ROPE - Remote Office Pairing for Engagement

Remote Office Pairing for Engagement

Roping office and remote workers together to provide work and social engagement 

(Written June 2020)

When the COVID-19 virus pandemic imposed a "lockdown" upon us, the working lives of most people changed radically. Remote working was here, whether we liked it or not!

Enforced change and adjusting:

At speed, we adapted to a new way of working. It was accepted because of the urgency and necessity which drove us. It may not have been welcome, liked or wanted, but it was there so we had to work with it.

Plato is widely accredited for saying that necessity is the mother of invention (Edwards and Pinckney-Edwards, 2008), and in this case, I believe this saying to be entirely accurate.

Had we decided to do this without the pandemic, there would have been much researching, costing and discussion, and I am sure, arguing too. The urgency made us change.

There was initially great turmoil as we all grappled with this sudden change trying to mix an environment of home and working life. Gradually something unexpected happened. Many people decided that remote working was ok or even great. Businesses were shocked but delighted to discover that it worked. They started to see the lure of long-term benefits and think and plan how to bring it into what we seem to be calling the “new normal”.

Twitter embraced this thinking publicly and allowed all its employees to work from home forever (Paul, 2020). I loved that so much. Well done Twitter! Note that they gave them the option and let them choose; we will return to this critical point later.

I also know that as time passed, people realised they did not like it quite as much. In fact, some came to hate it. People yearned to get back into their lovely world of work with people in that physical environment to interact with other humans. It’s in our DNA.

Video conferencing erupted as we clambered to interact with our co-workers who were now at home. Remote working meant adapting to a new work/home environment. We had to start juggling all sorts of things and experimenting to merge both environments, but gradually we realised this was not quite the same as that human touch, (pun intended).

During the lockdown, it has been encouraging to read and hear about the renewed importance of looking after each other. We see the need to become far more emotionally intelligent and to practice empathy far more. Like so many I have talked to, I really hope that this continues and develops within this “new normal”.

This article came to exist because there has been ever-increasing chatter about remote working. I have been asked by many people “what are your thoughts on how best to approach this”? Or, “how do we ensure we don’t let remote workers become isolated”?

Choices and our fickle brain:

My first health check is that for those organisations which decide to take Twitter’s lead, please let people choose (where possible) if they wish to become fully remote, semi-remote or remain in the workplace. I also appreciate some may have to adapt, but let’s ensure we have them covered. Leaders/managers need to consider that not everyone manages well at home.

Be prepared and make sure that your planning includes people changing their minds as our brains are fickle! The brain's criteria for making a decision are not fixed, it changes its criteria due to an accumulation of past experiences and particularly more recent ones (Eagleman, 2017). 

In other words, if person “A” had a generally good time when the remote working was enforced on them but then they began to really miss that human interaction, their later experiences were not so great, they will probably say no to full-time or not at all. 

Person “B” may have had a tough time adapting but then managed to create great processes and routines and then latterly found it great; they will probably leap at it. Regardless, remember to expect minds to change. Requests for full-time remote working to become part-time and vice versa.

There are intangible nuances at play within the working environment that are by their very nature invisible and unnoticed. We have given this a name, “Felt Presence”! They are those ad hoc moments in a lift, on the stairs, the 2 minutes in the kitchen making a drink and chatting to a co-worker or two. 

Whilst some may see these as just chat, they form part of that invisible connection, empathy and even sympathy we have with each other, and it is critically important to us (Orti and Middlemiss, 2019). They go on to use the term “Office Optional” which suggests a more flexible option on a weekly or monthly basis. Organisations will have to find what suits the needs of most or the best for the greater good. The balancing act may take some getting used to. It may look and feel different depending on team roles but overall, use empathy and vulnerability!

I believe that most of us will at least occasionally feel the need to communicate directly by phone, online video or whichever suits best. Even though I score highly on the Autism spectrum, I occasionally think it would be nice to communicate more personally with others so I arrange a coffee or a walk together. This feeds our instinctive desire to connect.

Unconscious human needs:

The terms “Disappearing Human Moment” and “Toxic worry” are from a paper in the Harvard Business Review (Hallowell, 1999). To appreciate the first phrase, Hallowell describes a “human moment” as having two prerequisites; the other person’s physical presence with you and their emotional and intellectual attention. As he explains, we can even travel right beside another person for hours and not engage with them at all. So just being there isn’t always enough.

The“Disappearing Human Moment” is self-explanatory. Those treasured moments of quality face-to-face human interaction have been disappearing far more in recent years.

What I have long found disturbing is this borderline avoidance of face-to-face interaction in preference for electronic communication. Real-time communication between two or more people seems awkward. It is almost seen as risky! We have become far more dependent on asynchronous rather than synchronous communication, and we are paying the price. 

Yes, lockdown meant we had to move training online, but beware of playing the piper. It worked because it had to! I believe that moving too much online will, in time, have adverse emotional and psychological effects unless managed with great care. Email, voicemail, video messaging, and texting are all fraught with miscommunication and too easy to hide behind. People need people in the room!

We use online video solutions far more now, suggesting it is the same as face-to-face, but I beg to differ. It is close but missing just enough to make a huge difference.

The face-to-face environment offers a cocktail of ingredients which we often, unconsciously, process and digest. It gives us far more information than we realise. In the book The Art of Human Communication (Grazer, 2019), Grazer says, “It’s like the WIFI of human connection.” That really resonates with me, and I agree with that. Ironically, the opportunities we do get to communicate face-to-face that we call “meetings”, are poorly managed and waste precious time and resources, so we actively avoid them at all costs. We make life so complicated for ourselves :-)

Two pieces of research suggest the participants preferred face-to-face (F2F) communication rather than online. 61% (Brown Sr. and Hersey, 2018) and 64% (Baym, 2004). I am not citing this to say this is a fact in 2020, I am merely saying we should consider that a lot of people still prefer F2F communication and often for reasons they are unable to put into words. 

People also worry about stating their preference for F2F communication in this new online environment we now find ourselves in. Ensure people feel safe to say what they truly feel.

Plan and prepare to move more roles to remote roles, but do so with the contributions of everyone affected. Ensure you give them an environment where they can speak freely without attracting unwarranted criticism or consequence. We call this environment “ES²”.

In brief, ES² is where the organisation does not just permit but encourages ALL their people to speak out and challenge others professionally and respectfully. They know they will not be persecuted for doing so.

People don’t step back from suggesting change or new ideas because they’re just not interested, it’s usually because they are fearful of what others may think of them or even do to them because they have dared to go against their thinking, especially if the thinking is from more senior people in an organisation, (Edmondson, 2012). Amy Edmondson calls this “Phycological Safety” and has written an excellent book on the topic. If you have experienced this or are experiencing this, then innovation is slipping through your fingers, and that is far too costly a loss!

The concept of ES² came to me due to an experience I had many years ago when I was serving in the army. A newly promoted soldier arrived to work for me. He was four ranks below me, so I was far senior to him, and I was the head of the department. As I walked him around our workplace, I pointed out that having fresh eyes was good as sometimes new people see things we don’t, as we have been immersed in the work too closely for too long. I said that if he saw something he thought could be improved, he should raise it with the other more experienced staff or me. I also explained why it was something we insisted people do. I said that we’d either give him an understanding as to why his suggestion would not work or we’d be delighted and adopt his suggestion.

Just two weeks later this soldier came to me with a small suggestion to add a column to a stock management sheet. It was simple but brilliant! His idea was escalated by me through the regimental channels, and it was adopted by all similar departments throughout the regiment and suggested to senior officers to be incorporated army-wide.

Imagine if I had not said to him, come and tell us what you think, and we’ll consider it. I helped him feel he was permitted to do this and that we actively encouraged and expected it. He’d been provided with security by me empowering him to speak out, and the safety to do this must have been tangible as he knew there was no threat except learning.

That second term, “Toxic worry”, captures the impact that the lack of human interaction may have. Hallowell says that the effects of this disappearing human moment can be quite debilitating and can become a poison and turn our behaviours on their head.

I know that more and more of us are returning to the workplace, but not all of us will return as employers adapt. We, therefore, need to be very focused on how people are “truly” coping. In other words, we must ensure they have a lifeline that works. We do not just want a manager who will tick a box by saying, “are you ok today”, to which people answer “yes’, when in reality, they may be far from it. (More on coping with this challenge of checking in shortly).

An almost invisible tripwire appeared during the reduced human interaction in our organisation. It resulted in misunderstandings and miscommunications, and some hurt feelings. To combat this, we decided to have “check-in chats” to check communications and how we genuinely feel. We aim to catch up around 10 am and again around 3 pm. 

This has proved most useful. It has also caught me a few times where I had clearly misunderstood communications which seemed so obvious, but to my relief, this has become good fun.

Leaders often miss the value of workplace chat, which is not work-focused. A workplace survey (Grieser et al., 2019) found that employees who had occasional chats performed better and increased their productivity. They were more trusting of leaders and managers as they showed their human side too. But interestingly, they expected a balance of work and fun. This also suggests that leaders and managers who show vulnerability are saying, "yes, I am human too".

Are you ok?

Popping back to that type of answer, “oh yes, I am fine, thanks very much”, which is often not entirely accurate. We need to find an easier way for people to communicate their level of “fine” without having to say things like, “actually I am struggling today”.

A chat with a client in April allowed me to share our health check system, which many already know as RAG (Red, Amber, Green). We designed our version based on our experience working with people with PTSD (our registered charity). We knew from this experience that it’s about “how” we ask something, especially if it’s about a sensitive or emotive topic. We expanded it so people can use expressions or grades something like this:

  • “I’m Totally Green today” / “lower green today" / "just in the green today."
  • “I am pretty much Amber today but would love to get to the green."
  • “On the edge of Red today" – "In amber but worried about me tipping into red."

From such answers, we can use questions to explore further and support our people.

You don’t have to use the same phrases; just give people the ability to articulate to you or their colleagues that they could do with a boost. It has proved far more comfortable for people to apply a grading than to say, “I am not ok today”. This brings us nicely to our concept of “ROPE”.

R - O - P - E

The image represents the network of people working remotely from home but safely roped or paired with others who are working from the office.This roping/pairing can change as and when it suits individuals and thus offer a bit of variety to chats as well.

ROPE doesn’t come without challenges such as:

  • Everyone wants to pair with the same person.
  • People are paired with someone they are not overly keen on.
  • Do we let partners pair?
  • If partners don’t pair with each other, could this potentially create issues?

We must find a solution that works best for most people, and each solution could look different between teams. We can’t have just the managers managing or arranging this, so use your team and let them sort it out for themselves. Empower them.

Regardless of how well people work remotely, most of us, at some point, will feel a little isolated, especially from the chat around work and social points of interest. Roping people together offers that lifeline allowing us to feel part of the team even when working remotely.

They know the organisation is behind them and want to help them keep in touch with their team by ensuring that they are updated informally. Yes, including non-work topics too.

In Summary:

  • Like on a mountain with unseen dangers, roping up our people offers security. 
  • It can provide a lifeline for your people, which they can use ad hoc to suit their team or working environment.
  • They can have 2 or 3 different colleagues whom they connect with to get more rounded views and opinions.
  • Two organisations we work with now use individual and group “pop-up chats” where a person or a few people start a chat going as something has unexpectedly popped up. Regardless of the name, ensure everyone is on the same page.
  • ROPE provides opportunities to catch up with the additional interaction that is missed when we work in isolation from an office-based community environment which we unconsciously miss.
  • It helps with mental health and well-being and mindfulness by identifying warning signs that signal a deeper chat is required to head off a certain feeling, pressure or stress point.
  • Organisations will have more productive people, more unified approaches to goals, less conscious or unconscious saboteurs, and the issues they bring, and better-informed managers and leaders too. Add some fun regarding goals and targets; you could merge into that ES² environment mentioned earlier.

“Care about your people, and your people will care about you”

~ Mac Macdonald ~

Written by - Mac Macdonald

Mac runs LaPD Solutions Ltd (Learning and Performance Development)

LaPD Solutions offers EI-based solutions to help your people work together through an organisational culture based on values and measured underpinning behaviours.

07968 865 007

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EAGLEMAN, D. 2017.The brain : the story of you.

EDMONDSON, A. C. 2012.Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy, Wiley.

EDWARDS, M. E. J. M. & PINCKNEY-EDWARDS, J. M. 2008. Hybrid Organizations: Social Enterprise and Social Entrepreneurship,

GRAZER, B. 2019. Face to Face: The Art of Human Connection, Simon & Schuster.

GRIESER, R., STUTZMAN, E., LOEWEN, W. & LUBAN, M. 2019. The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work, ACHIEVE Publishing.

HALLOWELL, E. 1999. The Human Moment at Work.

ORTI, P. & MIDDLEMISS, M. 2019. Thinking Remote: Inspiration for Leaders of Distributed Teams, Virtual not Distant.

PAUL, K. 2020. ‘Twitter announces employees will be allowed to work from home forever’.

Newspaper headline which reads Time to Change.
The word empathy with associated words
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The word Care
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ES2 which stand for Emotional Security and Emotional Safety
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Group of people at work having an off work chat and a coffee
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