How Structured Problem-Solving and Critical Thinking Can Improve the Remote Workplace
Collaboration may be the name of the game in the digital workplace, but half of the remote workers surveyed by the UK's Office for National Statistics in February 2022 said they find it challenging to work with others at a distance.
And the onus isn't all on employees. Employers, too, are feeling the challenge of remote work.
“Managing an increasingly remote workforce can present significant new challenges around communication, collaboration, productivity and culture-building,” said Joblist's CEO Kevin Harrington.
But remote work is here to say, according to multiple studies around the world, so how can organizations make it all work? The key, according to McKinsey, may lie in critical thinking.
Structured Problem-Solving for Remote Work Success
Remote work may come with its own set of challenges, but employers can make it work with a more deliberate approach.
While critical thinking has long been a valued skill among leaders, today, remote employees of all levels can also derive significant benefits from honing the skill.
By learning structured problem-solving techniques, remote teams can improve communication, prioritize tasks and arrive at good decisions more consistently, Harrington said. By not being bogged down by obstacles, employees can also feel happier in their roles, which, in turn, makes it easier for companies to retain key talent, he said.
“Structured problem-solving can be a valuable tool for teams in the remote workplace because it ensures that decisions are based on facts rather than assumptions," added Michael Chepurnyak, CEO and founder of web design firm Ein-des-ein. It also ensures all team members have an equal voice in the discussion, he said.
Among leaders, the skill can help improve team cohesion, ensuring everyone works from the same plan, toward the same goal.
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Invest in L&D to Develop Critical Thinking Skills Throughout the Organization
In a remote workplace, it's easy for problems to go unnoticed. Employees may not always report the challenges they face in accomplishing their task — for many reasons. In turn, this can weigh heavily on morale, affecting productivity and innovation.
But without a clear view into the issues that are impacting workers' day-to-day, it's difficult to implement solutions.
Harrington suggests employers invest in learning and development initiatives to teach more efficient ways of collaborating. A scalable L&D program could start by teaching team leaders coaching techniques for the remote workplace. This may entail implementing weekly or daily check-ins with team members, where there is no agenda other than what's on the employee's mind and plate for the day or days ahead.
While there is meeting fatigue in the remote workplace, these check-ins — unless they uncover a major issue that needs to be discussed at length — should not take more than 10-15 minutes. The more frequent they are, the more agile and valuable they become.
Chepurnyak has deployed a step-by-step plan to improve problem-solving at Ein-des-ein. The plan is led by the leadership team but involves everyone affected by the problem. The key, he said, is to break down the problem into manageable steps.
1. Gather relevant information. First, you need to gather the relevant data to ensure you fully understand the problem and the repercussions it has on all stakeholders. It may take a bit of work to get the information, too. Not everyone is willing to raise their hands and admit they're run against a problem they cannot solve on their own. Leaders need to be astute when digging into the data.
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Brendan McGreevy, head of strategy at Affinda, said his company went through quite a bit of struggle when setting up its problem-solving structure, but in the end, he said, the exercise has been well worth the effort.
2. Brainstorm fixes. Once the relevant data is gathered, Chepurnyak said it's time to brainstorm the approaches that can help resolve the situation. It's important at this stage to hear from everyone because while leaders may have final say in the changes implemented, it is employees who understand the process best for having to execute it every day.
Chepurnyak said some companies will prefer to address this brainstorming step in smaller groups, to allow for more open communications and make sure everyone gets a chance to speak. But whichever the approach, it is important for the whole group to be present when discussing the solution that has been retained.
3. Present the solution. Once a solution is found, gather all stakeholders once more to clearly explain the why, how and when. This is vital to achieving buy-in and a key component of change management strategies. Be open to criticism. There may be things you've overlooked when choosing the solution, so be prepared to go back to the drawing board or apply tweaks.
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Overcoming Pain Points
It can take some time to get employees used to applying structured problem-solving skills in their day-to-day.
McGreevy said his team faced coordination issues, particularly, because there was no traditional process to rely on in the first place. “It was pretty much the responsibility of an individual team to work out a solution for itself,” he said.
This caused a lack of coordination between teams, and even between individuals on a team — which affected the quality of the output and slowed the success of the entire problem-solving process.
He said companies may find use in creating a dedicated channel to discuss pain points and fixes. Having a central location where issues are openly discussed allows everyone to participate in meaningful conversations that seek to improve the organization and prevent further issues. Many tools allow for this kind of segregation of topics and conversations, making it easy to implement across a team or business.
Harrington said while all of this is great advice, it's also important for leaders to be aware of any other underlying issue that may block the road ahead.
For instance, he said, burnout can pose a significant challenge to innovation and thus to problem-solving abilities. Joblist's 2023 Trends Report shows 55% of remote workers are experiencing burnout. Employees who feel burnt out are much less likely to embrace change or brainstorm solutions. Addressing this issue first is vital before any true change can take effect.
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