Serendipity Lost, Serendipity Gained: How We’re Dealing With Virtual Workplaces, So Far – Forbes - Freelance Rack

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Sunday, June 28, 2020

Serendipity Lost, Serendipity Gained: How We’re Dealing With Virtual Workplaces, So Far – Forbes

What was an emergency provision for the Covid-19 crisis — entire workforces operating out of their homes — may become a permanent way of working. On one hand, it’s about time employers recognized the productivity benefits of enabling employees to work at home, and it certainly widens recruiting possibilities for talent from across the globe. Still, we need to pay attention to the loss of serendipity that arises from close personal working relationships that spill over from formal business interactions. I talked about this serendipity effect in past posts, which not only includes interacting in workplaces, but also at industry events and conferences. How are things going?

While it started out as a temporary arrangement, it appears that many organizations and employees are settling down with this new way of working. For example, 451 Research reports that 67% of executives feel that working from home may become more of a long-term arrangement for their workforces. Another 47% say their organizations are likely to reduce their physical office footprint.

What’s the impact on productivity? A recent survey of 870 working professionals by Splashtop finds 80% report being more or equally productive working from home. These are people who rarely worked from home before — before the crisis, 71% percent of the survey respondents had never or rarely worked from home. Only eight percent described themselves as already being remote workers. Almost 75% expect their companies might be more open to working from home on a more permanent basis, with 28% of participants suggesting that working from home might become the “new normal” for their companies.

The positive impact on productivity may come from limiting interactions to online meetings that may help people focus on the tasks at hand. “A number of execs like the framework around virtual calls,” says Matt Eventoff, president of Princeton Public Speaking. “With less sidebar conversations, interruption from people walking into an office, and so on, the ability to laser focus on the task at hand has become, in some ways easier.”

In addition, Eventoff adds, online channels may help strengthen the voices of employees who have valuable ideas to contribute. “Theoretically, it’s more difficult to talk over someone on a video call,” he says. “It looks and feels awkward and can often lead to silence as other participants are waiting for a reset.”

Online meetings inherently encourage “more equal participation of team members, as status and hierarchy are reduced in virtual contexts, which may lead to more diverse ideas,” adds Liuba Belkin, associate professor of management at Lehigh University. “In addition, psychological distance increases so-called abstract thinking – seeing the big picture instead of focusing on details, potentially aiding the innovation process.”

Erin Allsman, managing director at Brownstein Group, says that for many of her colleagues, “there is a sense that working from home is becoming a kind of workplace equalizer. Since anyone can talk and take the center stage on a video conference screen, and since body language and microaggressions are hard to carry across through webcams, some are finding an equal footing and new confidence in meetings.”

Online video chats may even “more intimate than face-to-face meetings,” agrees Heinan Landa, CEO and founder of Optimal Networks, and author of The Modern Law Firm: How to Thrive in an Era of Rapid Technological Change. “If you think about it, video meetings can be one of the most intense and intimate forms of communication. There are no waiters popping by every few minutes, no noisy tables next to you, and no distracting stimuli beyond what happens to be in your home office. It’s just a close-up view of two faces where you’ll catch every subtle expression, and be too engrossed in focused back-and-forth to dare reaching for your phone. After being part of several virtual coffees and lunches over the past few weeks, I’ve found that I’m actually having more substantive conversations in a shorter amount of time than I ever would in a restaurant or café.”

Of course, no long drives or plane flights are required to partake in such conversations. The challenge going forward, then, is recapturing the spontaneous innovation that erupts as people work side by side with each other, have lunch together, and possibly gather after work.  “What I hear more often is that with the loss of many sidebar conversations, the chatter when walking to or from a meeting with a colleague or group of colleagues, unscheduled, impromptu meetings that occur when passing someone on campus or in a hallway, comes a loss of casual conversation and spontaneity that produce beneficial results for organizations, ranging from minor to major,” Eventoff cautions. “We often think of innovation as resulting in big, major shifts. But innovation can also be much smaller in scale — a small sidebar meeting that allows someone, or group, to innovate by finding a simpler, more efficient, more cost effective.”

Remote interactions “remove the opportunity to build relationships,” says Dr. Tommy Weir, and founder of enaible. “It’s rather difficult to whisper a comment to your colleague next to you on Zoom. Quite a bit of the social dynamic in the workplace is built over coffee, around the hallways and before or after meetings.”

Allsman also notes there is an age gap in the embrace of online chatting — though this has been rapidly closing in recent months. “Younger team members are more used to, and therefore more adept at, communicating through technology.”

Belkin also cautions that online behavior has proven to be “more aggressive and negative online, that risk-taking behavior is increased, and the tendency to take disagreements more personally and more negatively than in face-to-face context is higher.” This is fueled by a sense of increased social distance among people, “even in synchronous virtual communication, such as video conferencing.”

Managers “need to account for the differences in the face-to-face vs. virtual meeting dynamics and adopt their processes accordingly,” says Belkin. “Relational leadership practices that support and nurture team members through the use of interpersonal emotional management tactics combined with efficient organizational policies are a key to teams’ successful performance even in the current context.”

This requires proactive efforts to foster a sense of community and camaraderie through online channels — ultimately evolving into, simply, the way people do business. “It can seem like the collision of ideas and connectedness of a team is lost over the internet, but I would argue that the same fostering of innovation can happen for companies that are intentional and put more action towards it,” says Billy Boughey, president of Elevate Experience and author of Culture Reconstructed. “This will take picking up the phone to call a coworker to share an idea or hopping on video conference to brainstorm options for a new task. The intentionality of growing ideas is still there, but needs time on the calendar with others in order for ideas to expand. We can use phrases like, ‘I have an idea! Do you have five minutes to chat?’ or ‘Let’s brainstorm around this problem we are trying to solve. I’m sending you a calendar invite now.’ The best companies help employees stay connected with each other’s ideas, whether that’s in person or virtual.”

A big part of natural, in-person meetings “are the important social cues that we use to express agreement, admiration, and understanding of each other,” says Allsman. “Because of the limits of digital conferences, these cues—such as applause, laughter, and small expressions of confusion or acknowledgement—can go unheeded. Don’t take it so seriously. Laugh off awkward moments. Recognize that virtual meetings have many shortcomings that can often be breezed over with a smile. Try to be humorous and lighthearted — especially when taking yourself less seriously can keep your team and audience engaged, less self-conscious, and more motivated.”



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