While remote working positions may sound glamorous—after all, they allow you to work for anyone and from anywhere in the world—they come with their own set of challenges. And I’m not talking about the run-of-the-mill challenges like Zoom fatigue, burnout, and blurred lines between one’s personal and professional life. I’m referring to things like communicating across cultures, working across time zones, learning unsaid norms, and discovering acknowledged and unacknowledged biases.
In the first half of 2021 I have been navigating my way around the remote working waters (and sometimes waves and torrents), and there are weeks when I think I’ve nailed it. But on other days when my Slack messages go unanswered I feel like I am back to square one. Here’s what I have been able to figure out along the way:
1. A tool isn’t a magic wand (but it can be the fairy godmother)
No offense to the many integrative apps available on Slack, Microsoft Teams, or Zoom, but they have their limitations. While that does not mean that you should stay away from them, it means you should recognize which app works the best for your context and make the most of it. Understand what the bigger purpose is, the reason why every employee needs to engage with the app, and how to get the team to believe in the value of the app. And if the reasons aren’t motivating enough and some incentive or gamification will encourage engagement, then go for it!
2. Inclusivity: the unspoken DNA
More than just a company value, inclusivity must be part of your company's DNA and actively considered with every policy and action. You can’t hire across cultures and assume everyone will come together as a team on their own—they won’t. Each team member must recognize that inclusivity is their personal responsibility. One way to encourage this could be to have mandatory inclusion training in the same way that security training is mandatory. But don’t think your job is done after a one-off training; inclusion requires consistent, conscious steps. Understand what is valued in each of your employees’ unique cultures, and ask them to tell you about the times they felt excluded to better shape your inclusion strategy.
3. A BFF can help you stay sane
If you don’t find a virtual friend in the workplace, be prepared to swim in an endless sea of frustration. Trust me, a friend is so helpful when you need to emotionally process that last team meeting that could have been an email. Having a sense of camaraderie with your coworkers and a regular source of connection can help the harder days at work feel more manageable.
In my efforts toward understanding the various cultures I found myself working with remotely, I came across the book, “The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business.” It offers some solid advice, but sadly the author wrote it before the COVID-19 pandemic, so some suggestions may have become less salient: “When interacting with someone from another culture, try to watch more, listen more, and speak less. Listen before you speak and learn before you act.” It’s hard to accomplish this when you’re limited to reading body language over Zoom, but it’s definitely good food for thought.
Believe it or not, I do actually think remote work is not all bad, you know. There are some silver linings beyond the obvious benefits:
1. Better presentations
In my experience, my presentations benefited from remote work. I could write my points, or even the whole voiceover, in advance so the awkward “umms” and “likes” could be totally avoided. With this prep work, I found I could easily stay on track and deliver an engaging presentation. Put in this extra effort and you are bound to shine!
2. Making new connections
You will find some amazing people when you least expect it. Thanks to remote working, it is possible to find people across continents and cultures who you get to connect with at a deep level. The kind people I’ve met have reaffirmed my faith in humanity.
3. Less negativity
Energy drainers like office politics and gossip are definitely minimized. And what is left of this negativity can be easily kept at a distance. While I do miss the occasional buzz around what’s happening in the office, in the grand scheme of things it’s better this way.
So, how best to handle remote work? Just hang in there, know you are not in it alone, and understand that some things will take time before getting better. Remote working offers you opportunities to better understand yourself, get clear on what you value, and voice these values to the decision makers at your company. At the end of the day, your experience is what you make of it.
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Written by Abeeda Haroon
A dreamer who dreams about a connected world, a more inclusive world, a less confusing world.