Three kinds of human interaction to energise your work week

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The shift to hybrid working means many of us are spending less time with our colleagues – but these smart ways to stay connected will keep you collaborating effectively

Over the past 18 months, the Covid-19 crisis has had far-reaching effects on the way people live and work. But with vaccination programmes now rolling out in countries across the globe, restrictions are beginning to ease – and we’re starting to assess what the world will look like, post-pandemic.

One of Covid-19’s lasting legacies will be a permanent shift in working culture. National lockdowns presented many reluctant firms with no choice but to allow remote working – and the benefits for employees, in terms of reduced commutes and improved work-life balance, have proved too clear to ignore.

In addition, business leaders have woken up to the advantages of the hybrid approach for profitability, agility and sustainability. It’s no surprise that global enterprises including Microsoft, HSBC and Google have all committed to a long-term mix of office and remote working for their staff, where some time might be spent at home and some at a local flexible workspace.

This new world of hybrid work might mean less time spent on packed rush hour trains and more dinners en famille, but it does come with challenges of its own. As we spend less time face-to-face with colleagues, interacting with them in ways that are effective, satisfying and enjoyable can become more difficult. A study by Esther Canonico at the London School of Economics highlighted the potential drawbacks of disconnection from the company HQ, arguing that long-term isolation can lead to misunderstandings, make aligning objectives more difficult and negatively affect performance.

Excessive or inadequate interaction?

When people are based remotely, managers might be tempted to schedule daily ‘check-ins’ but, even where they’re well-intentioned, these can rapidly become arduous for staff who may begin to feel they’re not trusted.

On the flip side, not being in the same room as colleagues and leaders can mean people assume that others understand more than they do. “One of the big insights from our work has been that just because you went to the meeting doesn’t mean you know what happened,” explains Leslie Perlow, the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School. Perlow’s 2020 research on virtual business interaction, undertaken with Ashley Whillans and Aurora Turek, showed that “senior people assume that the more junior people understood the meeting just because they were there.”

Whillans also points out that spontaneous collaboration may not come easily when colleagues aren’t based in the same building. “Grabbing a marker and sketching ideas together on a whiteboard is much more difficult in the virtual environment,” she says.

That said, effective communication between colleagues is by no means impossible when teams are in different locations. Perlow, Whillans and Turek’s study highlights three kinds of human interaction that people need at work. Here, we explain what they are and how you can make sure they keep happening, even from a distance.

1. ‘Task interactions’

Put simply, task interactions are conversations about things that need to be done. In a traditional office environment, these might happen informally, arising simply because teammates occupy the same space.

One way to replicate these ‘quick chats’ is via instant messaging software. Platforms such as Google Messenger, Microsoft Teams Chat and Slack have an informal feel, allowing colleagues to grab one another for short discussions about the day’s agenda.

In fact, Perlow, Whillans and Turek actually found these types of virtual communication offer benefits that face-to-face conversations can’t. Because they’re asynchronous communication tools, they give people the chance to think about how they want to answer a question in advance of offering a response.

The creation of particular IM channels for specific projects or processes can be especially helpful, as these gather all updates in a single, accessible place and create a digital ‘paper trail’ of who’s shared what.

Meanwhile, synchronous communication tools such as Zoom, FaceTime and Microsoft Teams Meetings can be used for problem-solving or brainstorming sessions – and even what Perlow calls post-meeting “huddles”. She points out that after a face-to-face meeting, colleagues might chat amongst themselves and come to a better understanding of the information presented in it, but also that there’s no reason why post-meeting debriefs with teammates can’t happen virtually, via video call.

2. ‘Process interactions’

Process interactions involve the discussion of how things should be done, and often involve assigning work or laying out timelines. When teams work remotely, too many process interactions can feel invasive and repetitive and hit people’s motivation.

In both the real and virtual worlds, process interactions are also ripe for hijacking. Discussions that should be rapid and simple – ‘What’s the deadline on this?’ or ‘Who’s going to cover that?’ – can become conversations about other, more involved topics.

Using what Perlow, Whillans and Turek call “minimally disruptive technology” – such as instant messaging – to manage process interactions is one way to ensure they stay smooth and straightforward.

Software that enables virtual project management, can also help to ensure that process interactions are efficient. Colleagues can access at-a-glance updates on how a task is progressing, who’s responsible for what and where there are blockers. When everyone’s well informed at the start of a process interaction, the conversation can be quick and to the point.

3. ‘Relationship interactions’

Finally, relationship interactions are those during which colleagues support, help and empower one another.

Many business leaders have tried to replicate the social interactions their teams might have at the office during lockdowns, scheduling virtual quizzes, drinks, dinners and even yoga sessions.

While such interactions aren’t for everyone, Perlow, Whillans and Turek found that people who participate in such gatherings do find them worthwhile.

The researchers also found that team “huddle times” – for instance, post-meeting chats – were often fruitful, providing a chance for colleagues to share challenges, seek advice and qualify their thinking.

As Covid-19 restrictions begin to ease and the hybrid model of work becomes the new norm for many of us, occasional visits to the corporate HQ will also be valuable opportunities to bond with colleagues, boost our creativity and strengthen working relationships.

It’s good to talk

While hybrid ways of working won’t do away with corporate HQs or face-to-face teamwork, it’s good to know that a distributed workforce – where some people might be at home and others at local flexspaces – doesn’t have to be a disconnected one.

Ultimately, prioritising good communication is key – as is a commitment to continuously improving it.

As we embrace a new normal and, as Perlow says, “Now that we better understand [people] need these different types of interactions to work well together”, it’s up to us to ensure they’re as effective as possible.

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