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5 Ways Science Shows Us How To Work Better Virtually

Remote work is becoming increasingly necessary. Here are 5 tips to do it right.

Chris Benson/Unsplash
Remote worker.
Source: Chris Benson/Unsplash

All of us have been there at some point. It’s 3 p.m. on a Wednesday. You’ve now been on six hours of phone calls with co-workers, and your brain appears to have stopped working. All you can hear is noise coming down the telephone, and you can’t seem to focus anymore.

Virtual work is the mainstay of today’s organization. Mostly it is infuriating, exhausting, and sadly, ineffective. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. With more companies considering increasing virtual work—especially given the new and potentially lasting concerns about a new virus—now might be a good time to brush up on the best ideas from science for how to make virtual work a lot less… well, work.

Here are five of my favorites ways to improve virtual work culture:

1. Make it more social.

The brain automatically and unconsciously classifies people as in-group and out-group . Collaborating with in-group members doesn’t just feel better; we process their information more richly, making fewer cognitive errors. Collaborating with out-group members feels more like a threat. We are cautious, and we don’t trust them as much. Unfortunately, it seems, the human brain is built to default to out-group until proven otherwise.

A simple solution for virtual work is to shift the way we categorize other participants in a virtual working session as real people, instead of concepts.

You know that feeling when you have worked with someone for months on phone calls then finally meet in person? And how much easier it is to work with them after? That’s the mechanism I’m referring to. The best way to do this is to meet in person, of course, but we can still build feelings of in-group by using video for meetings.

If that won’t work for some reason, be sure to make time to get to know your team as humans. See their photos, find out about their lives, their goals, their hobbies, and you’ll classify these people as real humans instead of just sounds at the end of a phone. And you’ll all work better as a result.

2. What you see is what you get.

While we’re talking about video, one of my pet peeves is people who don’t take a moment to set up their video so you can see them clearly and professionally. All too often we get on a video call, and someone has backlighting, making it look like an interrogation. Or no lighting at all. Or half of their head is cut off. Or, my least favorite, they are far too close to the camera, and you can see just way too much.

When someone hasn’t taken the time to appear professional on-screen, it’s likely we’ll unconsciously assume they are sloppy in other realms. Good collaboration in any form is based on trust, on people taking each other at their word. Research shows that trust is made up of two key components: warmth and competence . Not taking care to be seen clearly diminishes both and will affect the quality of interaction, both by reducing trust and by being a constant distraction.

3. Take some sound advice.

Here’s one of the biggest mistakes I see in virtual working, whether with video or without. If it takes effort to hear people speak, the game is up. We all have limited attention , and poor sound quality is a huge distraction, inhibiting good processing. It’s all about the signal to noise ratio. With a clean audio signal, any kind of work is a lot easier. With distant, scratchy, or intermittent sound, everyone is focused on that instead of the work at hand.

In my own organization, we invested time and funds into finding the perfect microphone solution for our conference rooms. Then we thoroughly tested the sound and worked out that speaking literally one foot away from the microphone works, and nothing else does. At the start of any meeting, we remind people who don’t have this habit ingrained.

With crisp, clean sound, it’s just like being there. The single microphone on the roof capturing six people doesn’t cut it. Invest in sound technology so that brains, wherever they are, can interact the way they were intended: focused on each other’s ideas, not on the intrusive thought, “When will the sound get any better?”

4. Cue the visuals.

While we think that working virtually—say using Zoom, Webex, Skype, or something similar—is going to be slower and less effective, it turns out that with some creative thinking (and assuming you heed the above advice on lighting and sound quality), these formats can actually do more than in-person meetings.

Imagine you are discussing a project with a team of eight people, all on camera in separate locations. The team leader can pose a question and get a visual cue for a response, saving a lot of time. They can ask everyone to give a thumbs up for “I agree,” thumbs sideways for “I’m not sure,” and a thumbs down for “I disagree.” Questions like “What do people think of that idea?” or “Have we covered all angles here?” are much more efficient on a video platform where everyone can see the whole team’s reaction in an instant.

A final note on reactions: Watch the nod. People nod unconsciously when they agree with a point, and they nod enthusiastically when they agree strongly. A leader can spot someone who seems passionate about a topic and call on them. These kinds of visual cues, with a bit of practice, combined with good facilitation by a team leader, can make virtual working go faster.

5. Leverage backchannels to speed things up.

Similar to the previous point about using visuals, we can also use chat functions to enable everyone to share their ideas “in parallel.” Speaking in a group happens in serial—one person speaking after the other, with people reacting to the first person’s ideas, and others responding further.

All of this takes time. Sometimes it is much more efficient to get a whole team’s input in writing all at once, say on a chat function, or in a shared document so that everyone can see the output.

There’s an art to this, and at the NeuroLeadership Institute , we have been honing this concept of parallel processing for some time for internal use and beginning to teach others too. (While this is perhaps the real power tool for making virtual meetings really work, the idea has to be used carefully so as not to be a distraction. You don’t want people just talking to each other a lot instead of paying attention in a meeting.)

Here’s an example of how this can look. Imagine a team making a decision on a marketing strategy for a new product. The leader might ask the group to each give a rating on the idea, on a scale of 1–10, with no further comment, all in a chat. Very quickly, the whole group has a sense of how everyone feels about the idea. Then the leader might ask for people to each list three reasons for and three reasons against the idea.

The fact that everyone can do this at once, and then everyone can read all of this at the same time, turns a 30-minute conversation that seems random based on who feels like speaking or who speaks loudest, to a 10-minute conversation that is more focused, more data-driven, and—here’s the kicker—less biased and more inclusive, two things that matter a lot to organizations lately. I am not saying we shouldn’t leave time for free-flowing discussion. But getting basic feedback on an idea from eight people in serial is frustratingly ineffective.

In sum, with some good habits at a team and organizational level, it turns out that working virtually can actually be better than going to the office when it comes to making meetings effective. Add on top of that less time in traffic, more time for other work and thinking, and—especially lately—reduced fear of sharing any kind of infection, and it seems like virtual work is something we might all do well to focus on a little more.

This article originally appeared in Forbes.