Social distancing is bringing out the best, and worst, in your coworkers. Unfortunately, the asynchronous nature of remote work can foster bad behavior that would never be accepted in an office and it could worsen, if the current social distancing recommendations are extended.
With each passing week, it becomes more important to address and correct bad remote working behaviors. The longer you wait, the more the bad habits will spread. In a worst-case scenario, they will become so ingrained that they are brought back into the workplace, once social distancing is no longer in the public interest.
Psychologists define social loafing as, “the phenomenon of a person exerting less effort to achieve a goal when he or she works in a group, compared to when working alone.” Instead of achieving the synergy within a team where one-plus-one equals three, social loafing turns one-plus-one into one and a half.
Just because your team is suddenly remote and may only be so for a relatively short period, you shouldn’t ignore passive aggressive social loafing. If left unchecked, it will destroy the moral and productivity of even the best team.
You’ve Been A Social Loafer (And So Have I)
At some points in our lives, we’ve all be social loafers. Though we’d like to think of ourselves as upstanding people who uphold their social contracts with their workmates, the reality is that we’ve all skated and mooched off the work of others.
Think of a time when you didn’t pull your weight in a group – I guarantee you felt your slacking off was justified. This is because loafing is a socially unacceptable behavior. We must rationalize our actions to maintain our unrealistically positive self-image. “It wasn’t my fault. My boss kept changing my goals, so I decided to binge watch Breaking Bad to relieve my anxiety.”
Four common reasons people justify shirking their duties within a group are described below, along with potential solutions.
Why Does Social Loafing Occur?
1. Group Norming – everyone else is goofing off, so why should I work hard?
The nature of remote work makes it more difficult for the group to assess the efforts of its members. When you work at an office, it’s apparent who’s putting in long hours and who’s taking off early.
Solution: Clearly define deliverables and focus on outcomes, not effort. Create metrics by which every member can communicate their incremental progress to the group. Avoid online meetings in which everyone shares their To Do lists.
Consider using a project tracking tool, such as Atlassian’s Jira. It was designed for software development but can be re-purposed to track the progress of a variety of non-software projects.
Celebrate when a team member goes above and beyond to achieve a task and politely, but firmly, hold social loafers accountable when their actions negatively impact the group’s ability to perform.
2. Anonymity – social loafers quietly fade into the background, if not called out
Accountability is much easier to enforce when face-to-face encounters are frequent. A quick, ad hoc question regarding the status of a project in the hallway is an efficient way to ensure your team never remains “stuck” for long. You can interpret body language, tone of voice, etc., and quickly determine if a co-worker is on track or if they need additional time or resources.
Solution: Status check-ins must be proactive in the virtual world. Online silence is typically a symptom of a lack of progress. Thus, reach out to team members whose communication flows are negligible.
At times, people become less engaged when they are uncomfortable asking for help. In a private setting, communicate your concerns to the potential social loafer, in a non-accusatory manner. Often, if you give the person who appears to be loafing the right tools and encouragement, you’ll realize that they weren’t goofing off. Rather, they were inefficiently working hard, in silent frustration.
3. Shared Rewards – social loafers justify their actions by thinking, “Why should I work harder than everyone else, if we’re all going to get the same reward?”
To a point, this is a reasonable reaction, especially if social loafing has already crept into the group’s ethos. The more loafing, the more likely the workers who continue to work hard will feel resentment and join the loafers.
Solution: When your group is working together, in an office, it can be overly cumbersome to design specific performance rewards for each employee. However, in a 100% remote work environment, the additional management overhead can be justified, so each participant can directly see the correlation between their results and their rewards.
Consider creating a group-oriented reward, as well as individual performance incentives for each group member. The remuneration doesn’t have to lavish, or even monetary. Be sure to clearly communicate the definition of “success” required to achieve both the group and the individual rewards.
4. Weak Coordination – I thought someone else was going to do that…
Many managers are accustomed to their teams self-coordinating, which is facilitated by working in physical proximity with their co-workers. In a remote environment, the degree to which co-workers can effectively self-coordinate becomes strained.
Solution: You may not like it, but you’ll likely have to spend a bit more of your time “managing” your team. Online meetings should focus less on individual assignments and more on areas in which responsibilities overlap. Every meeting should end with a mutual understanding of the outstanding tasks and who is primarily responsible for completing them.
If a task is particularly complex, consider breaking it sub-tasks that are smaller than would be appropriate if your team were working in person. This also make it easier to assign specific, meaningful responsibilities to every member of the group, reducing employees ability to become anonymous.
Embrace The Loafers… To A Point
The realization that we’ve all rationalized our own loafing is important. By recalling the circumstances when you didn’t pull your weight, you can empathize and better understand the behavior when it occurs within your group. You can also largely avoid social loafing by denying potential social loafers with reasons to rationalize their bad behavior.
At the same time, remember that suddenly being asked to work remotely, while juggling the demands of one’s family, is challenging, at best. Thus, assume your employees have good intentions. Give them the proper tools, clear direction and appropriate financial rewards to excel at their jobs while working away from the office. In most cases, they will rise to the occasion. If they do not, be prepared to confront the possibility that it might be “you” and not “them.”