Sustaining Employee Networks in the Virtual Workplace

When a large-scale move to remote working diminishes organizational networks and strains relationships, managers must act to keep connections positive and productive.

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The coronavirus pandemic has led to a surge in virtual work across companies, with many or even all employees working from home for an extended period of time. One of the key unintended consequences of this widespread switch to virtual work is the impact on the relationships and interpersonal networks within organizations. By better understanding how working remotely can damage connections, trust, and cooperation, managers can act to mitigate those effects.

One of the biggest drivers of who interacts with whom in organizations is physical proximity — a phenomenon that’s been observed from the U.S. Senate1 to the Google campus.2 Amazingly, even a distance of a meter or two can make a big difference. When everyone goes virtual, though, employees can no longer casually run into someone in the hallway or one desk over. They do still keep in touch with the people they feel closest to and with coworkers they’re required to work with on particular tasks, but with everyone else, the level of interaction is drastically reduced. And when interactions do occur, they are intentional, not serendipitous encounters. Inevitably, going all virtual means that many interactions diminish, relationships recede, work networks shrink, and the organization becomes less interconnected.

Day to day, the work interactions and relationships that do continue — especially if those ties were not strong to begin with — are harder to engage in effectively when all work is being done virtually. Ironically, the need for creative problem-solving (such as redesigning key processes to be online) is greater than ever, yet the ongoing crisis makes this more difficult. After all, virtual communication, not to mention the experience of being in crisis mode, makes people more negative, more distracted, less willing to cooperate with others, less likely to share useful information, less trusting, and less willing to listen to new ideas.

The problematic effects on relationships due to working virtually, whether via email, text, phone, or video, include the following:

A less-interconnected network of relationships among employees reduces the sense of commitment to one another and to the organization. Trust and cooperation are harder to achieve when the people you talk to do not also talk to one another.3 As networks get sparser — with fewer such interconnections — during periods of only virtual work, this feeling of connection to fellow employees and to the organization may wane. And yet it is precisely when employees and organizations are working under unusually difficult circumstances that a sense of commitment is needed more than ever.

Online communication may foster a more negative tone, as well as more self-serving behavior and even dishonesty. People don’t seem to bring their best selves to online interactions. Even early studies of the “flaming” effect in email communication4 noted that people seem to feel free to be more negative with others online. Since then, many subsequent studies have shown that people tend to make harsher judgments of others online (such as in professional evaluations5). There is also less cooperation when groups interact online instead of face to face.6 In studies where people had the opportunity to misrepresent the value of goods to be shared, self-serving behavior was far more rampant online, even compared with using paper forms (and not just when compared with being face to face).7

The increased potential for distraction can damage the quality of communication. Attention has become one of the scarcest commodities in the modern age. With the advent of handheld devices, claims on our attention have multiplied relentlessly. It is hard enough to ignore pinging mobile alerts and keep focused on other people when they’re right in front of us, but the temptation to slip away from the current conversation into other channels (checking messages, for instance) magnifies when interactions are virtual. Distraction is a reality of everyday life, but what is less well appreciated is the toll it takes on professional relationships. Yes, people notice when they hear you take an extra beat to respond during a real-time interaction or, worse, when they can see you looking at something else entirely. And yes, they judge you for it, deeming you less trustworthy and not wanting to work with you again.8

Less information is shared in online communication, increasing the likelihood of poor decisions. When people type instead of speak, they just end up saying less. In negotiations, for instance, this means people are less likely to ask good diagnostic questions of the other side, and they are less likely to open up and reveal information about their own situation that might help craft the most beneficial deals.9 People also feel more distant from others online (which can bleed into actual distrust10), and this limits the amount of information they spontaneously decide to share. Finally, people lose the rhythm of normal spoken conversation when typing, even synchronously, with others. This decrease in normal “turn taking” lessens the sense of trust and rapport with others. Even feeling out of sync with someone else’s mood — which may be more likely to happen online — can make people less willing to listen to what that person has to say.11 All this together leads to a downward slide in the value people create and the quality of the decisions they make when communicating online.12

How Managers Can Reinforce Trust and a Sense of Connection

Given the many relationship-damaging traps that can undermine people’s ability to work together virtually, what can leaders do to mitigate these negative effects? With a better understanding of potential pitfalls, managers can be alert to signs of dysfunction and act to keep networks and relationships healthy. Here are some suggestions:

1. Actively cultivate feelings of solidarity and shared mission. Research shows that work ties that have been dormant even for many years can be reactivated very quickly, with little or no loss of trust or feelings of closeness.13 So letting ties become dormant during a crisis is not necessarily a problem for the long-term survival of those ties; they can be reconnected when things return to normal. But in the meantime, managers should look for other ways to boost the feeling that “we’re all in this together,” even in the absence of actual interconnections. For example, asserting the organization’s commitment to treating all employees fairly even under trying circumstances, demonstrating transparency with people about how and when changes are going to occur (even before certainty is reached), and directly acknowledging the difficult circumstances that employees are working through can go a long way toward maintaining loyalty. Even in the absence of actual interactions (virtual or otherwise), companies can and should proactively maintain the esprit de corps of employees for the duration.

2. Be a useful and helpful network broker. In normal times, sparse networks can provide advantages to the brokers — the people who act as the bridges between otherwise disconnected groups. Being a network broker gives you greater access to novel and useful information and greater control over resources.14 Even when the network becomes sparse only temporarily, there may be more opportunities to serve as a broker between people who aren’t currently in touch. Be strategic in reaching out to others who are not in your close circle. Connect people when they (or their groups) can benefit from it. These are actions you should be taking anyway, but they become even more beneficial to you — and the company — when the level of interconnectedness among everyone else is artificially suppressed for any duration.

3. Use a variety of communication channels. Putting things in writing is often necessary (for example, for efficiency or flexibility or to organize complex information), but trust increases when people can hear your voice instead of just reading your words. Although videoconferencing is useful for sharing visual information and having brief moments of connection, trust does not necessarily increase further when people switch from audio-only communication (phone calls) to videoconferencing (which can actually reduce trust if, for example, speakers don’t look directly into the camera).15 All channels, even text, can be used to provide moments of human connection (such as sharing a story or something humorous16), which increases the odds of having a positive and productive interaction. Thus, using a combination of channels — and paying attention to the relationship risks of each — provides the best opportunity to both work effectively and bolster relationships.

4. Preserve teams with long working relationships. The better we know each other and the longer we’ve worked together, the more we can buffer the effects of any one interaction that might lead to a negative judgment. Colleagues and teammates who have worked together for longer periods develop a more intuitive understanding of each other, what they mean when they speak, how they work as individuals, and how they work together most effectively, leading to higher performance.17 However, there is also a tendency in organizations to assemble new teams for every new project, choosing members based on who has the right skills for the job. Though this approach has merit, it may be advisable to consider existing relationships when forming ad hoc teams that will interact virtually.

5. Foster communication norms that value the need for focused attention. Expectations that we should constantly monitor and respond to multiple channels of communication are at odds with the need to be fully attentive and present when engaged in interactions with others — and with our own important work tasks. For most people, remaining focused on only one thing also requires turning off alerts for new messages: Just seeing the alert is as distracting as actually checking the message itself, because the mind wanders to imagine what information the new message contains. Encourage employees to turn off notifications during calls and videoconferences and, where possible, establish the norm that it’s acceptable to schedule periods of heads-down work during which they are not expected to respond immediately. Remember that your undivided attention is a gift to others and will bolster relationships when you aren’t able to interact in person.

When a company goes all virtual, many if not most work relationships and networks will tend to become restricted and suppressed. This is unlikely to be a problem, though, as long as managers take care to address the relationship difficulties associated with virtual work. Keeping your own and your organization’s ties positive and productive through periods of sustained virtual work will allow these valuable interpersonal networks to survive and even thrive.

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An MIT SMR initiative exploring how technology is reshaping the practice of management.
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References

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