Beware of the Long-Term Downsides of Virtual Work

During this COVID-19 pandemic, organizations will grow and prosper to the extent that the workforce succeeds at maintaining physical distance without diminishing social engagement.

Real-life Face Time Matters

While no businesses succeed based on their architecture or space design, many fail as a result of inattention to the power of spatial relationships. 

“What counts is human experience and human interaction, and how form facilitates that.” – Joel Sanders, professor of architecture at Yale

The Office: Noun. def.– Not an Amortized Asset; Rather a Strategic Communications Tool

COVID-19 dramatically accelerated the trend towards a flexible work style, and we have now fully arrived at the Work From Anywhere moment. Given the potential reduction in the amount of time that may be spent in the office, many CFOs are looking first at the potential for quickly reducing operating costs. But CEOs should see this is as a more complex and delicate surgery. During this pandemic, your enterprise will grow and prosper to the extent that your workforce succeeds at maintaining physical distance without diminishing social engagement.

As the authors of the HBR piece Workspaces That Move People taught us, we must recognize office space as not just an amortized asset but as a strategic tool for growth. Performance increases where there is Exploration (interaction with people outside your core group), Engagement (interaction with people within your core group), and Energy (interaction with a larger group of people overall). (Learn more about the research in my last blog post, Culture is Everything. Long Live the Office.)

In the long-term, the teams that have the strongest culture have an enormous competitive advantage. By preserving and enhancing culture, leaders will have been wiser fiduciaries than those who did not balance a focus on the short-term ­– simply reducing office space budgets – with adequate consideration of the impact on culture and long-term enterprise productivity.

‘Zoom Fatigue’

“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that people crave social interaction, and Zoom will never replace in-person meetings and collaboration.”– Tom Zurowski, AIA, founding principal of Eastlake Studio

‘Zoom fatigue’ has become an issue as we’ve discovered that Zoom meeting interactions don’t flow with the easy give-and-take of in-person conversation. Clive Thompson put it well in an article for the New York Times, What If Working From Home Goes on … Forever?:

“Scientists of human perception say this [‘Zoom fatigue’] is rooted in how video software violates our normal use of eye-gaze, including how long we look at each other, and how often we do. When we’re hanging out together, we’re constantly exchanging glances – but only brief ones. Long stares, research shows, seem quite threatening. … In this context, videoconferencing is characterized by remarkably poor design, because we’re expected to face the camera and stare."
“Video chat also makes it harder to achieve ‘synchrony,’ a sort of unconscious, balletic call-and-response that emerges when two people are in the same room. … Constantly making micropredictions of our partner’s state – and having these turn out to be correct – is, it turns out, crucial to feeling connected.”

Ties That Bind

“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He (she) experiences himself (herself), his (her) thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” –Albert Einstein

Ben Waber, the creator of the communications intelligence software, Humanyze, determined that a company’s culture and creativity can decline when we do not understand the ‘ties’ that bind us. ‘Strong ties’ are people in your life you talk to frequently, while ‘weak ties’ are the people with whom you rarely communicate. Pandemic period studies show two things: strong ties becoming stronger, and weak ties evaporating.  

Paraphrased from Thompson’s New York Times article: Ordinarily, 45% of the time someone spent communicating with colleagues was with their five strongest ties. In the first weeks of lockdown, that figure exceeded 60%, which helps explain why productivity has stayed high. But, weak ties have deteriorated – employees’ contact with more-distant colleagues has dropped by 30%.

That is troublesome because “corporations have historically seen some of the biggest new ideas emerge when two employees who usually didn’t talk suddenly, by chance, connected.” Technology could connect people in their silos. Except we humans do not connect remotely with those we do not already know and trust.

We’re learning that it’s harder to build cohesion and trust online. Of course you would have occasionally bumped into those people with whom you have ‘weak ties’ in the office. People simply more readily form cooperative ties when face-to-face. 

Waber predicts that companies with dispersed workforces will initially be productive. In time, though, the quality of new ideas will likely diminish and the overall culture will suffer. “I think we’re going to see just this general degradation of the health of organizations,” he says.

Work from the Office – And Other Spaces, Too

The answer is neither everyone going back to the office with no remote work options, nor is it the death of the office. As researchers Tammy D. Allen, Timothy D. Golden, and Kristen M. Shockley reported in the highly regarded study How EffectiveIs Telecommuting? Assessing the Status of Our Scientific Findings

“Although telecommuting has often been studied as a dichotomous variable, it is rarely an all-or-nothing practice. Studies show there may be a crucial threshold in the amount of time an individual can telecommute, beyond which there are diminishing returns. Their search overall suggests that telecommuting may be most beneficial in terms of organizational outcomes when it is practiced to a moderate degree. That is, a balance of face-to-face and virtual contact may be optimal.”

I advise leaders to consider this New Rule: Performance increases in spaces that allow for Exploration, Engagement, and Energy to enable strategy and culture. Bottom line: Work From Anywhere, yes. But we are at our best when we “…free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion.”

Humans need real, not just virtual, face time.

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