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4 ways to recapture what’s lost when we’re not in an office

When we’re not sharing a physical space, we miss out on some key elements of collaboration. But there are good workarounds.

4 ways to recapture what’s lost when we’re not in an office
[Photos: Alexandrum79/iStock; nside Creative House/IStock]
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Human beings are extraordinarily adaptable, and even amidst the extreme physical isolation of COVID-19 life, we’ve discovered that we can communicate effectively without face-to-face interactions, manage people and lead entire businesses from our bedrooms, and translate our lockdown boredom into inventive business ideas and entertaining creations.

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And yet, there is much to miss about in-person work interactions. For all the potential gains in efficiency, and our ability to leverage technology to keep jobs and industries alive, some essentially human aspects of work are at risk of disappearing in the absence of face-to-face interactions. We’ve identified four fundamentally human things most of us miss in the virtual-only world of work—and small actions we can take to recapture their benefits:

Small talk

When we optimize for efficiency, and try to keep online meetings as short and focused as possible, there is rarely time for “small talk”–i.e., banal or uncontroversial chitchat that can work as “filler” to more meaningful work discussions. Many professionals regard small talk as a distraction or time-wasting activity, but as psychologist Robert Cialdini noted in an interview, this is a mistake. On the contrary, it’s a fundamental lubricant of social bonds. Although earlier psychological research suggested that small talk may have a negative impact on people’s mood and the quality of communications, more recent and larger studies have refuted this claim.

One strategy to reclaim small talk, even in the era of virtual work, is to book in extra time ahead of the formal portion of meetings, so people can catch up, be social, and recover some of the old ingredients of normalcy by connecting more casually around topics outside of work and deliverables. Humans are at their best when they can make interactions humane.

Gossip

While gossip can have a negative connotation, it’s a fundamental human activity that is central to strengthening our bonds with people, building trust, and creating group identity. Research suggested that, prior to the pandemic, people spent almost one hour per day engaging in gossip. Of course, we can still gossip in virtual settings, but the digital environment is less conducive to gossip, not least because many online sessions are (or could be) recorded, so people experience less privacy. Also, the propensity for misunderstandings is higher, which also means it is a lot more time-consuming and tedious to gossip online.

The humble phone call remains a better alternative, but it is underutilized in general and undermined by the ubiquitous digital distractions we encounter every day, and compromised by the overwhelming demands of having to keep up with so many different online channels. Still, if you want to enhance team dynamics and create stronger connections with your colleagues, you should make some time to gossip. In fact, since there is generally far less “content” to talk about in the office-less age, there may even be a stronger need for storytelling, sense-making, and speculation about what others are thinking, doing, and feeling.

One valuable strategy is to make a point of regularly scheduling virtual “lunches” or “coffees” to catch up with colleagues one-on-one. It’s important to note that ‘gossiping’ doesn’t necessarily mean talking smack about others. Instead, it can be a powerful way to gain insight (“What do you think my manager meant when she said X?”), obtain valuable information (“How much did you get paid for that freelance assignment?”), or identify new opportunities (“Gabriel told me he’s resigning next week, and they’re going to need to fill his position.”). 

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Chemistry

Even the most advanced VR cannot replicate an in-person experience, which can stimulate all of our senses, and allow for a physiological level of chemistry and rapport not found outside in-person interactions. Put simply, our brains are the product of millions of years of evolution which relied exclusively on physical interactions, so there will always be a difference between being with someone in person, as compared to digitally.

We may feel this loss keenly for a variety of reasons: getting a better “sense” of the person, feeling their presence and sensing their non-verbal communications, and interacting on a more emotional and impulsive way. And yet, removing the power of chemistry has an upside, too: If we’re less influenced by people’s style, presence, look, and similarity to us, the likelihood of bias—both conscious and unconscious—decreases. In fact, in the interest of creating a truly meritocratic workforce, companies like Automattic, the creator of WordPress, make their hiring decisions solely on the basis of text-based communication.

It’s widely recognized that diverse teams—chosen for their skills and unique perspectives—perform better than homogeneous ones. So our suggested strategy for replacing the feeling of workplace “chemistry,” then, may be an unpopular one: Don’t. Instead, work to build and develop chemistry with your colleagues, even those with whom you don’t feel a natural affinity, by spending time getting to know them as individuals and drawing them out through thoughtful questions.

Empathy

It is not impossible to have empathy online, but the intensity, frequency, and relevance of empathy dwindles in virtual settings. Our ability to understand what others are thinking, or feel what others are feeling, is significantly undermined when we are interacting with people online. Notably, the potential for miscommunications and misunderstandings is much larger in virtual settings, and there are fewer opportunities to clarify them.

One possible solution, according to author and speaker Erica Dhawan, is to start thinking about the way we communicate online in terms of “digital body language.” Much as our actual body language—crossed arms, or a furrowed brow—showcases our feelings when we communicate in person, there is a new digital body language that goes beyond the basics of our facial expression when we’re peering out of our two-inch Zoom square. As Dhawan notes, the entirety of our digital communication—from which emojis we use, to our email subject lines and response time—can be viewed as analogous to body language, because it conveys similar tone and intention. More than ever, it’s critical for all of us to be mindful of the subtle signals we’re sending to others.

To be sure, it’s unclear how long we’ll operate in an almost entirely virtual workplace. But even once we return to the office in greater numbers, it’s obvious that remote work, having proven its efficacy, will play a much greater role in our professional lives. By recognizing what’s lost when we abandon the office, and taking steps to recapture some of it, we’ll be better equipped to maintain our human connection, even remotely.

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Dorie Clark is a marketing strategy consultant who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and has been named one of the Top 50 business thinkers in the world by Thinkers50. She is the author of Entrepreneurial You, Reinventing You, and Stand Out. You can receive her free Stand Out self-assessment.

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is an international authority in leadership assessment, people analytics, and talent management. He is the chief talent scientist at ManpowerGroup and a professor of business psychology at both University College London and Columbia University. His latest book, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It), was published in March 2019, and you can find him on Twitter @drtcp or drtomas.com.