Hackernoon logoWhy Working Remotely Normally Works, and Why This Isn't Normal by@tessa-a-taylor

Why Working Remotely Normally Works, and Why This Isn't Normal

Tessa Ann Taylor Hacker Noon profile picture

@tessa-a-taylorTessa Ann Taylor

Director of Engineering @newyorker. Building great teams, solid platforms, and awesome products.

Among the many, many impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is the switch from co-located to remote work at myriad companies. Under normal circumstances, the switch to remote (or partly remote and partly co-located) work can really benefit teams and companies. However, this sudden switch, and the conditions that precipitated the switch, are unprecedented and particularly challenging to navigate. If you’ve found yourself managing a remote team, department, or company overnight, this is for you.

As many people shift to working remotely overnight, individuals are struggling, teams are struggling, and companies are trying desperately to figure out how to navigate this new paradigm. Everything is a bit abnormal right now, to say the least, and this sudden switch to working remotely is no exception. There are plenty of posts about remote best practices, which are great, but people who work remotely as a matter of course will be the first to tell you that this isn’t a typical work from home experience. This post is to explore why working remotely works under normal circumstances, why this isn’t normal, and how to support your team, department, or company during this time.

First, I want to talk about cognitive load. Cognitive load is more or less how much stuff your brain is keeping track of at any given moment. It turns out the higher your cognitive load, or the more things you’re keeping track of, the worse your decisions become.¹ This makes logical sense — the more things you’re thinking about, the less energy you can give each of those things, so the more likely you are to make bad decisions.

Second, I want to talk about cognitive load at work. Most people have to keep track of multiple pieces of information as a part of their job. Depending on the nature of the job, that’s largely unavoidable. What we can do as team leaders is reduce all non-job-critical contributions to cognitive load as much as possible.

Consider this example: 

You have a new person starting on your co-located team. First order of business? Tell them where the restrooms are (including, of course, the gender neutral restroom). Imparting the location of the restroom is a perfect example of removing unnecessary cognitive load — it is quick and easy for you to share this information, and cognitively burdensome for your new person not to have it.

Team and company norms are another large contributor to non-job-critical cognitive load. Is it acceptable to leave at 5pm? Are there team lunches? Happy hours? Is there a dress code? Can I wear headphones at my desk? Are there certain words that are taboo in emails and messages? As a leader, it is your job to make your culture and norms as explicit as possible. This doesn’t mean that you have to make up a ton of new rules. Your goal is to make everything that’s implicit, explicit.

To bring this full circle, working remotely can also have a major impact on cognitive load. People who work remotely are able to take a lot of unknowns out of their day, and therefore the reason that working remotely works is because it reduces non-work-related cognitive load. People who work remotely don’t have to think about a commute and they’re able to make themselves breakfast and coffee the way they like. For people with children, working remotely can help with a morning or afternoon routine. 
Note: Of course there are some people whose cognitive load increases working remotely. It turns out companies see the most gains from allowing people to choose if they’d like to be remote or co-located.²

Now that everyone who is able is working remotely, we should see a huge jump in happiness and productivity, right? In most cases, that’s neither what we’re seeing nor what we’re experiencing. We may be working remotely, but we’re doing so under extraordinary circumstances. We’re caring for children, sick family, or ourselves in a way we weren’t a few months ago. Our non-work-related cognitive load is absolutely massive, and so the normal gains we’d see from remote work are far outweighed.

So given that reducing non-job-critical cognitive load is good for your team, working remotely helps to reduce this cognitive load under normal circumstances, and these circumstances are not normal, what can you do to help your team, department, and company?

First, foremost, and always, be kind and have empathy.

People’s lives are different, and they’re experiencing a wide array of emotions as a result. This is healthy and normal. Give people time and space to feel what they’re feeling.

Listen and try to help where you can. Make sure to take care of yourself so you’re in the best position you can be to listen and help others.

Second, continue and expand practices to reduce any unnecessary and additional cognitive load.

Make everything explicit. Make things that you’ve never considered before explicit. Are cameras required for meetings? Write it down. Are people able to shift their schedules to accommodate their other commitments? Write it down.

Take this time to be really explicit and intentional about your team and company culture.

Third, consider what really matters.

Your current projects, deadlines, goals, etc were probably established when the world was in a different state.

Consider which projects really improve the state of the world or are really fundamental to the success of your company. Let everything else go.

By focusing on what matters, you and your team will be able maintain some self of normalcy and continue to do good work.

Good luck out there. Stay safe and take care of each other.

¹ https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1112&context=wharton_research_scholars

² https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/faculty-research/working-papers/does-working-home-work-evidence-chinese-experiment

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