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What happens backstage…is just as important as what happens onstage. 4 tips for remote working teams

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Client-facing work such as consulting or sales usually relies on face to face meetings. During the pandemic however, many of us are forced to work entirely remotely. But how can you perform well in a client-facing role while working from home? 

A challenge for remote workers is that they can experience loneliness. A sense of being disconnected from their team has always been a challenge for remote teams and this raises concerns for effective and productive work, but also wellbeing. But remote work is not new, so what can we learn from those who have been working remotely for years? 

the art of remote performance

In Ella Hafermalz and Kai Riemer’s recent paper published in the European Journal of Information Systems, we show that these two issues of productivity and wellbeing are actually strongly connected. If you are performing well as an individual and a team, you feel connected and competent and build confidence in your work. In the following we will introduce you to our framework and tell you about four important types of communication that are important in client-facing remote work. 

First, we’ll briefly explain the background for our study. Our paper uses a case of telenursing, where nurses help patients over the phone. This is an intense form of client-facing work that is fast-paced and highly consequential – lives are at stake. The nurses do this stressful work entirely from home and have never met each other in person. These are expert remote workers and we can learn a lot from how they support each other and how they perform their work effectively!

The art of performance

For our framework we combined what we learned from interviews with the telenurses with key insights from the sociologist Erving Goffman. Goffman argued that working in a team is like putting on a theatrical performance. Teams work together to make a good impression in front of their audience – in this case, the client. Putting on a convincing performance requires the team to spend time both in character (as a professional toward the client) and out of character (as a member of the team). We offer a unique perspective on remote team work by analysing how ‘out of character’ communication supports client-facing teamwork.

Meta communication

Before we explain the framework, working remotely is something you can learn as a team. We recommend that you make what technology you use and for what purpose a topic of conversation in your team. By reflecting on and even rehearsing how technology can support the four types of communication outlined here, your team can learn to perform client-facing work more effectively.

Our framework

We now outline four types of communication out of character that are important for remote team work. While there is often a focus on how to speak effectively in front of your client (e.g. persuasive language), we here highlight how important it is to speak in private with your team mates. It’s important to think about how technology can support this kind of communication before, during, and after a client-facing work ‘performance’.

1) Coping by talking about the audience, backstage:

Before and after a client-facing performance, it is helpful to find a space to talk candidly with the team about the client. It is important that this space is fully hidden from the ‘audience’ so you can really relax! This means you need a ‘back stage’ space where the audience can’t enter. In remote work, this could be a separate call or a messaging platform. Preferably it is not the same call as the one the client has access to, because then they could drop in at any moment. Talking about the client before and after a ‘performance’ can help the team bond and cope with any anxieties related to perceived challenges. Think of the dressing room in a theatre, or a staffroom where teachers can talk about their students. It is very cathartic and helps with ‘getting up and carrying on’ when things get hard.

The telenurses we spoke to used an instant messaging platform to chat about challenges they had experienced during their shift – it helped them to bond and cope with problematic callers. 

2) Learning by talking about the performance, backstage: 

After a client-facing performance, it’s important to meet ‘backstage’ to discuss how the performance went. This creates an opportunity for newcomers to learn about what counts as ‘good practice’ and how they can improve. Debriefing in a digital space away from the client also creates an opportunity to plan for the next performance. Getting better at performing your role is important for confidence – which is linked to both productivity and wellbeing. So having these ‘out of character’ discussions backstage after a performance is particularly important in remote contexts where opportunities for learning how to be in character are more scarce. 

The telenurses used a screen sharing technology so they could sit in on each other’s calls. Afterwards, the more experienced nurse asked questions like ‘do you know why I did that?’ and passed on important tips. 

3) Plotting by talking (secretly) about the performance, onstage:

Out of character communication also happens during a performance – but it has to be kept secret. Think of how actors subtly help each other to remember forgotten lines. Or workshop presenters give one another a meaningful glance across the room to signal that the activity should end. These subtle cues allow the team to plot their next move, without the audience suspecting that the performance is being strategically staged. How will your team engage in plotting during a client-facing performance? How can you use technology, such as a backchannel, to decide on key moves or redirect action? In face to face settings, this type of plotting is second nature (body language, eye contact, whispers) but it can be challenging when working digitally. Discussing and even rehearsing this type of communication out of character before you ‘go live’ can make the event much less stressful, and more effective.

Telenurses get difficult calls that they sometimes don’t know how to deal with. It was hard for them to help each other in these situations. Instant messages were being sent back and forth but could be overwhelming – it took time for new nurses to get used to using a backchannel effectively to get help while on a call.

4) Positioning by talking (secretly) to the audience, onstage:

The last type of communication out of character is political. It is about how you and your team positionyourselves in relation to the client. In any client-facing performance, there are moments where you are (secretly) negotiating status, power, and how friendly the relationship is or will be. Usually we use all sorts of non-verbal cues and also humour to do this kind of positioning work. In remote settings, humour does not always travel well, and it can be hard to ‘read the room’ to know how attempts to for example make the relationship more friendly are being received. Time will tell how this positioning work will translate to the online setting – but it is important to remember that often these attempts at positioning are being recorded (for example in a Zoom meeting), so it is important to use ‘double speak’ to address both the current audience but also possible future audiences. This is a challenging aspect of client-facing work that is best discussed during those backstage ‘learning’ chats!

The telenurses’ calls are recorded for quality assurance. This means they have to be careful to touch on all the points that the automated system requires them to mention, while not offending the patient by repeating irrelevant questions. Satisfying two audiences at once is challenging but possible with practice.

Staging a successful client-facing performance

Using our framework can help your team to reflect on current practices and how they can be improved. Remember that the four types of ‘communication out of character’ are important for staging a successful client-facing performance. What technology you use for each type is up to you, but it is worth investing time in working out what works for your team. Finally, secrecy and privacy are important to our framework. We advocate being respectful of the client at all times, but also recognise that private spaces away from the client are extremely important. The team needs to be able to relax and talk candidly, in order to both feel connected to each other and to perform more effectively in their next appearance in front of the client. Communication out of character supports coping, learning, plotting, and positioning – key aspects of learning your role and being a part of a team. In this way, our framework promotes productivity and wellbeing.

To learn more read the full paper open access here:

Hafermalz, E., & K. Riemer. (2020). “Productive and connected while working from home: what client-facing remote workers can learn from telenurses about ‘belonging through technology’.” European Journal of Information Systems, 1-11. doi:10.1080/0960085X.2020.1841572

About the authors

Ella Hafermalz is Assistant Professor at the KIN Center for Digital Innovation at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Her research uses abductive qualitative methods to investigate how technologies are used, managed, and experienced in contemporary workplaces. Her research focus includes how technology is used to support remote work, existential experiences of new work forms, and the role of Artificial Intelligence in knowledge work. Ella’s research has been published in Organization Science, Information Systems Journal, European Journal of Information Systems, and Organization Studies. 

Kai Riemer is Professor of Information Technology and Organisation and Head of the Discipline of Business Information Systems at the University of Sydney Business School. Kai is founder and leader of the Digital Disruption Research Group (DDRG), convener of the annual DISRUPT.SYDNEYTM conference, and co-host of Australia’s leading Business and Technology podcast ‘The Future, This Week’. His expertise and research interests cover the areas of Disruptive Innovation, Technology Appropriation, Digital Work Practices, Futures Studies, Social Networking, and the Philosophy of Technology. Kai has extensive experience with industry-funded research and leads a Linkage project initiative on managing end-user technologies, sponsored by the Australian Research Council. Kai’s research follows practice theoretical and non-orthodox approaches and appears in journals such as MIS Quarterly, Journal of the AISEuropean Journal of Information Systems, Journal of Information Technology, or Information Systems Journal. Kai is a board member of the Journal of Information Technology and the Business and Information Systems Engineering journal.