As a researcher who studies the future of work, I had hopes that the remote work experiment of the last few years would yield valuable and overdue lessons for companies and organizations. Instead, as they reinstate in-person work, they’re falling into old traps.
Many organizations assume that because some parts of remote work — like interacting with colleagues — can feel harder to do remotely, return-to-office is the solution. But this isn’t borne out by the research, in large part because this just takes us back to a workplace model that wasn’t working. We have to stop propping up the delusion that work works when we simply stick people in a room together.
We take for granted that talking over the phone or Zoom makes for less effective communication than interacting in person. It’s true that people tend to find their technology-based interactions lacking in rich social context clues, but there’s more to effective communication than that. In fact, research shows that interacting over the phone or Zoom can actually improve understanding, because people adapt to technology’s perceived shortcomings by paying more attention to what their interaction partners say and how they say it.
For example, when people interact via voice-only communication, they’re 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 conversational partner’s speech. In a similar vein, when trainers educate their students in a remote learning environment rather than in person, students change their behavior to pay closer attention to the provided instructions.
In my research conducted with Frances J. Milliken and Kevin W. Lee, we sought to understand how the transition to remote work changed workers. When I asked interviewees what had changed about their work interactions, I repeatedly heard that they had become more deliberate about attending to their colleagues — listening to the tone of their voice, for example, or watching their facial expressions on camera. These workers reported having grown more empathetic and interpersonally skillful than they had been when they worked in-person.
Interacting via technology can prompt people to pay more attention to one another. In-person work, on the other hand, might make for plenty of in-person interactions, but we rarely attend to the people around us.
This doesn’t mean we should do away with in-person interactions. It means that relying on in-person work to solve the (often misidentified) problems of remote work is misguided. What undermines our personal interactions isn’t whether they’re in-person or remote, it’s whether we pay attention to one another.
Another commonly held belief is that interacting virtually makes others seem less human. Rather than seeing a three-dimensional person in front of you, you see a two-dimensional image. Consequently, we don’t treat one another with the same level of regard — and we don’t feel as interpersonally connected — as when we meet in person. But this isn’t necessarily true. Just because you’re visible to others doesn’t mean you feel seen.
Numerous interviewees told me that working remotely had made their work relationships feel more human. The use of videoconferencing, combined with working from home, enabled workers to see one another as whole people — people with families, roommates and pets; people with multifaceted lives.
In contrast, workers I interviewed recalled that their in-office interactions felt less human, because those connections, for the most part, centered on one’s work utility. Managers I interviewed said that going remote made them realize the importance of setting aside one-on-one time with workers to pay attention to their general state and to what they had to say. These practices of intentional interaction have proved to be so effective that many managers planned to continue them regardless of whether their teams remained remote or reconvened in-person.
People often assume that remote interactions disadvantage newcomers, impede trust and prevent socialization. But research from Maïlys M. George and Kevin W. Rockmann indicates just the opposite. Newly hired remote workers actually reported higher levels of trust in their supervisors than newly hired in-person workers. Because these remote workers trusted their supervisors, they identified more with the organization, sought more feedback and had lower turnover intentions.
Why would this be true? It seems that, in remote work situations, supervisors expended more effort to make themselves available, provide training, and foster positive social connections. The difference in trust results from managers doing a good job of managing people — and that can (and should) be the case regardless of where workers are located.
The point is, assuming that a return to the office will address the supposed shortcomings of remote work is a way of avoiding longstanding organizational problems: like how we overschedule meetings and allow for unscheduled interruptions — and mistake this for “collaboration.” Or how we assume certain office layouts and shared kitchens can, on their own, create a positive work culture. Or how we rely on chance office encounters to fuel cross-disciplinary innovation, when a host of workplace factors constrain those encounters. Or how we think that meeting in-person is all we need for effective interaction, when, in fact, it’s not even a necessary precondition.
The American workplace has never been very attentive to employees, even when interactions were in-person. We assumed it was, but that’s because we harbored blind spots. Now that organizational leaders are calling for a return to the office, we have an opportunity to confront the flaws we’ve normalized in our workplaces and to question what we’ve taken for granted.
Without rethinking work environments, even the most well-intentioned organizations will fall back into the same bad habits. To survive the pandemic, we had to find new ways of working. Those new approaches can now help guide us toward making work better, regardless of where the work gets done.
Julia Coff is a PhD candidate in management and organizations at the NYU Stern School of Business.