VIRTUAL WORKING: THE NEW NORMAL
The Covid-19 Pandemic has seen organisations embrace virtual ways of working at an accelerated pace. Connection with colleagues is being supported via video calling and collaboration technology thus enabling people to successfully adapt to remote working. While there is a strong sense of gratitude for the ability to continue to work from home, we still frequently hear our clients express that it feels as though ‘something is missing’ and that the felt connection with colleagues is simply ‘not the same’.
Emerging research1 also tells us that many employees don’t want to return to the office on a full time basis and they want flexibility in choosing where they work going forward. Taking a serious look at what it really is that we are ‘missing’ is therefore an imperative for the long haul.
WHAT ARE WE MISSING?
There are a number of different lenses we can use to better appreciate what it is we feel is ‘missing’ from a psychological perspective i.e. the
- Social and
- Physical lens.
There is a growing body of evidence2 to be found in the neuroscience and biobehavioural literature supporting the idea that real time sensory connections result in neuro mimicry and synchrony. We’ve known for some time that people tend to mimic and synchronise the facial expressions, vocalisations and postures of those they are interacting with. More recent evidence suggests that this mimicry occurs on many more levels than just muscle movements alone, for example, the synchrony of heart-rate, pupil-diameter and hormonal level during social interactions. There is also evidence of synchronised neural firings on brain scans.
These findings illustrate the complexity of human interactions that occur at a cognitive and biological level. This is essentially the science behind what enables us to ‘tune-in’ to our colleagues, empathise and connect with them on a deeper level, fostering levels of trust that are critical for effective teamwork.
The ‘felt experience’ of this gap in connection is expressed in varied ways e.g. some colleagues may express how it’s more difficult to get on the ‘same wavelength’ with others when attending a virtual brainstorming or collaboration session and others desire to meet a potential business partner in person to ‘look into the whites of their eyes’, before finalising an agreement. The science tells us that there is a basis from a cognitive neuroscience perspective to explain why it is that we get on the ‘same page’ more easily, when we meet in person. Is it any wonder that a 2020 headline read “Third round of Virtual Brexit talks end with very little progress”.
Distinguished Psychology Professor Barbara Frederickson’s research3 posits that when we speak of real time sensory connection we are referring to face-to-face interactions – where our expression of emotion is embodied and experienced by both individuals at the same time. While one-to-one phone calls and video calls can emulate these experiences to an extent and can convey real time sensory information, less emotional information is conveyed in these interactions and mimicry is less likely, largely due to lack of eye contact4. This sense of embodied experience is lost in many forms of virtual connection such as instant messaging, email or large video / teleconference calls. Arguably, with more of these interactions in the virtual workplace, there is less opportunity to ‘tune-in’ and ‘connect’ with colleagues. When face-to-face is not possible, one-to-one video calls are the best alternative, followed by one-to-one phone calls; as a lot of emotional information can be conveyed by the voice. However as noted, for real time sensory connection to occur in its deepest form, there is no substitute for an in person meeting where eye contact is possible.
If we consider the role that Reciprocity plays in how we perceive, understand and influence others, the virtual world offers us less to reciprocate. Take for example the subtleties of emotional expression, psychological research tells us that as humans we have a tendency to align emotionally with those we are interacting with through mimicry, known as ‘Emotional Contagion’5. In virtual connections, it is far more difficult to naturally perceive these subtleties and arguably more difficult to align and connect with those we are interacting with. In the office environment, often we can sense the emotional energy present; which can have its merits and indeed drawbacks.
For example the sense of urgency present due to a looming deadline, evidenced by colleagues displaying some frustration and impatience, contrast this with the period before the office closes for the holiday period in December. The energy is more mellow and carefree. Positive or negative, the emotional energy in the office environment is contagious and we do miss this when working virtually with colleagues.
In dispersed teams and organisations, we inevitably miss out to an extent on interpersonal nuances and cues from colleagues, for example non-verbal communication and body language. While video conferencing software is a great enabler of positive virtual interactions, and certainly helps us to pick up on some non-verbal cues, the reality as we’ve explored, is that video calling doesn’t capture the complexity of human interactions. Similarly in a virtual workspace, we don’t have the same opportunities to observe norms which influence workplace culture. For example the moments of collective celebration and connection; the coffee breaks, the birthday cakes and team lunches. These interactions build relationships and create the space for colleagues to connect outside of their working relationships. These ritualistic daily office interactions play a role in reinforcing a sense of well-being and belonging in a community. Furthermore, we know that isolation and reductions in social contact are associated with challenges to physical and mental health6. While there are many things that we don’t miss about the office, even the introverts among us miss the organic social connection with colleagues which subtly benefit us. Similarly, we know that about 20% of our learning in the workplace takes place via our social interactions and relationships with others. While working in a fully virtual world, we miss out on these moments of ad hoc learning and development that happen through osmosis in the office environment. This is a particular challenge to be aware of for new joiners and those within the early years of their career.
Fundamentally, in the virtual workplace, we’re missing the physical sense of other person/people (their movement, gestures, postures etc.). In addition, we miss out on all of the sensory input and contextual clues from the physical environment. While we might not pay much conscious attention to our physical surroundings on a typical day at the office, they are rich in context and sensory input. For example, a coffee break with a colleague at the local office café is a much richer and more memorable sensory experience than a virtual coffee break; the hustle and bustle of the café, the coffee aromas etc.
Similarly, consider a meeting to discuss a promotion you’ve been offered. In ‘normal times’ your leader may have discussed this with you over a nice lunch, or in the boardroom with the great view. The physical location signifies something – it signifies a moment of praise, recognition and celebration. Inevitably in virtual interactions, we miss out on the rich sensory input a physical meeting affords.
In addition, the physical work space provides us with more concrete work boundaries and natural stopping cues (i.e. the need to stop and travel home). Since the mass global shift to virtual working, we’ve all heard accounts from colleagues and friends struggling to ‘switch off’ and separate work from home, which is no surprise considering the blurred lines between home and work for so many at present.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
Working from home is likely to continue in some capacity for many organisations going forward, driven by public health guidance as well as increased expectations from employees. There is no denying that increases in employees working from home has the potential to have a significant positive impact on individuals, organisations and societies from a number of perspectives; flexibility, work-life balance, environmental etc. However, as we’ve outlined, there are very real limitations inherent in virtual interactions, so what can we do about this?
The first step is expanding our awareness and insight. Appreciating what it is that is really ‘missing’ helps the seemingly intangible become more tangible, understood and actionable. Noted below are some practical tips to consider to mitigate potential limitations of virtual working:
- EMBRACE THE HOME / OFFICE BLEND
Embrace the new blend of home and office working we are likely to see continue. While we’ve become comfortable with the format of VCs, when it is safe and possible to do so, seize opportunities to meet colleagues face-to-face as part of the working week in order to realise the benefits of in-person connections for your team and organisation.
When virtual meetings are more suitable, ensure you make the technology work in your favour when it comes to connecting with your colleagues. Lots of us have a tendency to set our video calls to gallery view, where we can see all attendees at once. Try switching to speaker view where suitable, to enable you to be more present and focused on the cues of those who are speaking. Similarly, don’t share slides unless necessary and take them down during dialogue to foster engagement and connection.
- COMMUNICATE WITH INTENT
Knowing that virtual interactions make it harder to perceive and reciprocate emotions and deeper meaning, use words more consciously and deliberately. Be conscious to question others and express yourself with this in mind. Why not open and close meetings with an emotional check-in “How are you feeling? / How are you feeling about…”. While you might not be able to bring a colleague to lunch to celebrate a promotion, or welcome a new colleague to the team over coffee, make a conscious effort to express this verbally. Similarly encouraging and practicing simple appreciation exercises can be effective in boosting emotional connection and positivity.
- MANAGE YOUR SPACE
One useful technique is to try creating more of a shared space in the virtual world by trying to understand the other person’s situation more (e.g. show via camera or ask: where are you/what’s in view etc.). This activity can create a greater awareness of others’ context, contributing to a more realistic and connected feeling.
Try establishing a physical border between work and home domains (for example a dedicated office space). While everyone may not have the luxury of an enclosed private office, for some this may mean manipulating physical space. Focus on creating a dedicated physical environment where you can immerse yourself in your work.
There is no denying the incredible benefits and possibilities presented by a world where virtual working is more normalised, accessible and encouraged. The opportunity to enrich our lives with more time dedicated to the things we truly value, and less time travelling and commuting will have a profoundly positive impact on so many. However, as this article has explored, let’s not forget about the unique benefits yielded from in-person connection and collaboration with our colleagues. The challenge for individuals, teams and leaders of organisations will be to find the right balance of both…
- Is 2021 the year we finally say goodbye to the office? 2021
- Connecting minds and sharing emotions through mimicry: A neurocognitive model of emotional contagion. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 2017.
- Well-Being Correlates of Perceived Positivity Resonance: Evidence from Trait and Episode-Level Assessments, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2018
- Why does gaze enhance mimicry? Placing gaze-mimicry effects in relation to other gaze phenomena, The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 2014
- The Social Neuroscience of Empathy, The Year In Cognitive Neuroscience 2009, New York Academy of Sciences, 2009.
- An overview of systematic reviews on the public health consequences of social isolation and loneliness, The Royal Society for Public Health, 2017