The workplace implications of COVID-19 will stay with us far after the pandemic has passed. For example, some are wondering if downtowns will empty out permanently as remote work gains steam.
But before we short sell the commercial real estate market, let us pause and reflect. Now is the time to be thoughtful about what permanent remote work means for staff, employers and the future of work itself.
In Part 1 of this post, I discussed how the decision to shift white-collar workers to permanent remote work – especially at scale – requires a systematic assessment akin to drug development. In Part 2, we will explore a three-phase model organizations seeking to roll out permanent remote work can consider.
Phase 1 – Lost in Translation
Research suggests 55% of communication is body language. “Body” language is lost on video. Faces dominate. Science calls it “high-bandwidth communication” versus “low-bandwidth communication” – more on that later. Many of the contextual clues that come during in-person interaction are lost remotely – even over video.
On video, we cannot see other participants’ hands. Are they clasped with tension or calmly resting on the table? We also lose perspective on engagement; is she leaning forward and engaged (or is that merely the camera angle)? Is he staring intently because he is actively listening or is he zoned into an email?
In fact, being on video may exacerbate our inability to discern clear facial expressions. Video may nudge us to hide behind the camera – a digital mask of sorts. Indeed, being increasingly mindful of how we look on screen may consciously or unconsciously mute many of our facial expressions. Imagine attending every meeting with a mirror in front of you. Would you be as likely to frown, scowl or roll your eyes? Wary of our own self-critical eyes, we revert to a more controlled, emotionless state.
Delivering simple messages virtually is one thing. When the message is complex, nuanced and layered though, communicating it is far more difficult remotely. After all, social cues undergird most of interpersonal communication. Otherwise, we risk unintentional misunderstandings and possible conflict. There is a reason why common sense dictates that difficult conversations happen in person (high bandwidth) instead of over the phone or via email or text message (low bandwidth). Video conferencing is a good approximation but it can never recreate the full sensory experience of an in-person meeting.
Phase 2 – The Social Mediafication of Work
Building meaningful relationships – either personally or professionally– is hard. For most of us, it takes effort. Moving the process online has proven to be far from a panacea. Social media was hyped as the great social connector. But is has been shown to make relationship-building even harder. Indeed, one of the many criticisms of social media is that it not only weakens our existing relationships, but also impedes our ability to form new relationships offline. We are forgetting how to make real friends. Superficial, asynchronous and transactional interactions are largely to blame. The promise of electronic hyper-connection has been overstated.
The potential of forever remote work seems strikingly akin to the promise of social media. Political standing and pecking orders vanish when there is literally no head of the table. However, the risk of damaging or weakening the interpersonal bonds of office mates over time is hard to assess. Will remote teams be able to build relationships comparable to those teams formed in the crucible of a 2 a.m. working session in a musty conference room filled with empty pizza boxes? We just don’t know.
Phase 3 – For the Culture
Employee engagement at work was already at all-time lows before the pandemic. It is hard to imagine remote work will solve that problem. The camaraderie of working, struggling, laughing and succeeding in a team setting is one form of engagement. So is the quality of one’s manager investment in professional development and growth. A broader connection to the culture and mission is yet another engagement vector. All these factors will undoubtedly be impacted by remote work.
While remote work is clearly not eliminating teamwork, it is fundamentally changing the type of glue that holds teams together. For example, largely gone are the scraps of time before and after meetings for idle chitchat. Group interactions are rarely organic. Ad hoc chats must be coordinated and calendared. Moreover, it is much harder to replicate the feeling of struggling through something together as a team through video. Not surprisingly, the physical distance (see my prior post on zooming out) makes the tribulations seem less troublesome, the breakthroughs more distant.
As with teams and teamwork, the nature of management will also have to change. Radical candor – caring personally about one’s direct report but also challenging directly – will need to adapt to a virtual world. Ditto with servant leadership and management by walking around. It will be incumbent upon managers to reinforce humanity in and through virtual moments. Remote work carries the risk of further separating us from our organizations and our peers. We may drift from missionaries to mercenaries (see my prior post on this topic) – hired guns indifferent to our organizational affiliation. Therefore, high-tech work will necessitate high-touch management.
Organizational cohesion and culture are largely emotional dynamics. Person-to-person interactions are the lifeblood. And most of these interactions (historically) occur in-person. For the same reason we prefer to go to the theater, concert, or stadium than stay at home, the experience of work is maximized when it happens surrounded by others. Virtual tools struggle to replicate the “surrounded by others” feeling that we yearn for.
The darkness of the pandemic has gifted us the unique opportunity to earnestly assess remote work’s challenges and opportunities. Only a few months in, however, many firms have already seen enough. They are marching forward with permanent remote work policies despite not having run the full “clinical trial” and interpreting the downstream results. While remote work may yet turn out to be humanity’s future, the uncertainty with developing a COVID-19 vaccine should inform the path forward. Experimentation, data collection and tangible human experiences – not hype and short-term economics – should light the path ahead.
Photo by Dylan Ferreira on Unsplash
Wagish Bhartiya is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. He is a Senior Director at REI Systems where he leads the company’s Software-as-a-Service Business Unit. He created and is responsible for leading a team of more than 100 staff focused on applying software technologies to improve how government operates. Wagish leads a broad-based team that includes product development, R&D, project delivery, and customer success across state, local, federal, and international government customers. Wagish is a regular contributor to a number of government-centric publications and has been on numerous government IT-related television programs including The Bridge which airs on WJLA-Channel 7. You can read his posts here.