This article was authored by Alex Vincent, Ph.D., and published by LHH.
Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but could it harm your career?
As the working world grapples with a prolonged COVID-19 pandemic, employers are increasingly relying on a hybrid office strategy: most people work some of the time at home, and some of the time in an office. In many ways it’s a progressive solution that not only feeds the need of working people to have more flexibility, but also helps limit the number of people in an office at any one time.
However, the long-term impacts of hybrid working arrangements – particularly on the degree of trust that exists in work-related relationships – are not well understood. The research we do have, almost all of it conducted before the pandemic struck, suggests that hybrid working arrangements can have negative impacts on key relationships if specific measures are not taken to acknowledge and adjust to this new normal.
Anxieties that come from working remotely
Prior to the pandemic, many working people craved the opportunity to work from home, at least part of the time. After more than a year and a half of that experience, however, many remote workers are finding the experience didn’t quite live up to their expectations.
For researchers studying the impact of remote work, this was hardly a surprise. Pre-pandemic studies showed that remote work can have significant negative impacts on the key relationships we need to drive engagement, productivity and innovation.
A 2017 survey of 1,100 workers conducted by Vital Smarts, a leadership training firm, found that workplace politics became exceedingly more complex for remote workers, who were more likely to feel shunned by their colleagues, or subjected to more criticism and gossip by those still working in an office environment.
This study did not attempt to verify whether any of those things were actually happening, so those negative feelings could be explained by good old-fashioned paranoia. However, there is other research to support the idea that proximity bias – the inherent human tendency to favor the people we can see in person over those working remotely – plays a huge role in shaping the career prospects of remote workers.
A ground-breaking 2015 study by the Stanford Graduate School of Business of call center employees in China found that despite being 13 percent more productive, remote workers were less likely to be promoted. There is no clearer example of the dangers of proximity bias.
Remote work means leaders and workers are often not on the same page
Even with all the remote meeting technology we have at our disposal, it appears inevitable that as we move physically away from our managers and colleagues, we begin to grow apart in many other ways as well.
Research from Gartner on the impact of the pandemic on business relationships revealed massive changes in the way people were interacting at work. A 2021 survey of 3,000 knowledge workers and their managers found that as people have become more distributed, their working lives have become more asynchronous. As the study’s authors put it, “employees and their managers will be less likely to be working on the same things at the same time. Managers will have dramatically less visibility into the realities of their employees’ day-to-day and will begin to focus more on their outputs and less on the processes used to produce them.”
What does this lack of synchronicity mean for the day-to-day working experience? Internally, it means we are connecting with fewer and fewer people.
Microsoft was so interested in the impact of a sudden shift to remote work that it began to survey more than 30,000 of its employees in 31 countries to find out exactly how the nature of work had changed in the first year of the pandemic. One of the outputs of all this research, the Microsoft Work Trend Index, analyzed trillions of productivity signals – emails, virtual meetings, online chats and posted messages – to determine who was interacting with whom, when and how.
The findings strongly suggested that remote work “shrunk people’s networks,” according to a March 2021 of Work Trend Index findings published in the Harvard Business Review.
Most of us know the informal interactions that come with a well-developed internal network are a key to social capital, that commodity that allows us to collaborate, create and combine efforts to solve problems. As social capital erodes, we inevitably start to feel more disconnected, particularly from managers and other leaders who, to a large extent, control our career futures.
Research data on this phenomenon is just now starting to come into focus. A global of white-collar workers conducted by The Adecco Group found a huge disconnect between leaders and the people they lead on the overall state of leadership performance. This inevitably feeds feelings of frustration and anxiety across the rank-and-file of an organization’s workforce, and begins to erode productivity and engagement.