Care is the core – distant life of firms at the time of quarantine

April 6, 2020 § 2 Comments

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Moving to full remote or virtual work, and re-organizing network activities does not happen without human (psychological, social, health) costs. In addition to the firms paying for these costs, a heavy burden comes to the individuals, families, and even their relatives who help in keeping businesses and service alive. I will not deal with the destiny of the unemployed here; their suffering is different now and firms and organizations should not forget them either. It is a story of its own, how to do it and why.

This is important for managers and personnel to understand and build awareness of it: we face a months-long period to learn new habits and practices and to get rid of the harmful ones in how we communicate and collaborate within the net. It is not only a human challenge – there is the imperative to maintain sustainable business. Hence, here I introduce a sample of the many problems that can be easily forgotten and become serious hindrances to work, but which can be overcome with wise actions. Every firm must find its own way to manage the new (virtual/remote) situation. It is not wise to adopt any practices of network life without serious consideration of the specific context of the firm, and especially its recent history, culture and values. Perhaps the most important advice to the management and personnel alike is the following:

Do everything you can to preserve the best you have in your firm and your people, in the way you have lived and worked together, served the customers and committed to the common cause.

Taking the above as a base for development and care, there are simple and practical ‘human-social factors’ at work to be considered:

  1. Cognitive load increases significantly in remote work, for many reasons, for example because of the extra, continuous attentive burden and complex messaging practices. For example, in normal work, we are aware of the social situation and people around us, and have simple ways to take a mini-rest and well-timed privacy, have various forms of support and enjoy the relaxing predictability of communication and interaction. We can use our limited attentive resources wisely.Long-lasting remote mode makes a fragmented work environment and becomes a new burden for the personnel – there is the continuous need to follow, expect, to monitor, to be ready to react to any coming messaging. Our memory in all of its functions, from the short-term to long-term processes, to memorizing tasks and events, episodes and meanings, becomes crowded. People get tired of this multi-dimensional psychological pressure and it has consequences that are not always immediately visible. It is a good practice to take time after work to consider this and be sensitive to any signs of stress, fatigue and other psychological or physical symptoms. It is wise to share these personal experiences among the personnel and friends – proactively – so that we learn about them as a community. Discussion with colleagues is helpful and we can learn from their ways to view or ‘frame’ the situation and to cope with it. Technological, organizational, working model -related, scheduling and other actions can then be taken to relive the situation.It is not easy to see the direct causes of cognitive burden, because often the symptoms occur as a fuzzy ‘internal itch’ difficult to perceive accurately and to manage it. Sometimes these problems become tangible when several tasks must be accomplished at the same time, which requires all the available mental resources. However, it is possible to become sensitive to them and try to organize work, practices, scheduling, private life, and rest accordingly. Proactive preparation has extra value and helps to be prepared. Working at home introduces new psychological, continuously present phenomena to family matters: child behavior, all routines, interaction and many others demand their deserved attention, care and – again – our limited mental resources.
  1. Extra cognitive and attentive overhead of textual communication is an essential aspect of almost any organizational communication of today, either before, after or during the communication. This is caused by the simple act of writing which takes time and effort to do it properly: to correct, re-correct and read requires full attention and takes energy and mistakes and bad expressions can have major negative consequences. People have different writing skills and harmful communication styles and related misunderstandings matter, as we too well know from social media. In this sense, social media is indeed an excellent environment to learn what not to do and how not to communicate. Care is the core, at all levels.
  2. Isolation from the physical and social context means isolation from relevant and dynamic information and support, much of which is tacit, that is, we have learned to take it for granted and it is almost invisible to our everyday life at work. For example, a colleague in the same room is not only a person sharing the space or process with us; her/his presence means he/she is physically and psychologically available. The tacit knowledge of this is relaxing, we even enjoy it as a friendship or of having a colleague close to us, and it contributes to the feeling of trust, comfort, and support when needed.When in need for help or any other interaction, it is a simple process in f-f to initiate: we have learned to be sensitive to all aspects of such human relationship management and interaction. However, in remote work and virtual communication everything changes and extra checking, messaging, preparation for contacting and initiation of communication is needed. Present collaboration systems lack proper support for this kind of profound, human phenomena and behavior. The psychology of intimate communication changes profoundly and we must remember that.
  3. New problem behaviors emerge – one among many being passive style of working. A passive person in an f-f team can be easily identified and invited to take action, guided or controlled. In virtual work, this style is not easy to observe and it takes extra time and control efforts to notice it; time and efficiency is wasted and irritation generated because of it. Sometimes people are not aware of their own ways of behaving in the net and they need a ‘social mirror’ to learn. Predictability of behavior in the whole organization is worth gold because it helps people to be prepared, relieves from extra control and it is simply pleasant to work then.
  4. Management of virtual/distant activities requires skills, knowledge and experience. It is different from standard ways of management. It may be necessary to reconsider some organizational processes, roles and structures if/when remote work continues over long periods of time and in 100% mode. The functions and responsibilities of management teams need reconsideration since virtual communication requires extra effort and time, and a large part of it does not follow standard organizational processes and information flows. New information flows emerge and as a result, some managers are at risk to become overcrowded by communication.Interestingly, already in 1980s we found out in a study that people are extremely bad at estimating the amount of pressure their managers experience in their communication. People overestimated by a factor of 3 to 10 (if I remember correctly, it was a lot) how much information they thought they could personally send to their managers without causing disastrous message crowding. Blindness to system effects was evident and it is a common problem today, too.
  5. Interaction dynamics among personnel change because of the way remote communication happens in practice. People, who have had a significant positive and valuable contribution to these dynamics at the site, can lose this role and become a significant loss to the firm/team dynamics and atmosphere. This is the time to see the value of these great people who often do not get recognition for this contribution. It is good to look at other important roles in the firm as well and make sure their contribution is not lost. A psychological role inventory is extremely useful – and it is rewarding for people when they can talk about what they really do.
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  6. In customer work, virtual tools can be a problem and even a new risk, not less because of different communication cultures in firms. Extra sensitivity to communication style, timing, and targeting is now required because of the network context – and the fact that customers, too live exceptional times in their own work and family lives of their personnel. The history of trust in these relations is now valuable psychological capital and it must be properly recognized, in all its different forms. A good advice is to offer relevant proactive information to the clients and then invite them to communicate towards you so that they have the initiative.
  7. Network and collaboration tools have taught us to mix synchronous (phones, audio & video conferences …) activities with asynchronous ones (emails, text messages, podcasts, printed docs…) and often it happens that people are not aware a) of the different time constants and other systemic consequences these tools have (how soon and when a response can be expected, what other communications and actions they generate), and b) of their timing-sensitivity (when is a good/bad time for certain communications) and of various interactions of these. In remote communication and work, the mixing of synch/asynch communication can become a distraction, a source of uncertainty, distress, a disturbance and introduce new negative, psychological forces that disturb seamless interaction.Simple examples: When you prepare emails the previous evening, don’t send them immediately then (and think that they will be nicely in the piles of emails waiting), but time them to the morning or some other relevant time at the office or at homes. Furthermore, your team can decide on certain times of the day (lunch break, for example) when no emails or other messages are sent or virtual chats and meetings are arranged. This synchronizes behaviors and relives people from continuous monitoring of their team-tools. It can silence the traffic for 30-45 minutes, for example, which is not a long time but can be psychologically significant when used accordingly. For people working from homes, the importance of this is magnified.
  8. Sleep and rest. Tune the remote work arrangements and communication so that you can enjoy proper rest, sleep and regularity of everyday life. Some have already noticed how the quarantine has allowed a surprising rest when 1-2 hours of commuting is excluded and have then observed the quality of work outcome to improve. However, this does not happen automatically and without systematic actions to arrange the work. Make sure that work does not conquer every hour or unpredictable times, and cause harm and introduce conflicts and other nuisances to good family life. Private, team-related and organization-wide schedules, even dynamic ones are need for collaborating people; this is not a matter of individual arrangements only.

The sense of presence

When we, managers and personnel alike, start working remotely from homes, we lose the strong and real sense of social presence of the people we normally work with, more or less intimately. This loss is not insignificant. The feeling or presence is like invisible or tacit ether that carries us in social life. It is where we live with our colleagues and can sense each other’s closeness and availability. We trust that many of the colleagues are ready to offer their immediate help when we need it. We expect and encourage them to approach us and we love to share the joys and challenges of co-work and existence, to help when we can. They know we are for them, when needed.

In remote work, the sense of presence becomes fragile and weak over time unless it is cared for in an effective (and affective) way. Collaboration platforms and teamwork tools vary in how they contribute to and maintain the sense of social presence but in general they massively underestimate this aspect of human life and it colorfulness. There is much to improve in these tools and services; their psychological outcome depends more on human behaviors than on any aspect of the technology itself.

Inspiration from game experiences

There is a special field of technology where the human-social aspects of human experience have matured fast and shown their power: computer games. Many of you who actively play computer games have been surprised by the power of the psychological immersion they induce in us. Now that ‘the virus game’ takes the form of technologically organized remote work, it is good to consider some of the psychological secrets behind the game experiences and see what could be learned from them to improve the remote work between homes, offices and firms.

My colleague Dr. Jari Takatalo, now at the game company Rovio Ltd, prepared and integrated a wonderful collection of known psychological factors into a systematic and holistic framework to describe the psychology of game experience. We (it was Jari’s ‘baby’) introduced the multi-dimensional model called PIFF (Presence, Involvement, Flow -Framework), which consists of the critical experiential-psychological dimensions that make an enjoyable (or terrible) game experience. The model captures the critical psychological experience variables, that is, the quality, intensity, meaning, value, and extensity of an experience and it is intimately grounded in the work of the psychology classics like James and Wundt.

In the following Table, I summarize only some of these variables, the nature of the main psychological dimensions as they occur in PIFF and relate them to the psychology of remote work. The idea is not to copy the model for describing the experiences but instead to remind of these important experiential dimensions. Together they contribute to positive (or negative) psychological outcomes of remote work if they are (not) recognized and arrangements are (not) made to serve them. Many of these psychological phenomena are relatively easy to recognize when time flies and work feels exiting and fun. Remote work has its own, complex contexts and generalization is not wise, but it is good to look at some of these psychological background elements.

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Discussing the topic of movie direction with the prominent movie director Lauri Törhönen in Finland, I was inspired to think about ‘directing a remote session’ and will tell the story in the next blog.

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§ 2 Responses to Care is the core – distant life of firms at the time of quarantine

  • Varpu says:

    We are human beings, we need each other, we need other people and presence of others. We cannot forget that we have senses and we feel each others energies. We need to talk , discuss, laugh together.
    We cannot be treated as machines. We share the same needs of each other. We have enough lonely people in Finland and other western countries, we need to unite.. Let´s not forget who we really are and how we belong to the Nature and to communicate with it and all the animals.

  • Göte Nyman says:

    Thanks, fully agree. The tools of today are still mostly for ‘machines’.

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