PhD student on online work: Technology is not a magic bullet. It’s something we all have to learn how to use to make online meetings work

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It takes more than ten chairs and a conference table to create a good meeting – and it takes more than a Zoom password and a good internet connection to create good online collaboration. Marta Jackowska is a PhD student at the Department of Management who studies online work. Here are her best tips for managers on how to create a good digital work environment. And on how employees can preserve healthy boundaries between remote work and private life.

2021.02.03 | Miriam Brems

Photo: Private.

 

Marta Jackowska is a PhD student at the Department of Management. And when she and her colleague Professor Jacob Lauring starting studying online work practices and digital meetings, she had no idea how topical their research would suddenly become.

The questionnaire they developed for the project was sent to five Danish organisations about a year before the Covid-19 pandemic hit Europe and forced workplaces all over the world to implement digital solutions for work and teaching virtually overnight.

Since then, the results of their research have only become more relevant. And even though the study was carried out before everything went online, Marta Jackowska believes that it contains valuable insights on how to get the most out of digital tools.

“Our research shows that if the culture of an organisation isn’t designed to work together online, the digital tools won’t work. I think the Covid-19 situation was a wake-up call for a lot of people, because it made it clear that technology in itself is not a magic bullet. It’s something we all have to learn how to use,” she said.

About the research project

  • PhD student Marta Jackowska and Professor Jakob Lauring have studied how 676 employees at five Danish multinational organisations experience their work teams' ability to share knowledge when collaborating online.
  • The study compares online work from offices, where, for example, employees from two units located in different countries hold online meetings, with online remote work, where all of the employees are in separate physical locations.
  • The survey showed that the employees find that their teams’ ability to share knowledge is poorer when they are not together in person.
  • The questionnaire the study is based on was sent out before the Covid-19 lockdown in Denmark in the spring of 2020.
  • The research study is published in Journal of International Management

Online meetings shouldn’t be like just another email

On the practical level, learning how to collaborate online is about everything from all employees learning how to host a meeting on Zoom to more advanced ways of using the tools in the programme – for example, you can actually draw on the screen in the same way as if you had a whiteboard in a conference room. In this way, you can hold virtual meetings that function just as well as in-person meetings.

But online work also makes new demands on managers, who have to learn how to use the digital solutions for the right things.

“When a meeting takes place online, you have to plan it out. There has to be a clear reason for meeting. It’s important that the meeting isn’t something that could have been just another email,” Jackowska said.

Set aside time for small talk

At the same time, it’s important that meetings are about more than who does what, especially in the current Covid-19 situation. They should also be used to replace some of the social interaction that is lost when people no longer meet in person at work.

“Normally, it happens automatically that we engage in small talk before a meeting starts, but you have to schedule time for it in online meetings. There’s no way that 50 people can small talk on Zoom. But you can make break-out rooms with groups of three people,” Jackowska said.

Another way to create social interaction online is to hold an weekly meeting to replace the kinds of meetings that normally take place around the coffee machine, as Jackowska put it.

“It might feel a little artificial to begin with, but it gets better over time,” she said, based on her research – and her own experience.

Just like the whiteboard function in Zoom, it’s something that needs to be learned.

Managers must be understanding

Jackowska also pointed out that managers can create a better online work environment in the current situation by taking a “more human approach” to their employees.

“They need to understand that many employees aren’t as productive as normal, and that this won’t necessarily change for the time being. And they have to be good at communicating this clearly.”

In one company Jackowska studied in a different research project, she noted that one of the managers held regular one-on-one meetings with each employee – online.

“This gave them a sense of how individuals were doing; just a brief chat where it was possible to discuss things you wouldn’t want to bring up at a larger meeting.”

Technology isn’t the problem – it’s the isolation

Just as technology isn’t a solution in itself, Jackowska stressed that technology isn’t the problem with online work. It’s the feeling of isolation.

“It’s the physical distance from your colleagues, but it’s also the emotional distance that comes from the fact that you don’t feel like you belong to a team to the same degree when you’re sitting by yourself and you can’t see your colleagues.”

This is confirmed by her research project, which showed that employees feel there is less knowledge-sharing in their team when the individual members are physically isolated, compared with a situation where two teams in different units meet online.

She expressed hope that future research will help shed light on how the feeling of distance and isolation can be reduced for employees who work remotely..

At the same time, she stressed that there’s a big difference in how well working from home works for people that’s related to whether or not it’s voluntary.

“It means a lot whether working from home is a benefit you’ve decided to take advantage of, for example a fixed day every week, or whether you’re forced to work from home every day involuntarily.


 

Marta Jackowska's tips for working from home

 

1: Find a replacement for your normal routines

"Many of us commute to work, and regardless of whether the trip takes ten minutes or an hour, it marks the transition from private life to work. Instead of going directly from the shower to desk, try to create some routines that can replace your trip to work. The same applies in the afternoon. I end my day by planning the next day's work to mark the end of the working day."

2:  Create a physical boundary between your work and your private life

"For many people, it’s not possible devote a whole room to a home office, but try to set aside a corner that’s only for work, and make sure you shut down emails and working documents on your PC – so even if you turn it on in the evening, you’re not at work."

3: Reserve your sweatpants for your free time

“Dress like you’re going to work.”

4.  Set aside time to focus in your calendar

"Figure out what time of day you work most effectively and block the hours in your Outlook calendar, so your colleagues don't disturb you."

Marta Jackowska added that she’s aware that this strategy is most effective if you don’t have children.

5: A digital babysitter – for yourself

One of the more exotic solutions Jackowska named was the company Caveday, which has become popular during the Covid-19 lockdowns. The company offers a digital ‘babysitter’ function to help employees stay focused – and productive.

“You sign up for a three-hour online session, and your ‘babysitter’ monitors your activities – and reminds you to get back on track if you’re not working.

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