Remote Work: Dr Maria Katsarou-Makin Of Leadership Psychology Institute On How To Successfully Navigate The Opportunities & Challenges Of Working Remotely Or From Home
An Interview With David Liu
Tracking performance — Having a shared dashboard could be a solution, however, leaders have to be careful as this might result in micromanagement instead of a way to inspire and engage.
As a part of our series about the things you need to successfully work remotely, I had the pleasure of interviewing Maria Katsarou-Makin.
Dr Maria Katsarou-Makin is the founder of the Leadership Psychology Institute in the UK and has more than 20 years of experience in organizational development and executive coaching. She is a Chartered Psychologist and combines business and consulting experience and has done extensive work and research in team dynamics. Dr Katsarou-Makin is an influential book author and recently published her latest book — Group Dyna-Mix: Investigating Team Dynamics, from Leaders to Corporate Gatekeepers.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?
I am originally Greek but grew up in Nigeria (that’s where I spent the first 13 years of my life) and went to a German school. And that’s how the mess begins! ☺ My career splits into two parts. I worked in Human Resources for 13 years for various organisations (in Greece and Germany) and for the last 15 years, I have worked with individuals, teams and organisations in the areas of leadership, team dynamics and coaching. I have also finally found my base that I can call home in a village in the Northwest of England.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I have loads of stories that I can’t share because of confidentiality that involve people in the organisations I worked for during the first part of my career, therefore I am going to share a personal story that has been a milestone for me. In 2003 when I was working in Dusseldorf (Germany), one day… it was Thursday, I just couldn’t get out of bed. This is very unlike me, as I was the type of person who generally doesn’t get ill, has never lost a day of work due to illness, and so on. During my corporate years, I had travelled around the world so much that there was absolutely no excitement left in boarding an aircraft or any glamour involved in using the airline lounge. I had conditioned myself to be able to fall asleep the minute the plane took off. Some days I would get to the evening and realize that I hadn’t had any water or even been to the toilet all day. More sophisticated personal tasks such as plucking my eyebrows were forgotten. I was really exhausted, day in day out, completely overworked and in a zombie-like state. All this, combined with some relationship difficulties resulted in burnout without precedent. The doctor did not want to let me go back to work but I insisted, so he prescribed me an antidepressant. I instinctively felt it was the wrong thing for me, but I took it. I went into a deeper depression, this time a ‘silent’ version of it. I call it ‘silent’ because I had absolutely no feelings of any kind — bad or good, happy or sad. I could not even cry anymore. I felt empty. For the first time in my life, I would look out of my apartment window and understand why somebody would want to commit suicide. That’s when I started therapy for the first time and changed my whole life. It took me a while to feel comfortable sharing this story, but I think this might help someone else. Almost 20 years after this event, self-care is one of my priorities and what I always say is that it’s not selfish or a sign of weakness, on the contrary, it’s a sign of emotional maturity to be able to look after yourself and ask for support when you need it.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I was living and working in Greece, I also drove like a Greek… I am aware I am stereotyping here… which means that I can get quite animated when I am in a hurry. So, one day, I was late for work, and this was a very important day because we had a visit from the HQs of the Head of Human Resources and I was presenting. I was stuck in traffic and got very impatient with a car that was taking its time and when I overtook it, I was hanging out the window making all these grand gestures. I am sure you already know where I am going with this… yes, the person in the car was the Head of HR indeed… I was so embarrassed when I saw their face in the audience while presenting… I can’t remember how, but I managed to include a piece on multicultural awareness in my presentation and then in front of everyone explained what happened and of course, apologized publicly. Admitting mistakes is part of my mantra and I have always done so, it’s one of the reasons I had good relationships with my colleagues because they knew they could trust me to tell them how things are. And this was another piece of evidence for this.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees thrive and avoid burnout?
Business leaders need to be alert and ensure they have the pulse of their people at all times. I often encounter a great gap between the top team of an organisation and their perceptions about what is going on and the rest of the organisation. They need to be proactive with initiatives and professional support and create the opportunities for people to speak up and make well-being part of their culture. Having said that, self-care is a personal matter and responsibility, every employee has a responsibility to look after themselves, ask for support when needed and maintain healthy boundaries. Having suffered from burnout myself many years ago, I know that it was my attitude towards work that led me to this state. As I said in the beginning, I wasn’t able to spot the early signs and look after myself which resulted in me one day not being able to get out of bed. Emotional self-awareness, self-regulation, a support network, and having a purpose, all lead to being more resilient.
Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits and opportunities of working remotely?
I have been working remotely since 2014 so I have been experiencing the benefits before the pandemic. At the same time, I am very aware of the scepticism that many people have around remote work as well as the personal preferences of different individuals, which is something we have to respect. Yes, as you say, there are many benefits and opportunities and here are a few:
- Connect with a larger audience — I was in a workshop the other day with people from 5 different time zones. The diversity of participants was so rich and valuable, and we wouldn’t have been able to do this or do this so easily otherwise.
- Speed — you can call a brief meeting with the people you need to faster without booking a meeting room and without requesting people to travel. And once it’s done, everyone can go back to what they were doing before.
- Use of various tools — there are so many tools to use and make a virtual meeting creative (from polls, to graphics, to gamification, etc.) that can make a meeting really creative, engaging and productive.
- Productivity — In my experience, most people are more productive as they are able to focus on what they do as well as integrate their personal lives in a more efficient way. (e.g. pick up children from school, look after an elderly parent, etc.)
Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding working remotely?
Yes, there are challenges and these are the ones I have personally encountered:
- Lack of spontaneity — In the office, you get up to go for a coffee and see a colleague in the corridor with whom you may want to catch up. This is impossible in remote work because you must schedule every contact even if it’s brief. This of course will affect building relationships and trust.
- Lack of a communication charter — There are so many platforms these days (MS Teams, Zoom, WhatsApp, Webex, etc.) and not all platforms are appropriate for all types of messages and audiences. As a consequence, messages may get lost simply because of a wrong use of channels.
- Boundaries — It’s very easy when you work remotely to be constantly connected or for others to assume you are (or you to expect others to be). I know people who go to meeting after meeting during working hours and as a consequence have no time left to do the actual work or even take a break.
- Tracking performance — It’s very important to keep a remote team in “rhythm” and one of the ways to do this is to ensure transparency of results, which can be another challenge.
- Specify processes not just outputs — In the case of a less experienced team, you might find that you have to specify processes more explicitly rather than just outputs. You may argue that this applies to a team in a physical space too, and I will agree, however, I have found that when working remotely, it almost becomes mandatory.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? Can you give a story or example for each?
- Lack of spontaneity — A way to improve this is to create virtual “water-cooler” moments and other opportunities where the team gets together to socialize and not just work. Also, as a leader remember to have one-to-one conversations on a regular basis and check in with every team member.
- Lack of a communication charter — It’s important for the team to have some sort of communication charter or framework about what they use and when. For example, for a message that is formal, WhatsApp may not be the most appropriate channel. Yet I have seen leaders making important announcements on WhatsApp. Maybe a video call with a few presentation slides would have been more appropriate in this case.
- Boundaries — It’s important that you look at your calendar/schedule and plan ahead as much as possible, and also block time for lunch or other personal breaks. Personally, I also make a point to dress as if I were going to work because that gives the brain a signal that “now we are working” and then change when I have finished.
- Tracking performance — Having a shared dashboard could be a solution, however, leaders have to be careful as this might result in micromanagement instead of a way to inspire and engage.
- Specify processes not just outputs — People managers need to remember to have a conversation with their team about expectations, assumptions, preferred ways of working and create the opportunity and climate for people to feel safe to ask questions.
Do you have any suggestions specifically for people who work at home? What are a few ways to be most productive when you work at home?
Sure, these are some of the things that work for me personally:
- Ensure you have a separate working area, i.e. don’t do everything (eating, working, snacking, etc.) in the same place.
- Try and have a schedule that you stick to, i.e. standard starting time and end time, exactly as if you were going to the office.
- Build in breaks to clear your mind — ensure you block your calendar in case you share calendars with others. As you are probably spending a lot of time in front of a screen, checking your social media updates might not be the best choice (as it’s more screen time). A walk might be a better option.
- Boundaries — Basically, all of the above points are related to setting clear boundaries AND keeping those. It’s very easy to allow work to bleed into your personal life.
Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic? Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is just getting used to working remotely?
The obstacles are the challenges that I mentioned earlier. Teams that have already worked together in a physical space have an advantage over those that haven’t because they already know each other. An additional challenge would be not to assume that what worked in the physical space will automatically work in the virtual space. They need to have the conversation and agree on working principles and address communication, team cohesiveness, productivity and potential isolation.
What do you suggest can be done to create an empowering work culture and team culture with a team that is remote and not physically together?
It’s crucial to cultivate those social connections through various remote interactions that include fun (and are not just about business objectives). In addition, ensure that there is a climate where people feel they can get encouragement as well as emotional support. Communication probably needs to be even more regular as well as intentional and planned. In addition, ensure that roles and responsibilities are clear, especially for the people who need more guidance and supervision and schedule regular check-ins.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I don’t think of myself as a person of great influence…but the movement I would start would be to incorporate psychology and neuroscience classes as early as possible in school. If you think about it, we learn about all the capital cities of the world, but we are not taught about the very basics of human behaviour, like, how to have constructive conflict, why we are different, how our brain works, and so on. So, that’s what I would campaign for.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Failure Sucks but it Instructs!” I think it needs no explanation, as my best learnings have been the result of mistakes.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Sure, either follow my Blog: https://drmariakatsarou.blog or my
YouTube Channel: http://www.youtube.com/c/MariaKatsarouMindTalks
As well as social media, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter.
Thank you for these great insights! We wish you continued success
Thank YOU very much for the opportunity!