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Senior living communities are a “high-touch” environment. Care just can’t be done from a safe remove.

But among those who support the industry, from the software developers to accountants to scientists to digital sales experts, and more—those who can work remotely are being encouraged to do so. And this sets up an entirely different set of challenges.

Even when it’s safe to open up the office buildings, many have decided that remote work is here to stay. The Society of Human Resource Management quotes a PwC survey that 72 percent of workers would like to work remotely at least two days a week—and a third of them said “they’d prefer never to go to the office.”

Through the pandemic, remote workers and their managers have discovered some unexpected difficulties and some unexpected benefits—and communications and human resources experts have developed many tips and concepts to help make it work.

“Zoom fatigue” is real

Virtual meetings and education seemed like the natural solution to the sudden need to work remotely. But just as some residents discovered as they learned Zoom and FaceTime, it’s not as easy as simply mastering the technology. It’s a different type of interaction, and it needs different sets of skills—and it can be demanding in a different way.

There are legitimate physical and neurological reasons why. For instance, a study in Neuroimage journal found that in a comparison of real, live, face-to-face interaction and interacting with a recorded image, the live interaction won. It generated greater brain activation in the areas also associated with social cognition and reward—so our brains think live interaction in itself is a kind of reward. Take away the reward, and our brains know something’s missing.

“A lot of people find technology a little bit draining,” says William Chopik, associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University. “Zoom and virtual meetings are not as fun as personal ones.”

Beyond the brain issue above, there are several other reasons for this, Chopik says. “When you’re talking to someone online, you miss out on a ton of non-verbal things—you feel out of synch with someone. The interaction feels like it’s more work.”

For example, in person you might see subtle signals in body position when a person’s becoming annoyed or negative. But the small screen doesn’t reveal these. We’re working harder because we’re both trying to catch the signals we’re accustomed to seeing, and because we miss out on signals, so communication gets more difficult.

This is one reason for the rise in interruptions that many people working remotely have noticed and bemoaned—the conversational rhythm is off, resulting in a flood of voices chiming in alternating with awkward pauses (and that’s not even taking into account the issue of forgetting to unmute).

“The turn-taking gets disrupted,” Chopik says. “In person, it’s a more fluid, natural, spontaneous.”

“There’s also another theory: Having to look at yourself is pretty distracting. You’re always monitoring how you look” on some level, Chopik says.

Culture matters

Another difficulty in remote work comes from the lack of subtle support for common mission, values, and culture. Away from the environment where these are reinforced, their practice and impact can start to fade. And losing a sense of purpose can be a one-way ticket to disengagement.

After working remotely for 20 years, Mary Mesaglio has valuable observations in her Smarter with Gartner blog post, “How to Lead Better Remote Meetings.”

Mesaglio writes, “one important caveat before we begin: everybody’s different. That sounds obvious, but here’s why it’s important. It’s our experience that remote working tends to exacerbate personal and cultural differences. Leaders need to be cognizant of that.”

For instance, is your culture comfortable with silence? With interruptions? With jokes? These kinds of expressions will be magnified in remote interactions.

One of the most important—and sometimes difficult—shifts in thinking remote managers need to practice is defined by Gartner in its “9 Tips for Managing Remote Employees” blog post as a “focus on outputs, not processes.” Generally, in remote work, the “how” doesn’t matter as much as the “why.”

If someone is changing loads of laundry between work tasks, wearing pajamas off-camera, or keeping different kinds of hours, a manager may need to pull back her need for control and substitute instead clear objectives and ways to measure them.

Checking in

While remote working may seem inherently less stressful than commuting and dressing up for the office, remote workers can suffer from increased stress and anxiety as well.

The first step is to be sure employees have the supplies and technology to do their jobs productively. But beyond this, managers need to keep an eye out for signs of distress. Remote workers can begin to feel “out of sight, out of mind.”

One way of managing this is through check-ins with remote employees. Having these regularly scheduled is a good idea, because it helps bring structure to the day. But they need to be meaningful, says Chopik.

Practice responsive listening: getting at what events and occurrences mean to people Chopik says. For example:

“Sometimes there’s a hesitation about asking these kinds of things, but it builds a stronger connection between people.”

Keeping work collaborative

With the emphasis on teams at work only getting stronger in the past few years, it might feel like having employees physically separated could bring that to a halt. But it doesn’t have to, says time management expert Elizabeth Grace Saunders, in her Harvard Business Review article “Four Tips for Virtual Collaboration.”

“The purpose behind team collaboration isn’t for you to always be available,” Saunders points out.

“Instead, it’s to make sure that you and your team are aligned on your goals and most effectively moving ahead in accomplishing them. You can collaborate effectively from far apart, even when you have an incredible amount to do, if you collaborate with intention and focus.”

Saunders writes about a trend toward “side-by-side” remote work, where two people work on a project at the same time during a video call. They can ask questions and clarify issues more easily—and it gives each worker company, reinforcement, and what Saunders calls “positive peer pressure” that helps both people be more productive.

When working asynchronously, it’s vital that all expectations and communications be clear: Deadlines, what you want from reviewers, and comments on a document can all be subject to misunderstandings that can take time to resolve.

A matter of trust

Making the effort for meaningful conversation and maintaining collaborative work pays off in building trust—an essential to making remote work effective. Experts as well as OnShift’s Workforce 360 survey point to other ways:

Recognize achievement

Finally, the most important factor cited by most experts and their employee surveys is recognition. Making opportunities to recognize remote employees for their work and accomplishments grows trust and engagement. Recognizing remote teams at the same time as in-workplace teams emphasizes the common mission and can bridge the space. Every meeting, even a five-minute huddle, can have time for a quick recognition and thank you. Add a specific thanks to the end of an update email. And plan short but meaningful ways to recognize employees and teams more formally at larger meetings.

For more on these topics, see gartner.com/smarterwithgartner; blog.shrm.org; and reallifee.com.

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