worked this way at such a large scale, any limitations posed by working virtually have counter-intuitively served to liberate us to behave more like real people, warts and all. We are more apt than ever before to take calculated risks.
Normally, we are super concerned about polished PowerPoint slides and perfect agendas executed without hiccups. But with every one of us contending with the same inherent challenges that come from working from home, there comes an acceptance that things won’t be perfect. With the understanding that we’re all trying to do the best given the circumstances, we’ve been freed to spur change by iterating on our process, tweaking our tools, trying out new techniques and pivoting meetings to focus on the most pressing priorities. Accepting each other as flawed humans first can ultimately end up making us better coworkers who produce even stronger work.
While the ways of working imposed by the crisis can feel isolating and overwhelming, they have also allowed us to connect more deeply and navigate collectively around obstacles, rather than be thrown off track by them. We have become more empathetic, inclusive and democratic, and we have built stronger networks and experimented more.
To the oft-asked question of whether technology will eventually eclipse humanity, it seems the pandemic is providing a glimpse into the future—and the answer is a resounding “no.” Technology holds the power to affirm our humanity, shining a bright light and focused lens on who we really are and what we’re truly capable of accomplishing together.