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No one is talking about the real problem with working from home

Spoiler alert: It’s not a lack of presence.

No one is talking about the real problem with working from home
[Photo: Dillon Shook/Unsplash]
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For decades, we’ve commonly believed the further two people were apart physically and organizationally, the lower their estimation of one another was likely to be. Our latest research at VitalSmarts suggests otherwise. The problems with work from home (WFH) don’t emerge because employees are no longer working in the same space. Its weaknesses arise when leaders fail to create new ways for employees to connect.

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In August 2020, we surveyed 2,300 executives and employees who were abruptly thrust from the workplace by COVID-19. While a predictable majority (54% of executives and 43% of nonexecutives) reported cultural strain and deterioration since dispersing, we were repeatedly fascinated by reports of teams that felt closer and more productive than before. Surprisingly, a large minority of employees report they are working together better since their forced separation.

Our study sought to examine the effect of WFH on social capital—a concept popularized by Robert Putnam in the early 1990s as the measure of the healthy functioning of social systems. In our view, it is a report card on leadership. Leadership, after all, is not about creating results. It is about influencing others to create results.

What we found is that some leaders are finding ways to generate greater social capital because of WFH conditions. Here are some conclusions from our study.

All you have to do to destroy social capital is nothing

We gave respondents a list of actions their leaders might have taken to mitigate the effects of WFH. Some required very little effort, like sending out a survey. Others were more taxing, like increasing personalized virtual contact with leaders.

We were encouraged to find that almost every intervention leaders used had a positive effect on social capital. Some had a greater effect than others, but most everything produced something. Healthy organizations were those where leaders worked actively to build social capital. When they did, employees were:

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  • 60% more likely to respond quickly to requests from each other.
  • Almost three times more likely to give one another the benefit of the doubt when problems occurred.
  • Almost three times more likely to sacrifice their own needs to serve a larger team goal.
  • More than twice as likely to take initiative to solve problems rather than waiting to be told to do so.

On the flip side, in organizations where leaders have taken no steps to offset the potential alienation of WFH, social capital is diminishing rapidly. The difference between the social capital winners and losers was not distance, but leadership.

Supervisors matter

In healthy organizations, many mentioned small gestures and consistent actions from their immediate supervisor since WFH. And the returns on these small human investments were enormous. One respondent described how touched they were by a supervisor who frequently asked her how her kids were “handling the transition to remote learning.”

Our study showed managers in weak organizations are almost always those who have done little to leverage the social capital opportunities WFH offers. As a result, these leaders suffered extraordinary losses in social capital. Their direct reports were:

  • 40% more likely to do the minimum required in their work.
  • Four times more likely to respond slowly to requests from others.
  • Four times more likely to assume the worst of others when problems happen.
  • Three times more likely to put their own interests ahead of larger organizational goals.

The office is a way, not the way

What worked about the office was that it was a highly structured way of promoting unstructured interaction. It gave the illusion of agency to our spontaneous connection. But the truth is, those “chance” happenings have always been engineered. We were required to arrive at 8 a.m., lunch at noon, and report to a specific office. And it worked. Like marbles in a bowl, our contact with each other was not elective.

Leaders in healthy organizations understand that WFH demands more than substituting conference calls for conference rooms. It isn’t just about using virtual technology to substitute for the structured interaction required to get work done. They are experimenting aggressively to create new norms and rituals for unstructured interaction. Leaders in healthy organizations went beyond the obvious interventions like offering flextime and were far more likely to use:

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  • Fun, off-the-wall virtual events (virtual dance parties, online eating contests, etc.).
  • More frequent team meetings.
  • Scheduled nonwork-related meetings for team members to connect.

These investments enable not just structured, but unstructured interaction. And their social capital effects were strikingly different, showing a two to four times greater impact on social capital than offering obvious interventions like flextime.

This study provides early evidence that leaders need not choose between developing a high-performance culture and allowing home-based work. The vast differences in social capital from one organization to the next are likely the result of variations in leadership competence at building new social rituals, not physical concentration. Ultimately, the necessary condition to a productive social system is leadership not location.


Joseph Grenny is a cofounder at VitalSmarts and the New York Times bestselling coauthor of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High.