The invisible remote worker
In the story of Tove Jansson’s “Invisible Child”, Too-ticky brings a girl to the Moomin House, Ninny, who has become invisible. We easily take it for granted that we are socially visible to at least some of our fellow human beings. The story of the invisible child tells us that this is not self-evident, and also how being treated well makes the invisible visible again.*
Remote work has now been done for a long time due to the pandemic, and shared virtual coffee moments or lunches are common. But they are not enough for everyone. Like Ninny, some feel that they have become invisible in their work. No one notices or knows what they are doing, or if they work at all. No one even notes if they are there or not. This is especially common in expert work that does not generate daily visible returns. In the work communities there are people who need confirmation for their work: “Hey, you’re there and you’re doing something”. If you don’t get this when working remotely, you can easily start wondering if my job matters at all, am I important?
There are two different reactions to the situation:
- You start to hoard more and more work for yourself so that someone notices that you are doing something. You pile up too much work for yourself, the proportions are distorted. You don’t know how much you need to do to make others see that you are working and have earned your place as well as your salary in the work community.
- At the other extreme, you don’t know how to be and what to do, your motivation and pace of work decreases, and you start feeling down.
Someone may even feel that they don’t know anything anymore while working from home. They often have to check things out and the threshold to contact colleagues working remotely is high. People have to decide and figure things out by themselves. Before, it was easy to just yell over the partition wall to a colleague to check up on something and get confirmation for your own skills, and that made decision-making easier.
Humans are social animals and need social contacts. Words are not even necessary, a look it’s enough: you exist.
To feel yourself seen doesn’t need much. If you are physically at work, a coworker in the same room can, with small gestures, sounds, and comments, acknowledge another’s existence, and make you visible. These small gestures may not even be realized, nor do you realize how important they are during the working day.
An invisible introvert
Introverts are the best experts in their field of expertise, to which no one else may even be able to contribute. Projects can be really long and the contribution of a person is not visible until the very end. But still, it’s important that even introverted experts get feedback on their part and see what their role is as a whole.
In the workplace, you get a picture of the whole project, information that is not directly directed at you, but that affects your own work. You will hear where the rest of the project team is going. In remote work, this information is easily obscured.
A more than visible extrovert
Unlike an introvert, the extrovert does not feel invisible. They easily express their opinion or contact their co-worker or manager when they need help, and do not think for a very long time whether they can be disturbed or not. The extrovert wants others to see that they are at work and getting something done. There are many communication channels in use today, and an extrovert can use them to their advantage.
Shared lunches and coffee breaks are enough for the extroverts to support the work, and they know how to make themselves visible without being asked. They are the ones who can pull the show in Zoom as well. An introvert can be happy to hang out listening to others. An introvert may be the one who is always first on the lines but says nothing.
8 ways to make the invisible visible
The Moomin family had their own ways of helping an invisible child, but here are a few ways to use in the work community:
- Working in pairs
Coworkers are formed into pairs. In the beginning and the end of the day they each go through their work covering all tasks. This is possible if they have the same working hours and some kind of logical connection between their work tasks. Pair working encounters can be either in video meetings or over the phone.
- Lines open all day
The morning starts with a video connection, just as in working in pairs, where after the cameras and mics are turned off and regular meetings with intervals are arranged. These meetings throughout the day will allow them to discuss how things are going. This creates a suction of work with even some tentative spirit of competition, but also gives possibility to get help from a friend if the workflow gets stuck.
- Desktop Sharing
Everyone on the team shares their desktops with the app and sees what everyone is doing. Desktop sharing allows you to see if one can disturb another, whether he or she is present, at lunch, at a meeting, whether the work is progressing.
- Coffee moments and lunch time
Still recommended ways to keep in touch with remote coworkers. Make sure you do not forget the social side of communication, and that they are not used (merely) for work. Ask some personal questions, like how’s the dog and the weather.
- The team leader calls
The team leader can call team members daily to ask how they feel, not to check what the team member has done. Everyone can tell about the progress of their work or possible problems, so they don’t feel they are being watched. This works well especially for those who easily find themselves working too hard.
- Voluntary self-expression
Do you feel like telling what you have accomplished? Put a list on the Slack channel? This can work in a small, well-functioning team.
- Weekly meetings
In weekly meetings, reviewing a week’s accomplishments and tasks works well if work assignments produce results quickly. A long project is best to be broken down into smaller entities, such as 10 steps, or three steps to describe its progress.
- My own metrics at work
Make your own work visible to yourself. Invent your own metrics to see the results of your daily work. Make to-do lists and tick the box next to completed tasks. Celebrate small successes for example with a piece of cake in your coffee break. Cut long projects into smaller entities. At the end of the day, think about everything you accomplished. Celebrate that you made it to the end of the day.
Who needs more encouragement or visibility?
Some may feel very invisible and don’t need attention on their part. If you’re a manager, ask each team member privately if they need help with something, what do they feel is the hardest, what takes a toll on them. That way you will know what everyone needs. Those who need help will easily remain quiet in a big group, because they may think that others are doing well and they are the only ones who have problems.
The spirit of the Covid19 spring has changed to the Covid19 fatigue of autumn and winter. Many now miss the company of co-workers. One day a week would be nice to be in the office, even if there are only a few others. If your team needs a change to continuous remote work, agree on a covid-safe way to be present in the workplace for those who need it.
A sense of togetherness keeps the company afloat
Remote work risk is that people start distancing themselves from the work community and the company. The disadvantages of the work become clearer, trust and commitment are reduced. It may occur to me that I could do this work for some other company as well. Will there be more people leaving the company when things return to normal? Management and team leaders should communicate to staff what makes this firm unique, and remind them of what is the spirit of the company which also should be maintained in remote work.
The invisible Ninny in the Moomin Valley eventually became visible, as the Moomin Family showed that they cared about her existence. Take care of the invisible people of your workplace too!
The Auntie package Leading Me helps you understand the meaning of leadership skills in one’s own work, how to set goals and organize your work.
The Auntie package Leading from a Distance helps you to think about things that are especially important for remote management. The package increases awareness of how you yourself think and approach remote work.
* The Story of an Invisible Child and Its Analysis: Joona Taipale’s Tove Jansson’s “Invisible Child” and Social Mirroring
taipale116.pdf (psykoterapia-lehti.fi) (In Finnish)