For most people, the office is more than just a place to work. Walking down the hallway, getting a cup of tea, even sitting at your desk are all opportunities to get to know colleagues, whether it’s sizing up the latest Patriots game or commiserating over projects you’re struggling to complete.
These casual encounters aren’t just inconsequential chitchat, regardless of what’s discussed. Research shows they can build trust, spark creativity, and boost morale — and lead to a happier, more productive workforce.
When she wasn’t out visiting clients, consultant Flavia Mucciolo used to love catching up with her Accenture co-workers in Boston. “One of my favorite things . . . was going into the office and learning about what other people were doing,” she said.
The pandemic eliminated the vast majority of those in-person interactions when it cleared out workplaces a year ago, and due to the success of the mass remote-work experiment, many will continue working from home more frequently, perhaps permanently.
Facebook and Twitter are among a growing number of companies that have committed to maintaining remote work, and Ford just gave 30,000 employees the option to work from home indefinitely. The Baker administration recently announced that as many as half of state employees able to telework could do so more often, and many local employers have said they’re planning a similar model.
Half the workers in North American companies surveyed by the global advisory firm Willis Towers Watson are currently telecommuting, and employers expect nearly a third of their workers will be doing so after the pandemic recedes, up from just 5 percent three years ago.
With so much of work about the people and the place and the convergence between the two, what happens if we’re together less often?
Ben Waber and his team at Humanyze, the Boston workplace analytics company based on his MIT research, have been trying to figure this out by analyzing the e-mail, chat, and calendar data of millions of employees at major corporations around the world. They found that during the pandemic, the average number of co-workers that employees talk to for 15 minutes or less a week plummeted from nearly 38 to fewer than 22, even as the small number of people they talked to more than an hour a week increased.
The drop-off in these “weak ties” may not be immediately noticeable, Waber noted, but they are essential for organizations’ long-term health. This is how you get new ideas and learn from co-workers who “haven’t all drunk the Kool-Aid,” he said. With fewer people on-site, employees are less likely to be lauded by managers or hear about opportunities in other departments, he said, and companies could see a decline in innovation.
“Essentially, information is flowing more slowly,” Waber said.
Studies — including one coauthored by Waber — show that even casual conversations among co-workers can lead to greater productivity by improving morale and strengthening relationships. Social connections also lead to higher-quality work, improved creativity, better decision-making, and healthier workers. A Northwestern University study titled “Schmooze or Lose” found that face-to-face small talk helped establish trust that e-mails can’t replicate.
Some companies have been remarkably inventive about keeping their remote employees connected digitally over the past year. They do palm readings and “guess the height of new hires” happy hour games and even gather to do the New York Times crossword.
All this requires considerably more effort than bumping into someone at the coffee machine, of course, and body language and other visual cues are often missing, creating connections that don’t quite measure up to in-person encounters.
At the public relations firm Inkhouse, virtual staff meetings end with co-workers randomly assigned to breakout rooms and prompted to answer questions like “Who was your first celebrity crush?” But on a recent survey, employees said they felt less connected than before.
“We can’t replace being together,” said chief executive Beth Monaghan, who will have more employees working from home going forward.
With workers becoming more scattered, the “in-between moments” before a meeting starts or after a trip to the printer are fewer and farther between, said Ethan Burris, a management professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “You’re sort of stripping away a lot of what makes work fun and what would make you attached to a place,” he said.
The Boston-based staffing firm Aquent is going all in on remote work, letting its leases expire and having all 720 staffers work from home permanently. The money Aquent saves on rent will allow it to bring co-workers together in unusual ways, such as horseback riding out West, said Erin Bloom, head of culture and community — a new role at the company. Even virtual connections, which over the past year included knitting groups and kids’ story times, can be remarkably intimate, Bloom said: “We’re getting peeks into each other’s lives that we never would have had.”
Still, informal in-person interactions are invaluable for learning “new and novel stuff that grows us,” said Ethan Bernstein, a professor of organizational behavior at Harvard Business School. Replacing those with moments cultivated through technology can be even more far-reaching, he said, provided they feel somewhat organic.
“Digital gives us a greater potential to interact with people not in our orbits, because orbits are often defined by physical spaces,” he said.
Virtual bonding can be as simple as groups working together on Zoom, on mute, until someone has something to say. Applications like Donut post questions in Slack channels to “spark serendipitous conversations,” such as: “What’s the most beautiful place you’ve ever been?”
Using data mined from employee surveys, Silicon Valley tech startup Humu sends out AI-driven electronic “nudges” to prompt managers to, for instance, send a note to someone in need of support. Humu can even block out five minutes on their calendar for the task, or send a link to a blank e-mail populated with the subject line “Thank you.”
“With remote work, praise and relationships and gratitude all tend to nosedive because you have to be much more intentional about it,” said Liz Fosslien, head of content at Humu. “Nudges are a good way to remind people to do things that would come more naturally in person.”
ModuleQ, another Silicon Valley firm driven by artificial intelligence, scours digital communication among groups on Microsoft Teams to find relevant news and research to share with the group. ModuleQ can also tap into information on users’ profiles, such as “runner,” to surface information employees might be interested in personally, which could forge connections that might not otherwise be made.
“In a virtual space, if there’s no conversation starter, it’s out of sight out of mind,” said ModuleQ founder David Brunner.
At Tufts Health Plan and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, only a small percentage of staff will return to the office four or more days a week, and chief people officer Cynthia Ring is concerned about what that lack of togetherness will mean, especially considering how overscheduled workdays became as remote work surged.
“We need to find ways to take back unstructured time in our days to afford for the impromptu connections,” she wrote in an e-mail. “As humans we need this unstructured time in order to feel seen, heard, and appreciated.”
One thing is clear in this time of great upheaval: Nobody knows exactly what work will look like on the other side.
As Bernstein, the Harvard professor, put it: “We are all living experiments every day right now.”