As a researcher studying the future of work, I had hope that the experiment of the last few years with remote working would bring valuable and overdue lessons for companies and organizations. Instead, they fall into old traps when returning to personal work.
Many companies are assuming that going back to the office is the solution, as some parts of remote work – like interacting with colleagues – can feel more difficult remotely. But that’s not backed up by the research, in large part because it just leads us back to a workplace model that didn’t work. We need to stop supporting the delusion that if we just put people in a room, work works.
We assume that conversations over the phone or Zoom are less effective than in-person interactions. It’s true that people tend to miss their technology-based interactions for rich cues of social context, but there’s more to effective communication than that. In fact, research shows that interacting over the phone or Zoom can actually improve understanding , as people adapt to the perceived shortcomings of technology by paying more attention to what their interaction partners say and how they say it.
For example, when people interact through voice-only communication, they are better able to perceive the thoughts and feelings of others. This is because they pay more attention to the subtle vocal cues that accompany their interlocutor’s speech. Similarly, when coaches teach their students in a remote learning environment rather than in person, students change their behavior to pay more attention to the instructions provided.
In my research, conducted with Frances J. Milliken and Kevin W. Lee, we aimed to understand how the transition to remote working has transformed workers. When I asked interviewees what had changed in their working life, I heard again and again that they were more conscious of looking after their colleagues – for example, paying attention to the tone of their voices or observing their facial expressions in front of the camera. These employees reported becoming more empathetic and interpersonal than they were in their face-to-face work.
Interacting via technology can make people pay more attention to each other. Personal work, on the other hand, can make for a lot of face-to-face interactions, but we rarely care about the people around us.
That doesn’t mean we should forego face-to-face interactions. It means that relying on in-person work to solve the (often misidentified) problems of remote work is wrong. What undermines our face-to-face interactions isn’t whether they’re in-person or remote, but whether we look out for one another.
Another common belief is that virtual interaction makes others appear less human. Instead of seeing a three-dimensional person in front of you, you see a two-dimensional image. As a result, we don’t treat each other with the same level of respect—and we don’t feel as interpersonally connected—as when we meet in person. But that’s not necessarily true. Just because you are visible to others doesn’t mean you feel seen.
Numerous interviewees told me that working remotely has made their working relationships felt amuse Person. Using video conferencing combined with working from home allowed workers to see each other as whole people—people with families, roommates, and pets; people with diverse lives.
In contrast, workers I interviewed recalled that their interactions in the office felt less human because those connections were largely focused on their own work benefits. Managers I interviewed said that distance learning made them realize the importance of taking face-to-face time with employees to pay attention to their general condition and what they had to say. These practices of intentional interaction have proven so effective that many managers plan to continue them, whether their teams stay away or get back together in person.
People often assume that remote interactions put newcomers at a disadvantage, make trust difficult, and prevent socialization. but Research by Maïlys M. George and Kevin W. Rockmann indicates exactly the opposite. Newly hired remote workers actually reported higher levels of trust in their managers than newly hired in-person workers. Because these remote workers trusted their managers, they identified more with the organization, sought more feedback, and had lower turnover intentions.
Why should that be true? It seems that in remote work situations, supervisors put more effort into making themselves available, providing training and encouraging positive social connections. The difference in trust comes from managers doing a good job of leading people — and that can (and should) be the case no matter where the people are located.
The point is that assuming that a return to the office will fix the perceived shortcomings of remote work is a way to avoid long-standing organizational problems: how we overschedule meetings and allow for unplanned interruptions — and confuse this with “collaboration.” Or how we assume that certain office layouts and communal kitchens can create a positive work culture on their own. Or how we rely on casual encounters in the office to drive interdisciplinary innovation when a multitude of workplace factors limit those encounters. Or how we think that face-to-face meetings are all we need for effective interaction, even though it’s not even a necessary requirement.
The American workplace has never been very attentive to employees, even when it came to face-to-face interactions. We embraced it, but that was because we had blind spots. Now that business leaders are calling for a return to the office, we have an opportunity to confront the mistakes we’ve normalized in our workplaces and question what we’ve taken for granted.
Without rethinking work environments, even the most well-meaning organizations will fall back into the same bad habits. To survive the pandemic, we had to find new ways of working. These new approaches can now help us improve work, regardless of where the work is done.
Julia Coff is a graduate student in Management and Organizations at NYU Stern School of Business.