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Connectivity and Cohesion Missing from Virtual Work Environment

As we are keenly aware, there is one big drawback from working in close proximity with other humans: increased transmissibility of viruses and disease. However, as the workplace has shifted to flex and virtual work, consideration should also be given to what is missing when we live and operate primarily in an online world.  

There are many benefits of working in-person with other humans. The enhanced technology of virtual meetings cannot replace the visual and social cues that are perceived when meeting in the same room. The importance of nonverbal behavior, such as facial expressions, gestures and body language, is largely lost in an online environment. This means that the effectiveness of our working relationships is hampered by our inability to connect and understand others virtually. 

Indeed, emotional intelligence experts suggest empathy — understanding the thoughts and feelings of another person — is key to effective leadership. Without visual cues, we are left with a flat, two-dimensional understanding of a conversation or situation. According to Albert Mehrabian, a pioneer in the field of communication, when listening to others, we glean 7% of their feelings and attitudes from spoken words, 38% from the way words are said (volume, body language and gestures), and 55% from facial expressions. This suggests that listeners perceive more information from how you say something than the actual words themselves. The how is harder to see online. 

My own research suggests the online environment can promote negative behaviors because the feeling of aloneness, condition of anonymity, and perception of acceptability of different behavioral norms are all impacted in an online environment versus face-to-face. Instead of promoting a culture of inclusivity based on the understanding of others different from you, the online environment, left unchecked, can easily promote division.

The loss of connection to other people as our work environment takes a decidedly virtual turn brings into question how far the ripple of impact may travel. Lower levels of job satisfaction, trust and organizational commitment, in particular, may ultimately lead to lower levels of productivity, greater absenteeism and higher turnover.   

Another factor clearly lacking from virtual interactions is the ability of employees to expand their thinking in creative and innovative ways. Groups working together are better able to solve complex problems because people are able to combine knowledge, contrast perspectives and challenge one another in a way that leads to better solutions. Recreating this dynamic brainstorming process in a virtual forum can be challenging.

The loss of informal opportunities to connect around the “water cooler” also affects employee collaboration and connectivity. Business experts spent a lot of time early this century redesigning workspaces to facilitate more opportunities for interpersonal interaction. As a result of the pandemic, our energy must turn to how to achieve the same effects in a virtual or flex working environment.        

As an industrial-organizational psychologist, I believe the emotional connection of seeing people face-to-face cannot be replaced. There are, however, some activities that organizations may want to consider in order to simulate the real thing. 

  • When meeting colleagues in a virtual setting such as Zoom or Teams, turn your camera on so others can see your facial expression and visual cues. Be aware of your virtual presence and surroundings.
  • Build your online presentations and meetings to be participative and inclusive of all attendees, rather than a one-way lecture. Encourage small talk or build in icebreakers so the team can get to know each other better. 
  • If diversity and inclusion are important to your organization, you must go all-in in a flex environment and overcommunicate the importance of these values; give examples of how diversity and inclusion works in a flex or virtual environment; and set clear standards for appropriate and inappropriate online behaviors.
  • Be hyper aware that employees working virtually may feel undervalued, disconnected and unheard. Use your in-person time wisely to build rapport.
  • Convert best practices in brainstorming to an online environment, be creative and keep trying different mixes of methods and mediums until you find something that works for your team.  

Companies like Apple have attempted to split the difference with hybrid work weeks—three days per week in the office and two days per week virtually. These new pilot solutions search for the win-win of increased flexibility for employees, less health-related negative exposure and the human need to interact socially with others. For now, organizations find themselves faced with the need to push toward a new kind of innovation in order to achieve all the great outcomes of human interaction, virtually.       

By Dr. Barbara Ritter
Dean of the Davis College of Business, Jacksonville University

This column originally ran in the The Florida Times-Union. For more information about Jacksonville University’s Davis College of Business, please visit www.ju.edu/dcob/.