This article is about how to collaborate remotely, and thrive better working from home. Henrik and Caroline are fictive people. Their names and circumstances have been anonymized and changed.
Henrik is Technical Project Manager in a team of five. So he’s an informal leader. He depends on the others doing their job. Because he is responsible for the deliveries and the project. But he doesn’t have hire/fire responsibilities.
Usually, the collaboration with Caroline is fine, but for the last two months Henrik has started doing Caroline’s work instead of delegating it as he should as a project manager. But he doesn’t feel like he can count on her anymore. It’s easier to do it yourself – “and then we also avoid unpleasant mistakes like the one she made to the steering committee”: he told me in a session. Henrik has also stopped talking to Caroline like he used to. Now, working from home, it is easy to avoid her. But they still have the regular project meetings. One day it became too much for Henrik.
Henrik has a challenge. Before the pandemic he was part of a team of five where they were very effective and had a really good time together. Although Henrik is not very talkative and actually thrives on workdays at home, he now waits for the Corona pandemic to be over so everything can get back to normal. The collaboration with his colleague Caroline has gone off track, and this has major consequences for the project, the team and Henrik:
- They have lost their commitment.
- They don’t get much done in the project.
- Their funding is at risk due to a mistake that Caroline has made – at least if you ask Henrik.
- Neither Henrik nor Caroline thrives – and the others in the team can feel it too.
Distance – a major challenge working from home, collaborating, and leading remotely.
How far we are physically seated, or how far we feel we are seated is a major factor in collaborations and when managing conflicts. The Allen Curve is an illustration of how, in an office setting, people who are stationed within 8 meters of one another have the highest probability of communication (Allen, 1977). To reach this conclusion, Allen conducted communication flow studies at seven research and development laboratories. At the end of his project, Allen (1977) wrote Managing the Flow of Technology: Technology Transfer and the Dissemination of Technological Information Within the R&D Organization. Among the findings were the following assertions. First, employees who sit more than 25 meters apart have a low probability of communication. Second, team-members sitting within the 8 to 24-meter zone are likely to communicate at least once per week. Finally, if seated inside an 8-meter radius, employees are in the communication sweet spot.
Now, collaborating remotely, working from home, how can you create a sense of being less than 8 meters apart?
In a while you can read what Henrik did. It was not obvious to him, what to do as he is not very outspoken and expressive by nature. But before explaining the solution, we have to dig into the challenge.
The conflict culminates
“Tell me what happened,” I asked – we were in a coaching session virtually. It is key that there is full presence in the sessions and hence, it almost felt like we were together in real life. It takes presence and chemistry to open up, gain new insights and deal with problems like Henrik’s. Especially when you are a relatively quiet and closed person, as Henrik is. But through time and handling several problems before, Henrik has learned that it works when he opens up to me – his coach. That’s the only way I can challenge his prospects until he finds new solutions.
The meeting was at the end of the day. That same day, Henrik had had one meeting after another – nonstop. Lunch was also skipped, which all affected his mood and energy. In addition, his boss had babbled away in the meeting before, so they had finished too late, and he had entered a project meeting on the back edge. In that meeting, he heard again that Caroline had not done what agreed. That was the last straw. He thought, he was going to tell her to pull herself together. But he had just been sitting there quietly and hadn’t said anything. Afterward, he was annoyed and blamed himself that he hadn’t done or said what he wanted to. Sometimes, other people are frustrated that they have had a little too quick action in such a state of mind or that they have raised their voice or said something very harsh.
Henrik had been mentally hooked. So, he wasn’t able to do or said what he really wanted and what he had planned to do. Henrik’s colleague, Peter, later described it as even though they were together virtually on TEMAS they could all feel the unpleasant wipe. Henrik’s breathing became more powerful. He turned red in the head and went completely silent. Caroline got busy explaining herself. But no one listened, they all looked at Henrik – there was that weird vibe. After the meeting, Henrik was not proud of his lack of action to address the problem.
Henrik’s brains preferred fight-flight-mode is freeze. For other people, it can be flight, or fight with results in fast-on-the-trigger-behavior, or aggressive behavior – no matter whether it is subtle or outspoken. Similar for all fight-flight modes is that usually, they increase the distance between people.
When your brain is hooked, it means you don’t have a mental surplus to act at your best. You react inappropriately in affect. Neurologically, it is your reptilian brain that is calling the shots. Being mentally clear means the opposite – that you react appropriately and have as good a mental overview of the situation as possible. Neurologically, you can use your executive cognitive functions at their best. For example, the executive functions are your ability to
- think logically,
- be creative,
- see different perspectives
- have empathy,
- have self-awareness.
Though, in the very moment when you are mentally hooked, you can experience it as if your executive functions are well-functioning. But if you get a moment of clarity and self-awareness afterward, you might be able to see that your executive functions did not work at their best. You can read more about this in my book.
Henrik and Caroline later on realized in the team workshop that they both had been mentally hooked many times during the last three months. The pressure of the lock-down during homeschooling and trying to get work done was one factor, the delay of the vaccines and the never-ending unpredictability of the whole situation was another major factor. Not taking enough breaks when working from home was another and easier manageable one. The list of the factors that had hooked them was long. But it was great for both of them to get to understand why Caroline had made more errors than usual and why Henrik had been so distant.
Complex problems require multiple solutions
Besides the fact that the situation – understandably – was too much for Henrik, and he had been mentally hooked, Henrik had not been organized optimally either. That is why we tackled the problem with six interventions at different levels. Cooperation problems are inherently complex and there is rarely only one reason for the problems to arise. Hence, they need to be solved from multiple angles:
- The meetings were shortened down to 45 minutes instead of 60 minutes.
- The form of the meetings was restructured. Before the meeting, Henrik started sending out an agenda and a link to a working document where colleagues could fill in their input before the meeting. Instead of taking input in the meeting, which then had to be structured and assembled after the meeting. The meeting was then used to revise the input. That did not only make the meetings shorter and less tiring, but it also made them more effective.
- Henrik had to stop taking Caroline’s assignments and instead help Caroline get better at solving them. So Henrik and Caroline came to the conclusion that Henrik coach Caroline technically. I trained him on how to coach her. Spending time on developing Caroline’s technical skills and coaching her decreased the distance between them and before long they were back in the old friendly collaboration.
- Henrik put in fixed breaks during the workday. To avoid him sitting in front of the screen the entire day.
- I trained the team in better collaboration through fit feedback. This includes building psychological safety, trust, minding the mental stage of oneself and the other – besides following steps in the fit feedback model.
- Henrik and the team started becoming aware of what type of behaviour would create a sense of being in the same room and which would create a feeling of distance.