The psychology of remote working: adapting to the change

Professor Binna Kandola and Stuart Duff, Partners

The first few weeks of working in ‘lock down’ were incredible – and at times bewildering. In a short space of time, we lost long-established routines and ways of living and replaced them with unfamiliar and – for many – uncomfortable new ways of working.

In this article, we take a moment to step back and reflect on what we are experiencing. In particular, we look at the psychological demands of remote working and how to manage these. A colleague described himself a short while ago as ‘grieving’ the loss of simple routines and familiar ways of doing things, while another described herself as being ‘frazzled’; not only by the rate of change imposed on us, but also the rate of experimentation required, every day, with new apps and video conferencing software.

It’s rarely been more appropriate to use the ‘change curve’ to illustrate the reactions that you will have experienced these past weeks. The change curve can sound like a cliché, yet, it usefully describes the emotional reactions associated with going through any kind of personal change. Every human being responds (on an emotional level) to changes to routines. Some might do so more strongly than others, but we all respond. And our responses can dictate how quickly we adapt to new circumstances and conditions. The change curve can help to make sense of these reactions: to normalise them and help us to move on from them. So, here we highlight five big phases of change that you will experience whenever you move towards remote working.

1. Denial

Alternatively known as the “Hey, this isn’t so bad. In fact, it’s sort of fun doing things differently” phase, denial is a purpose-built response to protect ourselves from the actual threat of change. Why is change a threat? Well, it tests us. It forces us to develop new skills, new attitudes and new behaviours. As a result, not accepting that things will change preserves our sense of self-worth and competence, rather than accepting that we may not be able to cope with what’s ahead. It’s not the best coping strategy, but it works for some and it delays the inevitable.

If you’ve moved to remote working, denial may come in the form of a sense of novelty as you test new ways of working. It may be a sense of “this will only be for a few weeks,” or it may be “I can still go out and do what I used to do”.

2. Anger

Alternatively known as the “Okay, this is starting to really irritate me now…” phase, anger reflects our desire to fight our current situation and push back on the changes imposed on us. It will be reflected in increasing frustration at the endless video conferencing meetings and telephone calls that can be associated with remote working. Or it can be anger with colleagues or bosses who aren’t responding quickly enough. For anger, you can read irritation, frustration and being pissed off at the smallest of problems.

But the positive thing about anger? It shows that you are up for the fight. You are no longer denying where you are, but instead, starting to gear up psychologically to tackle what lies ahead. So, it may not be the best feeling in the world, but it’s at least a sign that you’re engaging with change.

3. Grief

Everyone who experiences change will encounter feelings that are associated with grief and loss. Even positive changes, such as winning large sums of money, are accompanied with often unexplainable sadness. This feeling of grief signifies that you are no longer who you used to be. In the extreme, you can feel down and depressed by what is happening, although, on the outside, may project a more upbeat image. How often, for instance, have we said “I’m fine” when asked how things are going these past few weeks?

In the current situation, many things will be missed – and grieved for – that were once just a part of your routine. The ease of popping out for coffee or lunch, the freedom of talking face-to-face with colleagues, even the dreaded commute to work, will all feel like a loss.

With remote working, it’s also easy to feel isolated, adding to these feelings of loss. One of the biggest factors that will enhance your ability to work in a remote way is your ability to stay in touch with people. If you consider yourself to be an ‘introvert’ and therefore better suited to remote working, think again. It’s essential to reach out to others regularly and to use video conferencing as often as possible to maintain human contact. Emails just don’t cut it in these circumstances.

4. Experimenting

The point at which you know you’re committed to change is the moment when you start to test out new ways of doing things. This means that you’ve accepted your resentment of the change (or at least grown used to living with the thought of change) and you now want to make life easier for yourself. The most common feelings are positive ones, connected with excitement at being able to do things differently and better than before.

Some of you may be here already (you early adopters, you…) while some will be a way off. But it’s important to recognise that you will all, at some point in the coming days, weeks or even months, start to feel good about trying new ways of working. The abnormal will become the “new normal”, to quote yet another colleague.

5. Flourishing

The final phase of change leads to flourishing. If, today, it feels like you are fighting hard to survive the change being imposed on you, in the future you will feel that you are thriving. While change threatens self-esteem and reduces feelings of competence, adapting to change and experimenting with new ways of working grows confidence. Anyone who has been through significant change will agree, whether reluctantly or enthusiastically: the end point of any change curve is higher than the start point.

Making the most of the situation

So, what will be of most help to you during these unsteady and unpredictable times? Here are five suggestions to make the shift towards remote working a success for you:

  • Be aware of your own reactions to change: Recognise when you are feeling anxious or angry about a change and remind yourself that – while these are natural reactions – they are not going to help you in any way. Channel feelings of excitement and enthusiasm. This will leave you feeling more positive and will help to accept the change.
  • Embrace change rather than resist it: Resisting change that is going to happen regardless will cause you to feel stuck and isolated, rather than motivated and engaged. Embrace what is happening and try to be as involved as possible. By doing this, you’ll feel part of the team and able to contribute to the direction of the change.
  • Find role models: Look at others who are further ahead in accepting the change. Seeing others who have successfully adopted new ways of working can provide useful reassurance that the change isn’t to be feared.
  • One step at a time: It’s easy to see change as an overwhelming force. And yet, change is often much more successful and beneficial when small steps are taken. Take actions that will increase your sense of personal control. Try to make this phase of change feel more manageable by changing smaller, routine, everyday habits within work processes.
  • Look to the end: While it’s difficult to forecast an end to the current situation, bear in mind that 99 times out of 100, the process of change leaves us feeling more experienced and more able to adapt in the future. It may not happen straight away, but with time and patience, these feelings may well develop. In essence, change enables change.
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