February 23, 2021
Raise your hand if…
You haven’t seen a coworker (in real life) in more than 6 months.
You haven’t eaten lunch with anyone other than your computer screen in more than a year.
You had no idea your co-worker got a covid puppy.
You had a birthday, anniversary, or life event that no one at work knew about.
You’ve forgotten how to interact with human beings in a normal conversation.
For the type-A’s out there, the natural question might be, “who cares?”
“We are so busy. My kids are screaming. I want to get off Zoom as fast as possible. There’s just not time for it in my day anymore.”
The other argument is that people are generally more productive by a significant percentage rate when they work from home. And that’s true for certain roles and specific tasks, but not across the board.
But, what about engagement, retention, acquisition, culture, competitive advantage, and creativity? What about just liking your job because you like the people you get to work with?
Do we lose an edge in all of those categories when people are stuck behind a screen? In other words, does lost connection really create visible loss in our business?
Some experts say it does.
And again, that concern is answered by other studies that have said for years, it’s just not a big deal.
So how can we know what’s true? Impacting? Detrimental? Looking into the data, not just at the data helps us.
One notable insight into the source of these pro-remote work studies reveals a fundamental issue. Environmental-design psychologist Kate Peditto of the U.S. Air Force Academy found that most of the original research done on full-time remote employees (we’re talking early 2000’s is comprised of interviews and surveys of people who have self-selected into remote work.
Meaning, of course these people said their experience was positive. They willingly chose to work at home for their own specific reasons, personalities, habits and preferences. The pool of people who are working partially or fully remote now includes a large number—over 85%—who were working full-time in an office environment—some by choice, some mandated. All this to say, the data from the old guard doesn’t necessarily indicate the feelings and experiences of the population today just 5 or 10 years later.
The impact recent studies reflect on the forced migration to remote work plans, point toward a visceral loss in human connection.
We don’t know our people the same way. We don’t interact with them in the same way. And we certainly don’t hear or see them the same way.
These are all massive considerations for a long-term jump from in-person work to a remote or hybrid model. As the business evolves, the team grows, processes are developed, and habits take hold, there is a direct impact on the people (the most appreciable asset you have) to either thrive or suffer.
As one Human Resource Executive article puts it, “The key to getting the hybrid model right is not a technical or operational challenge, it’s a cultural challenge.”
The Work Survey, in collaboration with Cushman & Wakefield found that while executives were most worried about the outputs—54% were concerned about delays in product or service delivery Employees were more worried about the inputs, like reduced collaboration (48%).
With those numbers, we decided the data was worth digging into.
In this article, we’ll explore four measured ways human connection impacts businesses that have gone completely remote in the pandemic-age. In Part Two, we’ll talk about how to fight back.
Efficiency | Trust & Relationship | Motivation | Opportunity
While we’re anchored to our laptops with one, two or ten cloud-based tools open and firing for the sake of collaboration and efficiency, we’re not always more efficient. For late adopters of certain platforms or people whose jobs have otherwise been face-to-face (three-dimensionally speaking), technological friction is a real barrier to their productivity.
A recent study from Microsoft found that 69% of U.K. leaders surveyed believe their organization currently has a digital skills gap. A Microsoft spokesperson noted on this statistic, “We believe that skills are the currency for competitive digital transformation and have a direct impact on a company’s success and bottom line, so investment and training in people are paramount to the future of work.” Similarly in the U.S. studies have found as high as 30% of employees in a business sector lacking or completely devoid of digital skills.
Even for the remainder of workers who are skilled with technology, we don’t tend to make it easy on ourselves.
“Currently, many companies are using a mish-mash of products to accomplish the same task. This can create friction within teams and impact productivity,” says Sabry Tozin, VP of engineering at LinkedIn said in an interview with Tech Republic.
He goes on to say, “If employees are each choosing their preferred option for video conferencing among two or three different platforms, it can create headaches when it’s time for teams to work together and quickly connect on the fly. Moreover, this cognitive overload makes people feel like there’s a lack of clarity and direction from the teams that own this vision of employee collaboration and productivity.”
Writer Jon Han offers another familiar example in an article he wrote for The New Yorker in May 2020. He said, “In a remote workplace, in which co-workers are reduced to abstract e-mail addresses or Slack handles, it’s easier for them to overload each other in an effort to declare victory over their own rapidly filling in-boxes. (This may be one of the reasons that, in our current moment of coronavirus-induced telework, so many people—even those without kids underfoot—feel busier than before, despite the absence of time-consuming commutes.) …In other ways, meanwhile, offices can be helpfully frictionless. Drawn-out email conversations can be cut short with just a few minutes of spontaneous hallway conversation. When we work remotely, this kind of ad-hoc coördination becomes harder to organize, and decisions start to drag.”
It’s been true for a long time before the pandemic that engaged employees can be either the most appreciable asset a company has or the most expensive loss.
In fact, 73% of actively disengaged employees are on the lookout for new jobs or opportunities. This level of apathy and sub-standard work can cost companies between $450 and $550 billion a year in lost revenue and employee turnover.
Our CEO, Patrick Braswell spoke recently in a video interview about a telling sign of disengagement. He recommended asking employees who their best friend is at work. He says, if they can’t think of an answer, there’s a good chance they won’t be around much longer.
So what does this ongoing issue have to do with remote work?
DropBox executives recently performed a global survey that included over 4,000 participants who were both remote workers by choice and remote workers by force.
Their study found that meeting in an office space is more than just throttling innovative brainstorms into our business. It’s also about creating a sense of community that builds a sense of motivation and responsibility for team members.
“There’s a big misconception that the reason people need to meet in the office is to have these brilliant brainstorm ideas,” says Jen DiZio, Head of International Research at DropBox. “You talk at the water cooler and all of a sudden you decide the project of the year. We think the real value of this connective tissue is that you’re more present, and more in tune with people from other teams.”
We can accomplish this on Zoom though, right? Everyone sees me on video, hears me in their headsets and we can use online tools to whiteboard ideas.
Disengagement can actively take place EVEN when we’re using tools for the sake of virtual engagement.
One study by Northwestern University found 85% of non-verbal cues are lost on video calls.
Which means your team or you might be totally missing the point, passion or purpose behind what’s being said through those tiny rectangle boxes on your computer screen.
According to Gallup, companies must achieve a 4-to-1 ratio of engaged to disengaged employees in order to counteract the negative effects of disengaged workers. This shows that employee engagement can have a measurably greater impact than many of us even realized.
Another finding in the Dropbox international study revealed that relationships are lost or never well established with fully remote teams.
Over 55% of those surveyed reported loss of connection with colleagues as the biggest thing missing in their work-life now (survey reported in August 2020).
Dropbox study co-leader, Amanda Gail Miller chalks this up to a decline in psychological safety among team members.
Miller says psychological safety is one of the critical factors for creating the “healthy” connective tissue that improves this kind of collaboration. She purports that without having the opportunity to build mutual trust, it’s harder for teams to feel productive and impactful.
Her thoughts are backed by a giant two-year study done by Google on the common characteristics of high-performing teams, psychological safety was the number one, most common denominator. “There’s no team without trust,” says Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google.
Studies show that psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off—just the types of behavior that lead to market breakthroughs.
Miller’s counterpart in the DropBox study, Jen DiZio remarks, “It’s that unquantifiable building of trust that happens just because you’re vibing with them on a personal level. Inevitably, that leads to more collaboration. The more you build that trust with people, the more you think, ‘This is somebody I want to work with in the future.”
But the problem of psychological safety and growing mistrust can sound lofty and too abstract to really wrestle to the ground, right? But it can actually become a symptom of ridiculously simple communication failures.
A study in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies pointed out that a minor delay of just 1.2 seconds on conferencing technologies can make people think the other person is less friendly, or less focused on what they’re saying thereby creating a creeping sense that they are disconnected.
Think of all the weird glitches, audio delays, accidental muting, difficulty joining and viewing that happen in the course of your work week. There may be a sense each time that there’s something missing or withheld in those moments.
Even if technology is flawless (and it’s improving now at hyperspeed), there’s an experience missing.
Peter Berg, the director of the School of Human Resources and Labor Relations at Michigan State University, describes it like this:
“The social by-products of going to work aren’t found only in shared projects or mentoring—many are baked into the physical spaces we inhabit. Break rooms, communal kitchens, and even well-trafficked hallways help create what experts call functional inconvenience… Moving through that space in an inconvenient way is really important to connection. People end up talking to their co-workers—complimenting a new haircut, asking how the kids are—when they’re corralled together waiting for the elevator or washing their hands next to each other in the bathroom. Over time, those quick encounters build a sense of belonging and warmth that makes spending so much of your life at work a little more bearable.”
Perhaps, as Berg says, so much more bearable that the sense of belonging creates trust, strengthens relationships, and becomes a cornerstone in the bedrock of our businesses.
If at the end of the day, trust, efficiency and engagement are reason enough to bolster human connection in the workplace, maybe opportunity is.
Career positioning and networking matter as much to the business as it does to the advancement of the individual. For leaders who have already built strong social and professional networks they more than likely aren’t suffering much from the lack of face-to-face contact with peers, but for those still trying to make such ties, remote work can be alienating.
More specifically, women—of all ages—particularly suffer when telecommuting, researcher Greg Berg notes. This is measured by fewer promotions and slower wage growth. He remarks that employers already tend to assume that women, and especially mothers, are less dedicated to work than their male counterparts. As many women assume the role of homeschool teacher and employee, their case for dedication isn’t helped. A recent United Nations study (April 2020) warned that COVID-19 risked reversing decades of progress concerning gender equality in the workforce.
All in all, there is a risk here as the workplace evolves and how we adapt to the changes that are forced as well as the opportunities in front of us. In our upcoming blog, we’ll share what experts are saying are the key actions in regaining and maintaining a sense of connection across our businesses.