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16 Jun. 2020 | Comments (0)

COVID-19 has radically changed how people around the globe conduct their work. While some workers have returned to their places of work, every day more organizations announce they are asking employees to continue working from home. For many workers, remote work may become a standard, at least for the next several years. Some people are thrilled with no commutes, wearing pajama pants, and having no colleagues drop in to chat for what can become an extended time. But, I invite you, especially if you manage people, to realize that remote work is not only challenging for many employees, but most of them will struggle in silence. 

I’ve studied how people use communication technologies at work for 20 years, and I worked in the high-tech industry for 10 years before I became an academic. The idea of tele-work, also called “remote work” or “work from home,” is not new. Actually, there is considerable research that has examined issues like productivity, manager trust, and work-life balance.1 For people who have adequate equipment, a private office space at home, and resources to support their personal lives, remote work has been quite successful.1 Yet the hurried way that organizations had to switch employees to remote work, combined with the fact that most people had no child- or elder-care available, has been quite stressful for many of them. A better way to think of this form of work is more like triage: people have to handle the most important task in the moment, which very well could be helping a toddler navigate Zoom. 

To manage in this environment, we first must realize that our own personal situations may be very dissimilar to that of our employees and colleagues. And they, for very good reasons, may be unwilling to share what is actually happening behind those virtual online backgrounds. Here I share the Three T’s that can help you proactively support your teams and colleagues: Talk, Think outside the box, and Turn off.  

  1. TALK about Emerging Norms & Expectations

Some people in workgroups are completely new to online video meetings and working at a distance, so have open discussions about emerging norms and expectations. For example: Is video expected? How should people dress? Should people raise their hands to speak or use the chat functions in video calls? How often should teams meet? Are the working hours the same as in the office?

These are just a few of the details that can reduce the uncertainty people have when working remotely and using new forms of communication technologies. In case you are thinking that people just figure these things out, that is not what research has shown, even for in-person meetings. Some employees think that using mobile phones during in-person meetings is acceptable, but then their managers complain behind their backs about their unfocused and disrespectful behavior.2 With all the uncertainty people feel with COVID-19 and unrest in the world, don’t make them guess about your expectations: talk.       

  1. THINK outside the box

No one anticipated COVID-19, and now that we have had time to realize that remote working may be with us for a while, it’s time to think outside the box. Instead of asking employees what they need to make their home offices successful, consider providing them with tools you suspect they need, or even an allowance to purchase equipment. Google has recently done this by giving their employees $1000 each to make working from home more comfortable.3

But, if that is beyond your budget, little things can make a big difference in boosting morale. Send cookies or fruit, give your team a Friday off to unwind, or send a nice thank you note through the good old fashioned (and meaningful) postal mail. Even online meetings don’t have to be in a standard format. Have people wear a t-shirt that is meaningful to them, wear fun hats, or have video background contests where the most creative gets a prize. In online meetings, consider putting people in small groups so they can actually have a chance to participate. This is easily accomplished with online breakout rooms and similar services found in video meeting formats. Finally, challenge yourself to be creative, yet also be inclusive as you Think outside the box to involve your employees and help them keep themselves motivated.

  1. TURN Off Cameras & Don’t be Always On

Many people are now asking themselves why they feel so exhausted after several video calls in a day. After all, when we are in a shared office setting many of us attend multiple face-to-face meetings in a day. But video calls are different. I call this being “On Air,” and most of us have not been trained on how to look into a camera for long periods of time, have a pleasant look on our faces, and manage the constant bombardment of multiple streams of information. We need to pay more careful attention to conversations to understand the content, and we have to work harder to process the cues we receive from others in this often fuzzy video environment. Seeing ourselves on video makes us self-conscious, and since our colleagues are located in different places, we also see their diverse backgrounds—and straining to process all these different visual environmental cues is mentally fatiguing.4 This is very different from being in an in-person meeting where everyone present is in a shared space. 

Reducing Fatigue

So what can we do to reduce this fatigue?  Limit “On Air” time by encouraging your team to schedule phone conversations instead of video calls, and consider turning off video during longer meetings. While online happy hours might sound fun, be aware that some colleagues are simply exhausted from being on camera all day, so make these optional.4

Another practice that is within individual control is limiting your own multitasking and multicommunicating during online meetings. Now, I know that many of us attend video meetings and conference calls where we only speak occasionally, so to fill the time we send emails and respond to text messages during the meeting.5 This is called multicommunicating and it is even more challenging than multitasking—doing multiple tasks at once.  The reason this is cognitively taxing is that multiple people are involved in these conversations, and the topics typically vary so you are mentally jumping between different contexts.6 While sometimes it is acceptable and even productivity-enhancing for us to multitask and multicommunicate, it can also make us feel overloaded.  

Find ways to NOT be Always On & Available

In addition to feeling “On Air” and fatigued, people also report feeling overloaded with communication.7 Whether it is being bombarded with more emails than we have received in the past, or feeling overwhelmed with the vast uncertainty, we need to find a way to help our employees take breaks and feel like they have the time to rejuvenate. A common comment people made during the COVID-19 quarantine was that they knew where their colleagues were at all times—home.  But, what we forget is that we don’t know what they are doing at a particular time, so expecting them to be online and available is unrealistic. 

The term “Always On” was popularized when Naomi Baron published her book in 2010 with that title.8 This research considered that, with the proliferation of mobile devices and people being able to check email 24 hours a day, people know they can reach them. Recent work has found that people can feel trapped in a cycle where they feel the pressure to respond regardless of the time of day, especially if the person sending the message is a boss or someone with power.9 Finding ways to Turn off is really important, so we should model that behavior and actively communicate that taking a break is not only acceptable, but actively encouraged. 

Having so many employees working from home in a time when there is global uncertainty can make a manager feel out of control. Realize that you are not alone, but then also empathize with the myriad ways employees have had to make a place and time for work in the middle of where they live. If we can Talk, Think outside the box, and make Turning off a norm, we can help our colleagues be more productive, happy, and healthy.  

This is a guest blog, which does not necessarily represent the views of The Conference Board.



  1. Fay, M. J. (2017). Telework. In C. R. Scott, J. R. Barker, T. Kuhn, J. Keyton, P. K. Turner & L. K. Lewis (Eds.), The International Encyclopedia of Organizational Communication. Wiley.
  2. Stephens, K. K. (2018).  Negotiating control: Organizations & mobile communication. New York, NY:Oxford University Press.
  3. Beasley, D. (2020, May 27). Google gives employees $1,000 work-from-home allowance. Forbes.
  4. Fosslien, L., & Duffy, M. W. (2020, April 29). How to combat Zoom fatigue. Harvard Business Review.
  5. Stephens, K. K. (2012). Multiple conversations during organizational meetings: Development of the multicommunicating scale. Management Communication Quarterly, 26, 195-223.
  6. Reinsch, L. N. Jr., Turner, J. W., & Tinsley, C. (2008). Multicommunicating: A practice whose time has come? Academy of Management Review, 33, 391–403.
  7. Stephens, K. K., Jahn, J. L. S., Fox, S., Charoensap-Kelly, P., Mitra, R., Sutton, J., Waters, E. D., Xie, B., & Meisenback, R. J. (2020). Collective sensemaking around COVID-19: Experiences, concerns, and agendas for our rapidly changing organizational lives.
  8. Baron, N. (2010). Always on: Language in an online and mobile world. Oxford University Press.  
  9. Stephens, K. K. (2018).  Negotiating control: Organizations & mobile communication. New York, NY:Oxford University Press.


  • About the Author:Keri K. Stephens

    Keri K. Stephens

    Keri K. Stephens, PhD, is an Associate Professor in Organizational Communication Technology and a Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at A…

    Full Bio | More from Keri K. Stephens


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