Using behavioural strategies to get the best out of remote teams

behavioural strategies
© Dmitry Marchenko

Rosie Evans, Behavioural Scientist at CoachHub, discusses the cognitive changes caused by working from home and shares her behavioural strategies for making sure that both remote and on-site teams are able to collaborate, engage, and work as well as they do in person

The average person spends one-third of their adult life at work. We structure our social and leisure time around our working hours and the commute, we socialise with the same colleagues and build relationships, and we know exactly what is expected of us when we arrive in the office. In short, work, for most, represents certainty. 

So, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the world changed rapidly in a matter of weeks, it’s no surprise that this has had a huge psychological impact. The core fundamentals of the day; wake, commute, work, lunch, work, commute, socialise/ home, have been replaced by a new routine of permanent home working, and little in the way of spontaneity.

Embracing the new world of work

With only 5.6% of the UK population regularly working remotely pre-pandemic, many office workers have felt the strain of adapting to a completely new way of work. The skills needed to work successfully from home; discipline, self-regulate, and the ability to self-regulate and detach can take years to fully acquire and are usually practised by those who enjoy working this way, not those who have been made to by circumstance. 

However, there are tools to help us adapt to remote work. Most of the new skills needed are behavioural as opposed to intellectual, and there’s an exciting opportunity here for managers to harness the power of behavioural science to lead their approach to management. Behavioural science is simply the process of understanding why people think and behave as they do, in relation to the wider society we live in. It includes anthropology, sociology, and psychology, and can be of considerable help when working out how to get the best out of teams and individuals.

Looking through a behavioural lens

When we approach issues from a behavioural science perspective, it becomes easier to understand why a team member might be reacting a certain way. For example, one of the biggest hurdles of the pandemic has been the lack of control we have over our lives. This feeling could result in a person who usually enjoys control over their personal life becoming highly controlling at work; seeking to micromanage colleagues or spreading themselves too thinly in a bid to retain authority. 

For others, the switch to remote work could hinder the very human need we have for benchmarking ourselves against the performance of others. This helps us to understand where we fit in the hierarchy and to feel secure that we are meeting expectations. However, with everyone at home it’s difficult to know where you stand in relation to your colleagues, and this could lead to overworking or anxiety surrounding performance. 

Personal challenges need personalised solutions

Once we understand the connections between these behaviours and the working environment, we can implement behaviourally-led strategies to correct them. It’s vital to take an individualised approach to this where possible because each of us will have different requirements for support. Those in creative roles will need a more flexible approach to foster their fluid way of thinking, whilst junior staff might require extra training to replace the usual knowledge exchange that takes place in the office. It can also be helpful to bring in outside experts in the form of coaches or trainers to spot the areas for improvement and to work with individuals to overcome their particular challenges. 

Remote working can also lead to feelings of isolation and social loneliness, which are amplified by the current social distancing rules. With 45% of UK adults experiencing loneliness at some point of their lives, adding that social element back into work is vital for meeting our fundamental human needs. We need to replicate the informal social interactions we used to have, whether that’s by organising a virtual coffee break or encouraging staff to take Zoom lunches with friends. If you had a regular Friday happy hour pre-Covid – keep it going! This can be especially helpful for the extroverts in the team, whilst making sure that quieter colleagues don’t fall off the radar. 

Key to all of the above is actively listening to your team. It’s been an incredibly tough year for everyone, and we are all deserving of that extra level of compassion at the moment. Whilst providing feedback will already be an integral part of your management strategies, the best remote teams are the ones where there is a continuous open dialogue between senior management and staff. This could be done anonymously to ensure that people aren’t concerned about consequences for expressing their true feelings, or it could take the form of learning how to have strength-based conversations. This involves identifying and appreciating their co-workers or reports strengths, which helps create a positive common language that embraces each person’s uniqueness. It’s also important for managers to share their own vulnerability at times like these – whether that’s by discussing some of the challenges you’ve found with remote work or by taking part in activities designed to foster inclusion. 

There is no hard and fast solution to managing a remote team during a global pandemic. It’s a mixture of knowing your team, listening and sharing feedback, and adapting ways of working to suit the needs of individuals where possible. Fundamentally, it’s about remembering that we’re all human, and learning to accept the things we can’t control. Behavioural science can provide an excellent framework for understanding how best to meet your team’s needs, and serves as a helpful reminder that at its heart, management is about working with human nature to deliver excellent results for business.


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