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Spring 2021 Advisory

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Remote Work Can Improve Communication and Teamwork if We Seize the Moment

Organizations that have gone online should use this moment to change the norm for professional communication long after the crisis ends, says Human Capital Management Lecturer Steve Safier, Ph.D.

Written by Steve Safier, Ph.D.

Many of us are home, using technology even more than we ever could have imagined. At some point, the COVID-19 crisis will come under control. What’s likely to endure, however, is the ways by which the crisis transformed how we work. What can we learn and adjust in this moment? Which efficiencies can we normalize at work long after the crisis is over? With the right thinking, this can be a moment for professionals and students alike to rethink their relationships with technology.

In 1974, American psychologists Paul Watzlawick, John H. Weakland, and Richard Fisch sought to answer an age-old question: Why do some problems persist while others are resolved? In their classic book, Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution, the authors explained what they called “first-order” and “second-order” change. First-order change refers to changes that people try to make within existing rules, essentially preserving the parameters or environment in which the problem exists. For example, if we owe the boss a deliverable and we seem to be running out of a time, we work more quickly. Second-order change, on the other hand, occurs when the parameters or environment itself is changed. It involves a redefinition of the problem. In the same example, for instance, we would perhaps seek to reduce the scope of work or distribute it among multiple team members. In some cases, the work may not even be necessary.

When we engage in first-order change, we tend to do “more of the same.” Second-order change, however, involves questioning assumptions, considering innovative approaches, and often leads to more fundamental, sustainable change.

My challenge to businesses, institutions, employees, and students is to enact second-order change. How can we learn from our current misfortune to potentially bring about second-order change to the ways we learn and work in the long-term? Here are some ideas:

Make the work-life balance a reality by setting boundaries. Work and school are happening at home now, but it’s still home, not a 24/7 work center. Let’s take advantage of this time to strike the balance between work and the rest of life – and carry these boundaries with us when we return to the office. Many of us are spending the most time we’ve ever spent with those closest to us: our partners, children, extended family or just ourselves. To put things into perspective, I advise that we answer this question honestly: Do I really need to be online at this time? Technology is great for working with colleagues, but these digital interactions should supplement – not replace – face-to-face, in-the-moment connectedness with people at home. Turn off and tune in; work will likely still be waiting for us after we take a break from our computers and phones. Managers might also encourage their direct reports to set a schedule and adjust it when needed, take a break or two for lunch or coffee, and log off when their day is complete. Leading by example is crucial for setting the tone.  

Let’s take this as an opportunity to improve clarity and efficiency in our communications. Now that we’re relying solely on online and phone conversations, it’s more important than ever to cut down digital clutter and be clear and direct.

  • Bridge generational gaps in our teams. There are five generations currently in the workforce and each person has a varying degree of competence with digital tools. It’s crucial to meet colleagues where they are; let’s use the channels with which they are most comfortable and/ or most consistently use. For example, if we typically communicate with a colleague via email, it is probably prudent to assume that they will miss an unexpected Zoom message. Similarly, if our team usually uses a Slack channel to discuss a topic, then a mass email without alerting them will likely render a delayed or flat response. There’s value and efficiency to predictability; let’s try to establish a rhythm and keep to it. And if a colleague doesn’t know how to use a platform? We can show them or schedule a larger session for those who are seeking help. Engaging in extra-role behaviors can foster trust among colleagues.
  • Who really needs to see the email? There’s a balance to strike in the virtual office. It’s vital to make all relevant stakeholders aware of conversations and decisions, and to provide them with an opportunity to weigh in. But let’s be mindful of a never-ending loop of “Reply to all” and “cc” lists.
  • What actions, if any, need to be taken as a result of the email? Who should take them? What’s the deadline? We can include phrases like, “FYI only” or “Response required by EOD,” to prevent confusion and save time for all recipients. And of course, we should plainly state the request in the email subject.

Know when it’s time to talk, not text and email. There are countless work and learning tools at our disposal: email, Zoom, What’s App, Teams, etc. We ought to consider when it’s time to talk something through versus when written communication will save time and/or when we just need to establish a written record. Nothing will ever replace real time conversations to brainstorm or resolve an issue that has stretched across a long series of emails. Conversely, an email thread can remind us of the tasks to which we have committed and their rationale. Let’s choose wisely, always keeping efficiency in mind.

As we hunker down in our new remote environments, let’s commit to enacting second-order change at work rather than reverting back to “normal.” Our teams, organizations, and homes will gain from it in the long run.

Do you have additional suggestions? Share your thoughts by commenting on LinkedIn or tagging the Human Capital Management M.S. program on Twitter at @CU_SPS_HCM.