Helping Staff Adjust to Remote Work by Balancing Interpersonal Needs of Team Members

As the Covid-19 crisis continues, more and more Americans are finding that they need to work from home. For some of these, remote working will be a new experience; for many it will not be. But even for experienced home workers, things now are very different. Choosing to work from home on an occasional basis (or even full-time) is one thing; being forced to work from home, for an indeterminate period, with bars, restaurants and other public gathering places closed, while worrying about your family and maybe your job — well, that’s quite another. If organizations are to survive this crisis, this means looking after their people — and that means understanding their people’s needs.

Home workers have a range of needs that should be met if they are to be engaged and productive. These include the physical (for example having the right tech and a dedicated place to work, or getting sufficient exercise) and also the psychological. In recent weeks, the Twitter sphere has been full of posts along the lines of “Corporate life used to favor extroverts, but now it is time for introverts to rule,” but this is of course a huge oversimplification. In practice we all have interpersonal needs — even those of us who lean toward introversion — and given the proportion of our lives that we spend at work, most people consciously or unconsciously look to the workplace to meet a significant proportion of these needs. For the manager of newly remote workers, having a way of understanding and assessing their employees’ interpersonal needs is therefore crucial.

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What Do We need from Other Human Beings?

One of the best-established frameworks for doing this is the FIRO-B (Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation – Behavior) model (full disclosure: my organization publishes the FIRO-B and FIRO Business assessments).The FIRO framework looks at three aspects of interpersonal needs:

  • Inclusion: the need to belong
  • Control: the need for influence
  • Affection: the need for intimacy

Where the FIRO approach gets clever, and becomes of particular use to remote managers, is that it looks at each of these needs in two ways:

  • What an individual expresses toward other people
  • What an individual wants from them

Take, for example, a person with low “expressed inclusion,” but high “wanted inclusion.” This is someone who typically does not include other people in the activities they plan, but who does want to be included by others in their activities. In a traditional face-to-face work environment, they are likely to have developed ways to, subtly, meet their need to be included, for example by being part of groups or being around at the water cooler at certain times. However, other people may not realize that the individual has this need to be included, and when the individual suddenly needs to work from home, they may find themselves isolated. When a manager is aware of this interpersonal need, they can take steps to ensure that the employee does not become isolated in this way.

Balancing the Interpersonal Needs of a Diverse Team

Paying attention to the interpersonal needs of the team can help a manager balance the needs of individuals in an efficient way. For example, team members with a high level of “wanted control” will appreciate clear, structured and precise instructions, but those with low wanted control will find these constricting and irritating. Working remotely, it is easy for managers to miss the visual cues that would normally give this away. Knowing something about an individual’s interpersonal needs acts as a roadmap. And of course, it is important for a manager to be aware of their own interpersonal needs and understand which are and are not likely to be met. Indeed, this awareness can be crucial to the development of leadership skills.

Many organizations, many managers, many individuals are setting out into uncharted waters. Meeting the interpersonal needs of employees will make the voyage smoother.

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John Hackston

John Hackston
John Hackston is a chartered psychologist and head of thought leadership at The Myers-Briggs Co.

John Hackston

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