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“The ‘water cooler effect’ in the workplace should never be underestimated. Water coolers and coffee machines are social gathering spots and networking places where bonds are formed, relationships strengthened and ideas shared.”

While remote working has become increasingly commonplace since the 1990s, when it was enabled by the nascent World Wide Web and the development of digital communication technologies, it required the push of a global pandemic to persuade many companies to embrace the technologies that allow remote working to be effective. 

Before Covid-19, many companies had tried digital meetings, but in general preferred them to be conducted face-to-face. Being forced to work apart showed many businesses that it was possible for employees to operate effectively from home. 

The advantages

Nowadays, most organisations – and people – no longer have misgivings. Digital meetings have become the accepted norm, and managers see how they can be more efficient and cheaper. Gatherings that may once have taken three hours – an hour together plus travelling time – became far shorter.

Additionally, having distributed teams allows organisations to recruit from a larger talent pool. It also offers flexibility to employees, and consequently makes organisations more attractive to them. The ideal candidate for a role may not live where the company is based, and they may not want or be able to relocate physically.

For multinational companies with offices spread across different countries, digital communication is a vital tool facilitating cooperation within and between teams. Moreover, in countries where the population is spread over a large area, there are wider socio-economic benefits from having people work from home. It avoids the tendency of the workforce to drift towards the traditional commercial hubs in major urban centres, preventing population decline and brain drain in rural areas. In Norway, for example, the government’s mission is to keep these rural areas alive, and remote working is actively incentivised.

The downsides

Despite the many advantages, there are challenges. Working alone can lead to lower team satisfaction, threaten knowledge sharing, and present coordination difficulties. Another major concern is employee loneliness. A good team leader will be alert to these potential pitfalls and stand ready to mitigate any negatives – and avoid the economic costs associated with loneliness. 

One thing that became clear from our research, The negative impact of individual perceived isolation in distributed teams and its possible remedies is that teams that function well in an office with a good working culture also manage the best in remote situations. On the other hand, issues like loneliness, stress, less coordination, or fewer exchanges of knowledge in teams that function less well become more complex, rendering a team less efficient. In such cases, relying on technology may not be the answer, as it is harder to build trust and relationships.

Another issue is that people working remotely can become siloed. They don’t have the wider stimuli of an office environment, and with no networking among colleagues, it becomes easy to get tunnel vision: with no other people around, you can only make sense of what you see. For an operational task, that’s fine, but for a strategic role it’s important to know the interconnectedness of the organisation’s activity. Managers need to be aware of this. They need to promote a more collaborative culture in order to provide certainty across teams or across departments. A completely digital solution may not be the best means for that.

prof.dr. S.R. (Steffen) Giessner
Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Change
Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)
Erasmus University Rotterdam
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Steffen Giessner

Dr. S.I. (Sut I) Wong

Professor of Communication and Management

Department of Communication and Culture

BI Norwegian Business School

Sut I Wong
Laptop and plant

For most, hybrid working is the solution. In the classic hybrid model, staff work two or three days per week at home, and two or three in the office. They can concentrate on the ‘I’ work – the individual work – when at home, and schedule the ‘we’ tasks for when everyone is together in the office.

In the hybrid model, the office also becomes the place for social gathering and team building, and a good way to counteract loneliness. Even after Covid, most employees prefer hybrid working. 

 

The people who tend to feel most lonely are full-time remote workers: the digital nomads. They usually work 100 per cent by themselves, and move around without belonging to a particular organisation. They are more affected by not feeling socially connected to groups or regions, and by not having a long-term perspective with any one organisation. Groups of digital nomads sometimes create hub workplaces for themselves. These communities have an office culture, but everyone works for a different organisation. 

Hands connected

Inclusivity and interdependency

The way that information flows around a team is important for managers to mitigate many negative aspects. Managers have to be sensitive to whether someone is missing out more than others, and if so, they need to find ways to include that person more in the conversation. They must also be careful with interdependency. Either a person is dependent on input from someone else to be able to do their job, or is responsible for creating the information that other people can use to start their work.

Many interactions depend on how much interdependency there is. If a person is not reliant on anyone and no one relies on them, it is easier to operate alone because whatever they do has no impact on others. In such cases, communication with other team members is more for social reasons.

On the other hand, if a person has a lot of interdependency with others but their online communication skills are not great, remote working might not be the answer. Managers need a good sense of how the paths of interdependency are laid out within their team, and to have an inclusive strategy so that everyone is included and can connect with others where necessary.

When leaders are not sure of what’s going on, making it hard to manage their team, this becomes exaggerated when working remotely. If a team is together in an office, people can much more easily talk in-person, and can ask questions and figure out solutions.

The ‘water cooler effect’ in the workplace should never be underestimated. Water coolers and coffee machines are social gathering spots and networking places where bonds are formed, relationships strengthened and ideas shared. To make remote working viable, a manager needs to recreate this positive network in the digital space. With hybrid working this is less important, but where a team works solely remotely it becomes essential. Digital meetings tend to be more task-focussed than in-person meetings. 

This is efficient in terms of work goals, but the deeper communication is missing for building relationships and trust. Informal communication and learning is missing from remote meetings. 

To counter this, some organisations create digital spaces where staff can interact socially and talk informally, or introduce small social interactions when teams gather online for work. Other remote companies gather their team together to build relationships away from the office, whether at a conference or a workshop, or at a purely social gathering. 

In addition, to prevent loneliness from becoming an issue, leaders should schedule meetings that not only cover the tasks at hand, but also allow time for more informal conversation for sharing personal news and chat. They could also schedule one-to-one meetings to check in with geographically distant staff.

Remote working can be a force for good. It can reduce costs, and provide opportunities for inclusivity. It allows people with restricted mobility – whether through disability, or through family commitments – to fully participate in the workforce. And it can provide opportunities to people who need support. But for the distributed teams model to flourish properly it needs to be managed carefully. Remote working will stay – and fighting against it can be counterproductive and show poor leadership. We’ll continue our research work on gig working and loneliness in leaders, and loneliness at work in general.

 

“Managers need a good sense of how the paths of interdependency are laid out within their team, and to have an inclusive strategy so that everyone is included and can connect with others where necessary.”

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