The past two years have proved the impressive adaptability of people, companies, schools, and societies in general to big, abrupt changes. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, office workers around the world abruptly packed their essential materials, carved a work space in a corner of their home, scribbled ‘ON AIR’ on a sheet ready to be pasted outside their improvised office’s door, and started working remotely with colleagues they were used to seeing in person. Even taking into account those who already worked remotely part-time or on occasion, the speed of adjusting to working 100% remotely was remarkable. Despite being physically separated, we’ve taken advantage of the abundance of technology at our fingertips to feel close to colleagues, managers, and friends.
The same goes for students and faculty in universities around the world. Faculty migrated in mass to online teaching virtually overnight. For some, it was the first time they delivered their courses online. Students, more familiar with technology but still used to seeing their teachers in the flesh, were equally, if not more, quick to adapt. Students’ transitions often came in difficult circumstances, such as in a tiny room in a student residence, far away from family and friends or in their homes, in spaces ill-suited to academic work, with stress about their job prospects in the post-pandemic economy looming over their new learning environment. Many students went from living on campus or close by to living with their families again, often far away from their peers and professors, sometimes in different cities, time zones, or even countries. Despite these challenges, students participated fully, even enthusiastically, in the new online courses.
Formal meetings became a row of faces on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Google Hangouts. Informal encounters, long thought to be key to innovation, disappeared. And still, work is getting done, projects are advancing, and new ideas are springing up and being implemented.
Furthermore, as several recent studies have found, remote work is as productive, if not more productive, than collocated work (1).
Given these findings, it’s no surprise that many of those who have gotten used to working from home over the past two years do not want to return to the BC (before COVID-19) world. Their work gets done and they find a better work-life balance, with more time for their family and friends.
How is this possible? How is it possible to feel so close with people who are so far away?
Clearly, when faced with a dangerous situation, people prove to be remarkably resilient, flexible, and resourceful. Very likely, the pandemic accelerated trends already deep at work in organizations and societies. The omnipresence of technology, combined with the urgency to protect human lives, led to a leap in adopting new work practices. Both explanations are reasonable. They are also compatible with the results of a study in which I examined the factors that make people feel close to faraway colleagues.
My research identifies specific factors that help explain the speed and smoothness of the adaptations to remote work. Together with my co-authors, Michael Boyer O’Leary (Georgetown University) and Jeanne Wilson (The College of William & Mary), we used the term perceived proximity to designate the feelings of closeness between co-workers, both collocated and remote (2).
In the BC (before COVID-19) world, our study showed that the real (physical) distances between colleagues (objective proximity) actually had generally weaker or mixed relationships with feelings of closeness (perceived proximity) – and no effect on relationship quality. In other words, on average, people felt as close to their remote collaborators as they did to collocated ones.
A few years ago, those findings were surprising. Nowadays, they seem premonitory.
We also found that people develop feelings of closeness with distant others when they communicated, via technology, to uncover deep similarities, and to develop a pool of shared experiences. While it may seem impersonal, technology can be used to build community and connections: think of the popularity of dating apps and social media. It makes sense that technology can also be used in a workplace setting to stay connected (in both senses of the word) to our colleagues, despite being physically distant.
These findings help explain the speed and effectiveness of the adaptation. In the first weeks of the lockdown, co-workers relied on an existing pool of shared experiences, and students often knew one another from around campus. Further, we shared the strangeness and stress of adjusting to the new normal.
Now a new challenge has emerged: with the pandemic winding down, many employers are ignoring the fact that their companies functioned well in remote work mode, that the productivity was better than expected, that people experienced a better quality of life, with less time commuting and more time for themselves. These employers are pushing for a return to the old ways of doing things. They declare (and impose): it is time to go back to the office! Their assumption is that once all in the same physical space, we will frequently share knowledge – in reality, working in these shared spaces often involves workers wearing headphones and barely communicating!
How can these two trends be reconciled to satisfy the needs of employees and employers alike?
1.Continue trusting your employees.
The pandemic proved that employees can be trusted – both in crises and in normal times. Most of the adaptations to the COVID-19 crisis were done individually, albeit with the guidance of hierarchical superiors and the technical assistance of IT colleagues. But we can agree that the switch to online work was largely due to individual efforts, initiatives, and ideas. People value this autonomy that makes them feel valuable - and when their efforts are recognized and praised, also valued. They want to maintain this autonomy, so far touted as the prerogative of an elite, the white-collar workers. Managers will have to hold open frank discussions about how employees see the future of work and about the practices and lessons from the crisis period worth maintaining in a – hopefully – calmer future.
A related recommendation is that there is no reason for not extending this invitation for frank discussions about the desired way to accomplish one’s work to employees who did not switch to remote work because of the sectors in which they operate. Cashiers, nurses, doctors, drivers, cleaners, and other essential workers have all adapted to working in dangerous conditions. They did so without so much as a murmur. With increased danger comes increased responsibility and dignity. Let’s acknowledge that this dignity includes the right to have a say in the way their work is organized and executed.
2. Switch from a control mode to a support mode.
The first recommendation complements the first: acknowledge that not all is calm on the remote work front. For some employees, the home front can be a huge source of stress, due to cramped lodgings, home-schooling, and even domestic violence. The social isolation during the pandemic accentuated troubling trends in teenagers’ mental health too, which profoundly affects families (3).
While it is not managers’ responsibility to resolve such issues, being attentive to employees’ unique needs, adjusting schedules so as to help alleviate the stress when possible, and lending a friendly ear can go a long way in helping a person under strain.
One way to do this would be by encouraging people to join virtual meetings early and leaving time for socializing at the end. This gives people the opportunity to have informal discussions. Another, more proactive way, is to offer to listen to those who need it.
3.Ensure congruence between remote work and other organizational practices.
In any given organization, there are a multitude of practices being implemented, changed, dropped. Remote work is only one of these practices, and it needs to be congruent with the others. Take agile methods, for instance; a 2018 McKinsey study4 found that 74% of the firms surveyed were prioritizing the transition to this system, which emphasizes rapid change, teamwork, flattened hierarchies, decentralized decision-making, and temporary, project-based work (5). These practices, when combined, may lead to undesirable outcomes. For instance, a recent study found that IT employees in an “agile” work design setup were discouraged from remote work because of their work’s oral nature (as opposed to written) and physical orientation, as people work in close proximity. Furthermore, women preferred remote work even when their managers did not support this choice6.
We suggest auditing organizational practices to identify points of friction and how to address them.
4. Think creatively about creating opportunities for dispersed teams to bond.
It’s important to make time to identify, learn, and discuss areas of common ground because this creates a basis for trust and strong relationships. Thus, teams must fight the tendency to be hyper-task-focused: people need the opportunity to identify deep similarities (attitudes toward work, reliability, values) as opposed to surface similarities (demographic characteristics). What matters is that the technology enables the creation of vivid images of the faraway others, it reduces uncertainty about the others’ work, and helps envision the other’s context. For example, managers could implement regular virtual “coffee breaks”, where team members have the chance to chat about both work and non-work subjects much as they would in person.
Managers may also want to encourage people to use Zoom working together in silence – the presence of others focused on their work helps us stay focused on ours. Such practices may also be conducive to casual conversations and quick questions. An initiative like this would need to be implemented carefully and with the recognition that not everyone may be comfortable with this, but it could be a means to foster the “closeness” that develops naturally when sharing an office with someone.
5.Overcommunicate in predictable, regular ways.
This may seem painfully trite, but I see the volume and predictability of communications as a major lesson (from our work and others) to combat fuzziness surrounding role clarity and the tendency to make faulty attributions, and to keep conflicts from escalating.
Furthermore, with time and with inevitable turnover, the loss of context will increase, with negative effects on collaboration and morale.
There's nothing worse in remote work than asking team members for their input and then not hearing back from them. Did they not like my idea? Are they swamped with work? Are they on holiday? Or maybe something's really wrong there? I don't recall any big news stories, but maybe I missed something. .... You get the idea. This can be especially complicated given the particular conditions of the crisis, such as partial unemployment and home-schooling, that mean people may be on different schedules. Under these conditions, it is all too easy for messages to fall through the cracks, especially when you don’t see colleagues in the hallway to jog your memory.
How can we avoid playing a game of Broken Telephone? One way to do this is by establishing regular calls as a larger group and in smaller breakout groups, where all members share what they have been working on and people have the opportunity to ask questions or make comments. Regular meetings will also ensure that team members have a sense of each other’s workloads, holiday time, etc., to reduce the possibility that wires get crossed. Managers should lay out the infrastructure for how communication will take place.
To (attempt to) coin a phrase, it's not so much absence or distance that matters as it is silence. As Daniel Barenboim, the great conductor, says when discussing Wagner, “Sound tends to go to silence, unless it is sustained.”
In times of crisis, people tend to learn a lot about themselves and about the world. The lessons from the current crisis will continue to be revealed over time, but we know one thing already. While we may not be in the office with our colleagues every day, sharing offices and chatting by the coffee machine, we can still nurture our relationships and work together productively. In other words, we could be faraway, and yet feel so close.
1. Bloom, N., Liang, J., Roberts, J., & Ying, J. (2015). Does working from home work? Evidence from a Chinese experiment. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 130(1), 165-218.
2. O'Leary, M. B., Wilson, J. M., & Metiu, A. (2014). Beyond being there: The symbolic role of communication and identification in the emergence of perceived proximity in geographically dispersed work. Management of Information Systems Quarterly, 38(4), 1219-1243.
4. Ebrahim, S., Krishnakanthan, K., & Thaker, S. (2018). McKinsey, Agile compendium.
5. Hodgson, D., & Briand, L. (2013). Controlling the uncontrollable: ‘Agile’ teams and illusions of autonomy in creative work. Work, employment and society, 27(2), 308-325.
6. De Laat, Kim. Remote Work and Post-Bureaucracy: Unintended Consequences of Work Design for Gender Inequality. ILR Review, 2022, p. 00197939221076134.