Remote Work Presents New Challenges, But Some of the Same Rules Apply

Student Studying on Laptop Computer in Library Alone

With Covid-19 pushing many employees to work from home, and forcing changes to crowded factory floors, work needs a new rulebook. How does any enterprise function when workers aren’t allowed to gather in person?

Psychology professor John Kello, an expert on industrial safety and the science of productive, effective meetings, says the new, virtual world does present challenges, but that we aren’t starting from scratch.

“It’s a really big shift for most of us who, for example, have the weekly staff/department meeting, in a familiar space, around a conference table, face-to-face,” he said.

Kello shared his insight on the challenges—and, occasionally, the dangers—of work during a pandemic.

What are the consequences of the less personal, “colder” atmosphere of remote meetings? Are outcomes worse, or merely different?

The answer is a kind of moving target. Past research on virtual meetings, when that was not the only option, has shown reduced member satisfaction, reduced sense of meeting productivity, and greater propensity to multi-task (check email, make grocery lists, do work unrelated to the meeting).

The data show that live meetings are generally much better than virtual meetings, but the choice is no longer between a face-to-face, warm, high-touch meeting and a remote one. The choice is between a remote one and none at all.

So, as we adjust to the reality that there is no other option (that’s the moving target part), I think remote meetings will not be perceived as so cold. In fact, there is a hint that seeing the boss and co-workers at home (sometimes with cute dogs or cuter kids popping in and out) can have a significant “warming” effect. If a remote meeting is well run, the outcomes are probably not worse, and may not be that much different, as we adapt to the change in format from live-mainly to remote-only.

Should virtual meetings be run any differently than face-to-face gatherings?

All the standard guidelines apply: Have a clear purpose and an agenda (shared in advance) to meet that purpose, have the right participants there, set or reinforce ground rules, hear from everyone, start and stop on time, end with clearly identified and assigned action items, get feedback to assess our meetings from time-to-time, etc.

The additional piece I consistently recommend, to minimize the techno-awkwardness, is to set a guideline for how to enter the conversation. Should you use the hand-raise feature on Zoom or actually raise your hand? In our department meetings, we agreed to mute unless/until we want to speak, to minimize the reverberation and other weird auditory effects we have experienced when many microphones are on at the same time. Otherwise, the things that good meeting-leaders do in live meetings generally work as well via Zoom.

Do you have any concerns for satisfaction/burnout when work and home blend together so much?

No more than we have already had in recent years. Many of us (too many of us) are expected to be on call 24/7 with our cellphones and laptops anyway. I think it is a boss issue to schedule meetings fairly, and respect and promote work-life balance in their associates. Respect and encourage non-work time.

You’ve written a lot about worker safety in an industrial setting. Are there any safety challenges that spring from working at home?

Paradoxically, industrial workers are prone to be safer at work than at home, even when the work is hazardous. At home, where there are no safety rules per se, they are prone to be less cautious. And there are no “coworkers” to watch them.

Statistically speaking, home is a much more dangerous place than work. Home injuries and fatalities are many, many times more frequent than workplace injuries and fatalities. Official estimates vary, but the usual multiplier is between 4-7 times more at home (even after parsing out traffic accidents).

Where hazardous chemicals or other toxic materials are present in the workplace, there are required hazardous materials (hazmat) documents which all employees must be familiarized with. In general, PPE is required.

At home, there are no hazmat documents, and PPE is completely optional. 

Of course, there are a lot of workers who can’t be productive at home. Does being labeled “essential” bring any additional stress/effects to work?

I am doing some research on burnout in the healthcare professions (which is surprisingly common). Right now, frontline healthcare professionals know they are under dramatically intensified stress. I would expect—though there are no data that I know of—that other “essential workers,” including some of our on-campus staff, would indeed be feeling more stress than usual.


  • May 29, 2020