Let’s call it Remote Work 2.0.
We’ve all moved on from our Spring 2020 version of remote work. It was a reactive, often legally mandated, shift from office to home that happened seemingly overnight in the midst of what can only be characterized as the utter chaos of the early days of the pandemic. A year later, in late spring and early summer of 2021, we had vaccines, declining infection rates and fewer hospitalisations. And some organisations were allowing, or at least planning, a return to offices. But before much of that could come to fruition, the Delta variant emerged and. . .it’s déjà vu all over again. Except, not quite. We’re no longer in that initial 2020 version of remote work that was unplanned and cobbled together on the fly. We now can – and should — start thinking about other dynamics impacted by ongoing remote work. There are elements of team building, for example, that are more impacted by remote work. One of them is attribution error. And while that’s not new, we’re more vulnerable to it now.
What is attribution error and why should I care?
Put simply, attribution error is the idea that what we all have a bias to attribute our behaviour to outside factors when there’s a negative result, and attribute others’ behaviours to their own character or judgement when there’s a negative result. In other words, if I’m late to a meeting, I’m likely to explain that my wi-fi is slow due to heavy use in the neighbourhood, or the teleconferencing app is unreliable. But if you’re late to a meeting, I’ll likely think to myself, ‘he’s always a bit disorganised and running a bit tardy; it’s just who he is’. Attribution error, I suppose, is a polite psychologically-termed way of saying ‘Stuff happens to me and it’s not my fault. You are who you are and the master of your own destiny’. Of course, life isn’t that simple (surprise). Sometimes it’s me, not the wi-fi. Sometimes you really were waylaid by outside forces. The challenge, of course, is that it can lead us to be too forgiving our ourselves, and too critical of others.
Group attribution error – when teams go tribal. Why is this an issue more now than ever? Two things: one, there’s a related version of personal attribution error that happens in groups which is (predictably) called group attribution error. It’s the same thing, but super-sized. My team believes when our performance is less than ideal it’s because of things beyond our control (Finance didn’t get us the numbers, Marketing missed their deadline, whatever). If your team messes up, well, you guys were always a bit hit or miss on delivery. This is an issue that we all struggle with. It’s just human nature, at both levels. We are more forgiving of ourselves, and more forgiving of those we work closely with and with whom we have aligned goals and accountability. To a certain degree, it’s a great benefit of a good team dynamic to be empathetic and supportive of each other. You just don’t want to be blinded by that loyalty – it’s the difference between caring more about your own team in a way that leads to productivity versus a tribalism that I’ve warned about before, which can compromise objectivity.
Believing without seeing — empty office empathy. The challenge with remote work, combined with our tendency toward group attribution error is that we’ve lost some of the information we accessed in the office. We don’t share company wi-fi, and all experience a slowdown. We don’t see when a key member of someone else’s team is out sick and make a mental note that it could impact their productivity. We have lost almost all non-essential casual interaction with those not directly in our work orbit, so we have almost no foundation for some general sympathy, or assessment of those not on our team. Before, you might not work with the IT team directly, but you could casually hear they’re stretched and be more forgiving when they aren’t responsive. You might overhear someone in Finance mention they haven’t slept in a week because they have a colicky newborn at home. But now, if it’s not in your Slack conversation or brought up on a Webex call, you’re more siloed than ever.
Remote work doesn’t doom us to group attribution error.
Working remotely doesn’t mean that we are crueler, or less sympathetic. Many argue that the last year has made us instinctively more empathetic — we assume that everyone’s more stressed and living less predictably than ever before. (Nothing like a worldwide plague to make us cut each other a little slack.) But we are more vulnerable to this bias because we don’t have context, transparency or relationships in the way that we did when we were working in the same physical space. Our sympathy is somewhat more theoretical and abstract as opposed to experiential and personal. We will need to actively manage the risk of attribution error. To a certain degree, simply recognising it exists can serve as a way of mitigating how much it manifests in our interactions. And only now, as living with Covid-19 has become somewhat normalised (though I cringe to write that), is our heightened sympathy beginning to wane. That’s not totally a bad thing; our panic about Covid-19 has reduced as our ability to protect ourselves has increased. (And it’s worth nothing, somewhat predictably, those of us who choose not to get vaccinated risk incurring compassion fatigue from the rest of us.) And on the scale of work productivity and team-based challenges we’ve faced in the last year, group attribution error took a back seat to a lot of more acute issues. But it’s the kind of thing that we do need to start accommodating as an ‘event’ like Covid-19 is turning into a foreseeable state of being. We’re likely going to be working together differently for a long time; learning to do it well is going to take a while.
Robert Kovach is an advisor to leadership teams of Fortune 500, FTSE 100, and FTSE Global 500 companies on driving business strategy through executive leadership and team effectiveness. The opinions expressed in this blog are his own. Contact him for speaking inquiries.