Four Ways to Make Remote Work Safe for All of Us

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Do quick e-mailers get ahead? Getty

When businesses pivoted to remote work at the start of the pandemic, leaders had to address basic logistical questions: How do we keep our business running? What tools do our employees need to do their work? What technologies do we need to communicate with each other?

But some 18 months later, as companies navigate an increasingly 'hybrid' workplace, bosses are asking a more fundamental question: how can we maintain our sense of culture and community, when our people might be permanently dispersed? My view: As I describe in my new book The Long Game, we have to pull ourselves out of reactive thinking and instead focus on the future we want to create.

I recently interviewed organizational psychologist David Burkus on my weekly Newsweek interview show "Better" (Thursdays 12 p.m. ET/9 am PT). In his most recent book, Leading From Anywhere, he focuses on how to run remote teams that thrive. Here are four key insights he shared.

Intentionally Create Your Culture

To cultivate a healthy remote workplace ecosystem, we have to recreate—on purpose—the key components of culture that were often accidentally developed back at the office. He identifies three key building blocks: shared understanding, shared identity, and psychological safety.

Shared understanding—the "understanding of each other's knowledge, skills, and abilities," as Burkus defines it —offers us the context we need to understand how and when people work best. "It's big things" like: Who knows when I can ask for help? And what can I ask for help with? And who can I ask —and how? Burkus adds: "It's also little things like: Who is responsive in the evenings, and who is doing family time in the evenings?" Burkus says leaders can gauge shared understanding by checking in often with their team members about workload, responsibilities, and expectations.

Shared identity is the sense that "the people that I'm working with are actually my team," not just random people who happen to be working together, Burkus says. He acknowledges that cultivating this is particularly difficult in a hybrid environment because it's easy to identify with whoever surrounds you—and unintentionally exclude remote colleagues. Burkus sees this as the big hurdle of 2021 as we navigate a partial return to office. He cautions that we need to make a special point of including and welcoming remote colleagues.

Finally, psychological safety - defined as "the belief that you won't be punished when you make a mistake" - is a vital component of a healthy work environment. Burkus' litmus test to determine your team's status: "When was the last time one of your people disagreed with you? If it's greater than a week, you don't have the right level of psychological safety on your team." Especially in a hybrid work environment, psychological safety is crucial: remote workers need reassurance that their location won't compromise their opportunities for collaboration and growth.

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Dorie Clark and David Burkus

Put Collaboration Rules and Responsibilities in Writing

When teams are remote or hybrid, it's important to communicate—even over-communicate —about how collaboration will take place. Burkus recommends that teams write up a working agreement, or what he calls a "Declaration of Interdependence, which is a document that we come up with as a team that outlines, 'This is how we're going to work together.'"

For example, colleagues can use this document to decide how and when to use essential communication tools like Slack, Zoom, and email. They can create policies laying out how to share urgent information (as compared to general updates), and expectations around response time (will you be monitoring messages at night? On the weekend?). Getting on the same page can help prevent costly miscommunication and ensure your team is functioning effectively, even in different buildings or time zones.

Focus on Outcomes

The shift to remote and hybrid work has given us a tremendous opportunity, Burkus says, to "eliminate that equation between presence and productivity, because it was never true before." Just because you're in the office 12 hours a day doesn't mean you're being productive or effective - and just because you work from home doesn't mean that you're slacking off.

We need to guard against the "2021 variation" of this thinking, which is that "the employees who reply to our emails fastest are our most productive ones." As Burkus notes, "The reality is if they're doing that, it's because they're not doing deep work that actually creates long-term productivity." We can all reset our expectations and ensure we're focused on employees' outcomes, not "face time" or response time.

Emphasize Trust

When companies go remote or hybrid, there may be a tendency to create extensive policies to avoid mistakes or bad behavior. That's smart – up to a point. But it can also start to calcify your organization. "Here's what I know: you should figure out what is keeping your people from doing their best work and remove it," Burkus says. What typically happens is, "one person disrupts our trust and as a result, we make a 14-page expense reimbursement policy to make sure that this never happens again, instead of just being like, 'Well, we fire that one person and we trust the rest of you until you give us a reason not to.'" Trusting employees to do the right thing gives them more latitude to think creatively and be adaptable – traits that every company needs now.

When it comes to virtual and hybrid work, we're writing history day by day. It's up to bosses to lead the way.

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Dorie Clark, author of Entrepreneurial You and Duke University Fuqua School of Business professor, hosts Newsweek's weekly interview series, Better, on Thursdays at 12pm ET/9am PT. Receive weekly updates about upcoming interviews and more at dorieclark.com/newsweek.

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