The traditional, physical office is not going away any time soon despite advances in technology allowing people to work remotely, either at a home office, coworking space, virtual office, or another remote location (such as a coffee shop, library, or bookstore). Similarly, face-to-face meetings will not disappear, even though we can use email, phone, text, or virtual conference calls to conduct business meetings.
The COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic reignited the debate about remote work, with some suggesting that it will be the new normal even after COVID-19 (Verbeemen & D’Amico, 2020).
There are 3 reasons why remote work will not be the new normal and why physical offices and face-to-face meetings will stick around:
- The reactive response of companies to initiate a temporary work-from-home solution resulted in a bad experience to long-term remote work.
- Companies won’t invest time or money to address remote work structurally in their organizations.
- Our brains are wired to connect with others because humans have a need for meaningful social connection.
Reason #1 – Companies’ Haphazard Response to Initiate a Temporary Work-From-Home:
Shifting the workforce to remote work as a haphazard and forced reaction to COVID-19 will leave a bad taste in many people’s mouths about their experience working remotely. This GitLab article, titled “What Not to Do When Implementing Remote” is a fantastic resource:
“Remote work isn’t something you do as a reaction to an event — it is an intentional approach to work that creates greater efficiency, more geographically and culturally diverse teams, and heightened transparency.
What is happening en masse related to Coronavirus (COVID-19) is largely a temporary work-from-home phenomenon, where organizations are not putting remote work ideals into place, as they expect to eventually require their team members to resume commuting into an office.” -GitLab
In a Forbes article titled, “Remote Work Advocates Warn Companies About COVID-19 Work-From-Home Strategies,” Laurel Farrer wrote: “all of this unexpected remote work adoption has telecommuting experts concerned instead of celebrating.”
Reason #2 – Companies Not Willing to Invest Time & Money:
Most companies are not investing and will not invest time and money to tackle remote work structurally in their organizations.
Verbeemen & D’Amico (2020) wrote that remote work “will only be a real success if companies start tackling remote working structurally.” Organizations must secure the infrastructure for remote work and implement remote work in a structural way:
“Companies that see salvation in a fast adoption of tools without structural adjustments, risk a loss of efficiency and frustration among employees and stakeholders. It is not enough to simply provide the necessary infrastructure and tools. Some companies already had the infrastructure and tools available at the start of the crisis, but are only now realizing their full potential. Tools are important, but a successful migration also requires leadership, clear guidelines and real commitment” (Verbeemen & D’Amico, 2020).
Here are some findings:
- At a global level: 56% of global companies allow remote work, but 44% of global companies don’t allow remote work (Owl Labs Global State of Remote Work Report 2018).
- At a company level: Only 30% of senior managers feel their organization is well prepared for the rise of remote work (Future Positive Report).
- At a leadership level: While 82% believe that leaders in the new economy will need to be digitally savvy, less than 10% of respondents strongly agree that their organizations have leaders with the right skills to thrive in the digital economy (The New Leadership Playbook for the Digital Age).
- At a worker level: 38% of remote workers and 15% of remote managers received no training on how to work remotely (Owl Labs State of Remote Work Report 2019).
Werk (a people analytics company) conducted a comprehensive study [The Future is Flexible – Werk Flexibility Study] on the state of flexibility in corporate America. “According to [the] research, there is a significant gap between the supply and demand of workplace flexibility. 96% of employees in the U.S. workforce need some form of flexibility at work, yet only 42% have access to the type of flexibility they need, and only 19% have access to a range of flexible options. This gap is even more pronounced for women, where only 34% have access to the flexibility they need.”
Even though organizations are becoming aware that they need to adopt a more human-centric view, one that supports the employees’ needs (e.g., remote work, wellness programs, etc.), “innovation in terms of how the workplace and jobs are structured has been slow. If companies are going to truly adapt, stay nimble, and poise themselves for growth in the Human Era, they must reconsider the fundamentals of how jobs are designed and how, where, and when work gets done” (The Future is Flexible – Werk Flexibility Study Report).
In the Owl Labs’ State of Remote Work Report 2019, remote employee managers were asked about their biggest challenges and concerns when it came to managing their remote employees. Here’s what they said — They are most concerned about reduced employee productivity (82%), reduced employee focus (82%), lower employee engagement and satisfaction (81%), and whether their remote employees are getting their work done (80%).
Somewhat troubling in that Owl Labs’ State of Remote Work Report 2019 was what remote managers said were their least concerns: Managers are least concerned with employee loneliness (59%), the career implications of employees working remotely (65%), employees overworking (67%), and difficulty managing them (68%).
Gallup research suggests there are three areas in which managers struggle to engage their remote workers (Mann, 2017):
- Not recognizing or praising good work.
- Not talking to remote workers about career goals and personal growth.
- Not providing opportunities to connect with coworkers.
“While remote work is a valid strategy to maintain business continuity in times of crisis like the outbreak of COVID-19, suddenly allowing remote work with no clear policy or processes in place will not have the same positive outcomes as investing adequate resources into preparing leaders and employees for success in a remote environment.” -Tammy Bjelland, CEO Workplaceless
What I see happening—and I believe this trend will continue—is a semi-hybrid company [in which most employees are co-located/on-site and a handful who work remotely] that uses a semi-flexible schedule approach requiring significant time onsite [for co-located employees] and some time offsite/remote. In this semi-flexible schedule approach, organizations require most of their workforce to work and attend meetings onsite but will allow some leaders and staff (at the discretion and whim of their managers) the flexibility to occasionally work and/or attend meetings remotely.
Reason #3 – The Human Brain is Wired to Connect to Others:
The third and my strongest argument why remote work won’t be the new normal is that human beings have an innate and basic need for in-person interactions and the bias toward and preference for face-to-face interactions.
A Futurestep poll of 1,320 global executives in 71 countries found that 61% of senior managers think telecommuters are not as likely as conventional office workers to be promoted, despite the fact that over three-quarters also think teleworkers are equally productive as (42%) or more productive than (36%) their office-dwelling colleagues (Vickers, 2007 citing Bridgeford). Managers might recognize that teleworkers are productive, but they are still accustomed toward face-to-face interactions.
Indeed, remote workers are at risk of getting lower performance evaluations, smaller raises and fewer promotions (even if they work just as long and hard) due to what is called, “passive face time” or the notion of just being “seen” in the workplace even if we don’t interact with anyone in the office (Elsbach & Cable, 2012).
Face-to-face meetings are crucial to business success (Goman, 2016). Even those who make a case for remote work must concede that, “collaborating face-to-face probably is better than collaborating remotely” (Clancy, 2020). When extensive collaboration is required, remote work “may be less productive than colocation [where coworkers are physically clustered together in the same physical workplace]” (Clancy, 2020).
Michael Massari, Caesars Entertainment’s Senior Vice President of National Meetings and Events and Chief Sales Officer, shared some sage advice about the value and advantage of face-to-face meetings:
“No matter what industry you work in, we are all in the people business. Regardless of how tech-savvy you may be, face-to-face meetings are still the most effective way to capture the attention of participants, engage them in the conversation, and drive productive collaboration.” -Michael Massari (Caesars Entertainment’s Senior Vice President of National Meetings and Events and Chief Sales Officer)
Contrary to the belief that making a phone call saves time over a face-to-face meeting, Massari said this:
“If I have to go outside my division to ask for resources from someone I don’t know, I can usually get what I need in a five-minute in-person conversation. If I have to rely on a phone call, it is going to take over 30 minutes to explain who I am, why my request is important, and why the other person should help me. That’s because it is so much faster and easier to establish trust when people physically meet.” -Michael Massari (Caesars Entertainment’s Senior Vice President of National Meetings and Events and Chief Sales Officer)
Researchers have found that, “people tend to overestimate the power of their persuasiveness via text-based communication, and underestimate the power of their persuasiveness via face-to-face communication.” (Bohns, 2017). As a matter of fact, a face-to-face request is 34 times more successful than an email (Bohns, 2017).
In a survey of 760 business executives conducted by Forbes Insights in June 2009, respondents were asked to choose the meeting method that was most conducive to fostering a certain business action or outcome. “Executives preferred face-to-face meetings when the decision-making process was fluid, requiring the kind of give-and-take typical of complex decisions and sales” (Forbes, 2009).
“Surprisingly given the advances in information technology, CEOs today spend most of their time in face-to-face meetings. They consider face-to-face meetings most effective in getting their message across and obtaining the information they need. Not only do meetings present data through presentations and verbal communications, but they also enable CEOs to pick up on rich nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, body language, and mood, that are not apparent to them if they use e-mail or Skype” (Rothaermel, 2016, p. 43).
Beyond the business desire to close a deal, “the benefits of in-person social interaction—from bonding with co-workers to using time at the pool or café to cement a client relationship—are among the more subtle, less measurable advantages executives cited” (Forbes, 2009).
The COVID-19 pandemic and the importance and need for social distancing and remaining indoors and away from others exacerbated our experiences of cabin fever, isolation, and loneliness.
Research has provided consistent evidence linking social isolation and loneliness to worse cardiovascular and mental health outcomes (Leigh-Hunt, Bagguley, Bash, et al., 2017). Indeed, “social isolation [not being alone but one’s experience of feeling lonely] has an impact on health comparable to the effect of high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity, or smoking (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008, p. 5).
Although people claim that their goal is to be able to work from home, when they actually have to do their work from home, those individuals reported higher levels of stress (Scott, 2020). For a great article on what’s stressful about working from home (e.g., lack of structure; lots of distractions; difficulty setting boundaries; social isolation; and lack of focus) see How to Handle the Stress of Working From Home.
“Those who work at home may find that the solitude can be a double-edged sword. It is, of course, easier to focus when you’re in your own home with no co-workers coming by your desk to chat at random times. But while this solitude can feel blissful at times, when we have no mandate for social interaction during the workday—when we don’t automatically run across people outside of those we live with—we can become lonely before we realize it” (Scott, 2020).
As evidenced, during the COVID-19 pandemic, by the boredom, loneliness, and isolation—with some people even going so far as paying money to join virtual Zoom parties (starting at $10 and going up to $80 for a private room in Club Quarantee to virtually party alongside Instagram-famous DJs and burlesque dancers)—human beings desire, indeed we need, human connections, and in particular in-person interaction and connection.
There’s value in face-to-face interaction & collaboration. Human beings crave human connection and interaction. “[O]ur brains are wired to connect with other people” (Lieberman, 2013, p. x). Lieberman says human beings are wired in a way such that our well-being depends on our connections with other people. “We depend on the most complicated entities in the universe, other people, to make our food, pay our rent, and provide for our general well-being” (2013, p. 238).
“Everything we have learned about the social brain tells us that we are wired to make and keep social connections, that we feel pain when these connections are threatened, and that our identity, our sense of self, is intimately tied up with the groups we are a part of” (Lieberman, 2013, p. 248-249).
But these interactions are not just about the number of people you spend time with. Rather, these connections need to satisfy our need to have close, satisfying relationships. Indeed, “loneliness is typically rooted in the quality rather than the quantity of social interaction: Lonely people spend plenty of time with others, but they do not come away from these interactions feeling satisfied” (Baumeister & Bushman, 2014, p. p. 410).
Loneliness is a state of mind and causes us “to feel empty, alone, and unwanted. People who are lonely often crave human contact, but their state of mind makes it more difficult to form connections with other people.” (Cherry, 2020).
Experts contend that humans are social creatures and we function better when we are around other people (DiGiulio, 2018). Even more strongly, a case can be made that our need to connect with others is as strong and fundamental as our need for food and water (Cook, 2013). Physical connection between humans is so strong that the power of touch can even create an analgesic, painkilling effect (Lamothe, 2018).
During this COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to foster relational connection to curb the rise of loneliness (Stallard & Stallard, 2020). “Research suggests that the majority of individuals today lack sufficient social connection. This connection deficit may exacerbate the negative effects of stress and diminish physical and emotional resilience that people will need to fight the COVID-19 virus” (Stallard & Stallard, 2020).
In his TEDx Talk, neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman said: “Our urge to connect and the pain we feel when this need is thwarted, is one of the seminal achievements of our brain that motivates us to live, work, and play together. You can have the greatest idea in the world, but if you can’t connect with other people nothing will come of it. You can’t build a rocket ship by yourself.”
“To the extent that we can characterize evolution as designing our modern brains, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others. These are design features, not flaws. These social adaptations are central to making us the most successful species on earth.” (Lieberman, 2013, p. 9).
According to social psychologists, our need for affiliation or connection to others is universal and all human beings have this need. “Some individuals claim that they have little or no need for affiliation—for connections to other people. But research findings indicate that even such persons really do have affiliation needs. How do we know that’s true? When such people learn that they have been accepted by others, both their moods and self-esteem increase. That would only be expected to happen if such acceptance satisfied a basic need for affiliation. . . . In short, all human beings—even people who claim otherwise—have strong needs for affiliation—to feel connected to others. They may conceal these needs under a mask of seeming indifference, but the needs are still there no matter how much such people try to deny them” (Baron & Branscombe, 2012, p. 218).
Researchers examined the emotional experience of connectedness between pairs of close friends in digital (text, audio, and video) versus in-person environments. They recruited 58 female university students aged 18-21 years (consisting of 29 pairs of close female friends). Although adolescent and emerging adults’ digital communication is primarily text-based, the researchers discovered that the greatest bonding actually occurs during in-person interaction, followed by video chat, audio chat, and instant messaging (Sherman, Michikyan, & Greenfield, 2013).
“Despite our remarkable ability to utilize tools and technologies to improve our lives in many ways, humans are constrained by the evolutionary context in which human social interaction developed” (Sherman, Michikyan, & Greenfield, 2013).
Takeaway: Traditional physical offices and face-to-face meetings are here to stay and remote work will not be the new normal as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are three reasons why. First, most people’s introduction to and experience with remote work occurred as a direct, but reactive response of companies to initiate a temporary work-from-home solution. Second, most companies will not be spending the time and money to tackle remote work structurally in their organizations. Third, the human brain is wired to connect with other people and human beings have a need for meaningful social connection. It’s a beautiful, defining quality of being human.
Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant
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