Updated: May 5, 2021
The distant, or remote, future of work is here. But do we really know what it entails?
Adjustments have been quick and difficult for businesses coping with COVID-19 restrictions. Though there have been many positives resulting from these changes—such as the absence of commute time, lower business property costs, flexible working schedules—businesses that have committed to making remote working a permanent or even semi-permanent mode of operation may be vulnerable to certain morale hazards.
In this blog, I focus on how the distant future may present challenges to team cohesion, employee loyalty, and corporate identity.
Connectivity or Alienation in the Workplace?
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) once observed that modern forms of technology tend to have the quality of making things appear near in one manner but distant in another. There are many instances of this, and we can take the technology that enables remote working as a typical case.
Video chat applications allow us to engage and meet with clients, customers, co-workers, and bosses. The nearness created by such applications is one of making those physically distant simultaneously present in a virtual interspace. Put simply, we can conduct business as if all the protagonists were in the same physical location.
However, distance can manifest in other ways. Video chatting does not really substitute well for the lack of physical connection in the workplace. Whether by the water cooler, in the meeting room, or between cubicle walls, the loss of regular, physical connection means we lose the intangible and tacit ways in which we come to relate, understand, and know as a team. In short, we may be visible to each other via video chat, but the absence of physical connection means we are also invisible in some profound sense.
And this invisibility should not be underestimated. Below are some thoughts as to how and why.
Team Cohesion in Remote Working Conditions
1. As sociologists, philosophers, and anthropologists will attest, much of the way in which we communicate meaningfully involves in-person, oblique, and tacit gestures, signs, and expressions. While these may be visible in video chat scenarios, such actions may result in distorted communication when gestures are under- or over-represented on screen. Due to the way video chatting works, asking clarifying questions can often be awkward if they disrupt the flow of the general conversation. Alternatively, clarifying by written chat or follow-up emails can be labor-intensive and break the flow of work if one has to re-create informational context to ensure the discussants are on the same page. 2. If video chatting has the asset of bringing distant people near virtually, it can often mask what may be problematic at any one location where an employee is working. Lack of proper space, privacy, adequate computer or internet technology, or a distinctive space and environment that is productive for completing one’s projects and tasks; all of these can result in frustration, lack of attention, and low levels of focus and engagement.
Proactive Time & Deactive Time
3. Proactive time is when a employees schedule a significant duration to do “important but not urgent work” according to Dr Laura Giurge. A pilot study has shown this to be an effective tool for employees to manage time and maintain a sense of control over their work.
However beneficial such time is for balancing working life, one of the main issues of remote working is the intensity of work and its invasion of the home and personal life. Employers therefore need to be mindful that breaking the rhythm of the workday should include activities that promote not just more efficiency but better well-being.
4. Enter what I call deactive time. This can include strong encouragement for employees to take significant and meaningful breaks--that is, time spent in activities that switch the working mind off and allow one to re-focus and re-engage with other aspects of life. Nothing better than a swim, run, or walk in a new environment to allow one to let go.
Deactive time can also include re-designing scheduled, informal meetings between co-workers that have nothing to do with work. The recreation of impromptu “water cooler” talks can help build rapport and a sense of community; but it can only go so far. The fact that such events need to be scheduled can often result in a loss of spontaneity that often drives discussions in creative ways and can instill an increased feeling of being inundated with more of the same—that is, being held prisoner by one’s computer or camera phone.
One way to remedy the irony of schedule water cooler conversations is to take steps to ensure the conversation is underwritten with substance. This can be done with having someone introduce a specific game, question, or task that each participant has to complete. The Classics department at Virginia Tech has been doing this for years and refers to this as a roundtable discussion. Roundtabling explores new issues, discloses new perspectives on life and one's co-workers.
Loyalty with the Lack of Office Life
5. Loyalty to a company is typically based on whether or not an employer can be trusted and is perceived to be fair by its employees. What can go unobserved in remote conditions is how employees are performing outside the steps taken to measure performance. This is because employee involvement is not visible remotely in the same way it is in-person. Businesses will need to find a variety of ways to recognize the positive things that employees do “off-camera”.
6. Another pressure on loyalty, is the lack of physical location which can have quite an impact for some employees. In addition to the challenges of working from home, not actually being able to associate a distinctive place of work with one’s role and with others can leave some asea and feeling a mere, virtual connection. Once one loses a meaningful tie to an organization, other things might intervene to fill the empty space.
Corporate Identity in Remote Working Conditions
7. The knock-on effects of the above can dissolve the overall corporate identity of a business. When employees feel disconnected to their place of work and their co-workers, the business risks losing its capacity to articulate its unique identity, purpose, and mission.
I have suggested a few practical steps to cope with and possibly resolve some of the problems discussed above. If I might indulge in a shameless plug, the use of external facilitators can help create bespoke virtual spaces to nurture team cohesion and help restore a sense of identity and belonging. There is a lot in the philosophical toolkit to help overcome remote working hurdles.
In my own work, I have observed that what has proven effective is loosely framing chat events with working concerns while allowing the discussion to draw on and explore non-work topics involving personal experience, anecdotes, triumphs, and trials. A facilitator external to a business can create just the right kind of distance within the remote working environment that can open the door to making more meaningful and substantial bonds between co-workers.
What is your key to realizing the distant future?
I am a public philosopher and business consultant who specializes in the areas of meaningful work, the philosophy of work, virtue ethics, and hermeneutics. I was formerly Assistant and Associate Professor at the University of Dundee and the University of Kent, respectively. In addition to being an academic writer, I am also the author of a short sci-fi novella called Pig Terrorism. When not immersed in reading and writing, I can be found rock climbing or windsurfing.