Remote working and trust

What does the research say about remote working? Here’s one study of virtual teams with some guidance on what makes a difference.

We are very focused on research evidence here at Global Academy Jobs so this week we checked in with one of our partners, The Oxford Review, looking for research evidence on remote working.

Many of our university clients, and our wider audience of academics and researchers, have been catapulted into remote working in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, this is not entirely new ground for most university staff, who are used to independent work. However, where this is combined with new remote teaching requirements there will be new challenges for everyone concerned.

As leaders, managers and team members, we all need to take a few minutes to consider what makes remote, or virtual, team members successful. According to the study shared by the Oxford Review, it’s the same thing that makes ANY team successful: trust. Trust between virtual/remote employees and employers correlates with performance standards, as well as to other measures of organisational climate. Perhaps you saw this piece of work where Google investigated the characteristics of their highest performing teams. Project ‘Aristotle’ reported that ‘Psychological safety’ is the best predictor of team effectiveness. Google defined Psychological Safety as team members’ comfort with taking risks within and beyond the team. This translates well ‘trust’.

Trust is a big word in a world where things we take for granted like health, work locations, transport and social linkages are being forced to change so quickly. A few minutes thought tells any of us that remote working will require even more trust than operating as part of a team based in the same office, building or campus.

Fortunately, technology can help us with this. Video conferencing is now easily available to most university staff. In this period of adjustment to a rapidly changing work situation a key piece of advice is to make the effort to switch on the camera on your computer. Don’t just rely on the phone to have an effective meeting with a colleague. For larger teams Zoom offers a 40 minute, multi-user meeting for free.

Social distancing, self-isolation and full-blown quarantine will make it harder to implement the other trust-building activities recommended in the research paper. Social and recreational events are something we can only plan right now to look forward to later, so this planning is also important.  Has anyone found enjoyable virtual team activities? If you have please let us know (@academyjobs), because right now the Global Academy Jobs team are relying on virtual coffee breaks and sharing pictures of pets and gardens. 

Clearly managers, team leaders and colleagues must make deliberate efforts to be available to remote team workers. It’s not enough to say ‘drop me an email if you have any issues’. Regular check-ins are essential, as well as office hours. Plenty of information in email footers with contact details and timetables can help here too. 

Anyone starting a new job at a COVID-19 affected university during this period is likely to find learning their way around takes even longer than usual, and finding your way around a new university is NEVER easy. HR Departments may want to consider extending induction and probation periods, as well as encouraging in-person meetings with mangers and colleagues whenever possible. This will be an added challenge and new starters will need more support than usual to ensure they can flourish in their new role.

For academics finding themselves with an unexpected remote teaching assignment our colleagues at have some useful tips here.

On a personal note, I would say that kindness and consideration are the best tools I know for building trust. There’s research behind this too, but I’m working from experience. Kindness works just as well in remote communications, so we need to build a little extra time for it into our new routines.

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