Many of you have now had a few months under your belt working virtually from home rather than going to the office. At least some of you are probably considering continuing to do so even after COVID recedes and the all clear is given to return to normal. A virtual workplace makes all kinds of rational sense – both for employees and employers. But there are irrational reasons why you might want to think twice before you fully embrace going virtual.
About a decade ago, my company also went with a hybrid virtual/physical workplace. As the CEO, there was a lot I liked about it. It was a lot more economical than leasing more office space. It gave us the flexibility to recruit top talent in areas where we had no physical presence. And it seemed that technology was up to the task of providing the communication and work-flow tools we needed to support our virtual members.
On the whole, our virtual employees also seemed to like it. It gave them more flexibility in their workday. It also made it less formal. If you wanted to work in pajamas and bunny slippers, so be it. And with a customer base spread across many time zones, it also made it easier to shift client calls to times that were mutually acceptable.
It seemed to be a win-win. For awhile. Then we noticed that all was not wonderful in work-from-home land.
I can’t say productivity declined. We were always a results-based workplace so as long as the work got done, we were happy. But we started to feel a shift in our previously strong corporate culture. We found team-member complaints about seemingly minor things skyrocket. We found less cohesion across teams. Finally – and most critically – it started to impact our relationships with our customers.
Right about the time all this was happening, we were acquired by a much bigger company. One of the dictates that was handed down from the new owners was that we establish physical offices and bring our virtual employees back to the mothership for the majority of their work-week. At the time, I wasn’t fully aware of the negative consequences of going virtual so I initially fought the decision. But to be honest, I was secretly happy. I knew something wasn’t quite right. I just wasn’t sure what it was. I suspected it might have been our new virtual team members.
The move back to a physical workplace was a tough one. Our virtual team members were very vocal about how this was a loss of their personal freedom. New HR fires were erupting daily and I spent much of my time fighting them. This, combined with the inevitable cultural consequences of being acquired, often made me shake my head in bewilderment. Life in our company was turning into a shit-show.
I wish I could say that after we all returned to the same workplace, we joined hands and sang a rousing chorus of Kumbaya. We didn’t. The damage had been done. Many of the disgruntled former virtual team members ended up moving on. The cultural core of the company remained with our original team members who had worked in the same office location for several years. I eventually completed my contract and went my own way.
I never fully determined what the culprit was. Was it our virtual team members? Or was it the fact that we embraced a virtual workplace without considering unintended consequences. I suspected it was a little of both.
Like I said, that was a decade ago. From a rational perspective, all the benefits of a virtual workplace seem even more enticing than they did then. But in the last 10 years, there has been research done on those irrational factors that can lead to the cracks in a corporate culture that we experienced.
Mahdi Roghanizad is an organizational behavior specialist from Ryerson University in Toronto. He has long looked at the limitations of computerized communication. And his research provides a little more clarity into our failed experiment with a virtual workplace.
Roghanizad has found that without real-life contact, the parts of our brain that provide us with the connections needed to build trust never turn on. In order to build a true relationship with another person, we need something called the Theory of Mind. According to Wikipedia, “Theory of mind is necessary to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own.”
But unless we’re physically face-to-face with another person, our brain doesn’t engage in this critical activity. “Eye contact is required to activate that theory of mind and when the eye contact is not there, the whole other signal information is not processed by our brain,” said Roghanizad. Even wearing a pair of sunglasses is enough to short circuit the process. Relegating contact to a periodic Zoom call guarantees that this empathetic part of our brains will never kick in.
But it’s not just being eye-ball to eye-ball. There are other non-verbal cues we rely on to connect with other people and create a Theory of Mind. Other research has shown the importance of pheromones and physical gestures like crossing your arms and leaning forward or back. This is why we subconsciously start to physically imitate people we’re talking to. The stronger the connection with someone, the more we imitate them.
This all comes back to the importance of bandwidth in the real world. A digital connection cannot possibly incorporate all the nuance of a face-to-face connection. And whether we realize it or not, we rely on that bandwidth to understand other people. From that understanding comes the foundations of trusted relationships. And trusted relationships are the difference between a high-functioning work team and a dysfunctional one.
I wish I knew that ten years ago.