Remote work and flexible work arrangements can hugely benefit both employees and organizations. For the employee, remote work can increase employee job satisfaction, creativity, and productivity. For the organization, it can attract talent and improve business outcomes. Yet many employees and employers face remote work challenges. Both employees and managers commonly report feelings of isolation, stress, and burnout while working from home.
In this post we will discuss how to tackle remote work challenges using what we call the HOPE Method:
The HOPE method is inspired by research on “learned helplessness”–when people lose hope and stop trying because they feel that no matter what they do, they cannot achieve their goals. Specifically the hope method provides people with the resources they need to successfully overcome remote work challenges.
As always, our researchers have searched through the best research in psychology, organizational behavior, biology, cognitive science, and neuroscience to develop our strategies and tips to help you and your employees.
Learned helplessness occurs when an individual learns that they are ultimately helpless regardless of what they do. For example, imagine a mouse trying to get across its cage to get food. But regardless of what path it takes, it gets a shock from the floor and doesn’t reach the food. It keeps trying and trying, but no matter which path it takes it gets a shock instead of food. Ultimately it just gives up and stops trying. That is learned helplessness.
With humans, we can learn similar helplessness. When we continue to struggle or constantly have challenge after challenge put in our way, people can start to develop learned helplessness. It’s important to say that this type of helplessness is LEARNED, meaning that it can also be unlearned. (Check out this post for more techniques to overcome learned helplessness.)
Different events can cause someone to learn helplessness. An employee struggling to maintain a good work-life balance might feel overwhelmed, like they can’t keep their head above water. Someone who’s worked in an office for years might find the new computer setup at home inadequate and be constantly frustrated by technological issues. Someone working on a new project might need regular, in-depth assistance and feel abandoned by their co-workers and supervisors.
These are all difficult problems that could lead to learned helplessness and burnout.
HOPE leading to success
But you can help your employees work through such remote work challenges and overcome learned helplessness using the HOPE method. The method emphasizes:
- Honesty: honestly and openly assessing, discussing, and addressing problems and challenges
- Operations: focusing on action outputs and cause and effect chains
- Personnel: knowing and understanding employees and figuring out individual solutions to specific and complex problems.
- Empowerment: providing a general structure that an employee can work and be creative within.
We will go through each part of the HOPE method and how it can be used to address different examples that are major remote work challenges.
The “appropriate” level of honesty. Honesty may be the best policy, but what does that mean exactly? In Virtue Ethics and Character research, honesty is viewed as a virtue range. The idea is that being appropriately honest is the key, rather than being overly or problematically honest or being dishonest. For example, imagine someone asked you if their new shirt fits well. You see it doesn’t. You could say,
a) “I don’t think it’s the best fit; you should try another,”
b) “you look like a fat slob, go change!”, or
c) “it looks great!”
Both a and b are true, but b is a bit harsh, and c is lying. Thus, choice A is the example of being appropriately honest. That is how you should work with your employees.
The key here is to be upfront and honest about a problem or a situation. Openly and accurately assess, address, discuss, and represent the problem or challenge. Try to avoid blame and anger. The goal here is to use honesty as a way to find the root cause of the problem.
Imagine you’re having an issue with one of your employees who’s not meeting deadlines for projects. The HOPE method begins with you having an honest and open conversation with your employee about the problem.
Be open about why it matters. Talk to them about their pattern of behavior and how it is affecting others in the workplace. Remember these shouldn’t be vague statements, but concrete and accurate statements, such as “it backs your supervisor’s schedule by 2 days when you’re not on time”.
Identify underlying reasons. Once you’ve begun to discuss the consequences of the issue, then begin figuring out where things are going wrong. Do not accuse them of being lazy, but ask them questions to determine what causes the problem. Questions such as: “what is your step-by-step process for working on the project?”, or “when you see a deadline date, when do you think that the project is due? At noon? At the end of the day? At the beginning of the day?”. These help you understand and figure out where the problem is and what is causing it.
Remember that being honest here requires you to not only tell the truth but to do so appropriately and accurately. Don’t try to instil fear or threaten, simply have a conversation with them to figure out what is the cause of the problem, that way you can address it together.
When you hear operations, most people think about supply lines or surgery, but operations can mean much more. In mathematics and cognitive science, an ‘operation’ is something that is done to an input to generate an output. You can probably think back to grade school and remember a math teacher telling you about the order of operations. This the the order in which you execute mathematical operations like 9+5-3*0-1. This equals 13. If you got -1, that’s because you didn’t follow the proper order.
Your company works much like a mathematical equation. You can only get the right output if you have all the inputs and they are all operated on correctly. Addressing remote work challenges is no different.
In using the HOPE method, you would have already had an honest conversation and started to determine what caused the problem. Now, you need to figure out the underlying reasons. Until you address these root causes, the later changes won’t stick. This is the same type of method used by psychologists that attempt to validate scientific measurements. Functionally, you should approach remote work challenges the same way scientists approach a scientific question.
For example, consider an employee who recently transitioned to working remotely and is failing to respond to emails in a timely way. Here you should attempt to figure out what is causing this problem. Perhaps it’s a technical problem that they don’t know how to handle. Maybe the employee believes it would be more efficient to discuss these emails at the next meeting and didn’t understand your need for an urgent response.
The key here is to focus on causal factors and action-able items. Simply telling someone to ‘answer email faster’ isn’t effectively fixing the problem. Instead, identify and address why they didn’t answer faster.
Personnel management is a challenge for every company, but it can become even more complicated when employees work from home. When you’re in a situation where a problem needs to be addressed, and you’ve already followed the first two steps, working with your employees becomes much easier. If you’re a team or project lead, think about adopting an authoritative leadership style, one that focuses on treating employees with respect. You don’t want to be too permissive nor be authoritarian.
The key here is to remember that every employee is an individual person who doesn’t have access to the same information nor capabilities that you do. Take time to get to know your employees. Figure out how they work, how they perceive both themselves and their environment, and what their strengths and weaknesses are.
In the HOPE method, personnel requires that your management team knows its employees. This means you should be trying to gather the information needed to tackle remote work challenges with sustainable, individualized solutions.
This approach allows you to do several things:
- Help employees reshape habits and priorities. Learn how your employees view a problem and how they work through things. This allows you to find a common ground and show them where they misalign with others or the company.
- Create a supportive climate. Taking time to know about your employees and how the trick is key not only to keeping them happy, but also productive and focused. Recent research has looked into office organization and structure as major influencers of workplace climate.
- Create individualized solutions. One of the biggest challenges is that problems don’t always have a one-size-fits-all solution. This becomes even more difficult with remote work. The key here is to get as much information as you can to individualize the solution. It may seem like it takes a lot of time to find, but taking this time now allows you to not only create an individualized solution, but also one that is sustainable.
There is a lot of talk about ‘empowerment’ right now, but it’s important to define exactly what we mean. ‘Empowerment’, according to Professor Jay Drydyk, occurs when individuals are better able to shape their lives and their actions to accord with their desired life goals. Essentially, empowerment occurs when you give people the ability and space to self-determine their actions and lives.
Empowerment doesn’t just feel good to employees, it can help the business bottom line. Empowered employees feel they are more motivated, engaged, and productive.
You might see this definition and think, ‘wait, I can’t let people do whatever they want at work’–and you’re right! Empowerment doesn’t mean giving up all control. Instead it’s about allowing individuals to have some control over their work.
Some steps to empower your employees include:
- Stop micromanaging. Encourage them to propose their own project outlines and metrics. Give them responsibility, and the ability to work on problems independently and seek help when needed. Research in the hotel industry shows that this type of empowerment leads to faster and more efficient employees as well as increasing their job satisfaction.
- Encourage job crafting, in which employees tailor their job duties to better match their interests and skills. If this isn’t possible in its totality, allow employees to choose projects or roles they’re interested in.
- Provide constructive and consistent challenges. Giving an employee a slightly different task can help them become more cognitively flexible as well as expand their skills. It also helps break up mundane repetition that helps keep employees focused by decreasing cognitive fixation.
- Rotate project leader positions. Sometimes this isn’t possible, but if you can allow different people to take minor or temporary leadership roles it catalyzes empowerment. Even if you are doing this on small sub-goals of a project, for example if you have two web designers that work together, have them trade off on who is leading for each new design project. This builds an employee’s confidence in themselves and allows them to prototype new strategies together. One study found that this type of rotation of leadership roles lead to an increase in innovative problem-solving strategies.
By implementing and going though this method repeatedly can help employees start to think about causal factors that cause problems. This helps them start to identify problems before they start and better enable them to fix problems quickly once they arise.
Recap – Meeting remote work challenges with your employees using the HOPE method
Remote work challenges are just as, if not more difficult to deal with as in-person work challenges. Our goal here is to help you develop a strategy to deal with challenges in a remote work energy environment. The HOPE method can be easily used to expedite problem solving challenges and help your employees develop self-reliant, sustainable problem solving methods.
The HOPE method has 4 basic steps:
- Honesty: Having the appropriate level of honesty where you’re focused on a fact-finding mission so that you can isolate the root cause of problems and identify any misunderstandings.
- Operations: Focus on causal chains and figuring out what causes the problem and how it can be cut off in the figure.
- Personnel: Knowing and understanding your employees as complete individuals so that you can help them learn new tasks, strategies, and find individualized, sustainable solutions.
- Empowerment: Allowing employees to develop some level of self-regulation and helping them develop the skills and confidence to tackle problems on their own.
Together these allow you to quickly diagnose and address a problem so that you and your employees can get back to work. It also helps ensure the long term health of your organization!