Lessons and tactics for the new decentralized workplace

How to boost staff networks and avoid proximity bias

Lessons and tactics for the new decentralized workplace

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a significant shift in work patterns, with a considerable portion of the population now working from home. Prior to the pandemic, a mere 5% of Americans worked remotely for over three days per week. However, by April 2020, this figure rose to an astounding 37%. In response, many companies have adopted long-term remote work policies, while others have transitioned to hybrid or mixed-mode work models.

The most recent findings from the ongoing Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes (SWAA) reveal that, so far in 2023, the average number of paid days worked from home per week is 1.4 (or 28% of the workweek). This data is based on responses from Americans aged 20 to 64 who earned at least $10,000 in the previous year.

According to the same respondents, employers plan to permit employees to work remotely for an average of 2.2 days per week, provided their jobs allow for it. This figure is an increase from the 1.6 days anticipated in August 2020 but falls short of the expected 2.4 days recorded in June 2022.

The SWAA report also indicates that remote work is most widespread in urban areas and industries such as technology and information, finance and insurance, and professional and business services. This finding aligns with the Bureau of Labor Statistics' observation that telework is most common in the information, professional and business services, educational services, and wholesale trade sectors.

The critical question now is how remote, hybrid, and mixed-mode work arrangements affect business organizations. Microsoft's company-wide work-from-home policy during the pandemic allowed researchers to examine the impact of extensive remote work on employees' collaboration networks and communication practices. These complex relationships within a company, referred to as network topology, include the strength of ties between individuals and units, which plays a crucial role in both personal and organizational success.

Remote work's impact on collaboration and communication: lessons from Microsoft

A study examining the transition to company-wide remote work at Microsoft revealed a decrease in interconnectedness among business groups. The shift resulted in fewer ties bridging structural holes and a reduction in time spent collaborating with these connecting ties. Consequently, employees collaborated more with their stronger ties, which are optimal for information transfer, and less with weak ties that provide access to new information. These findings suggest that remote work may diminish the benefits of altering network positions and forming new ties, causing companies to lose some of the organic development that occurs in an office setting.

Existing research indicates that worker performance is influenced by not only the network structure and strength of ties but also the communication modes used for collaboration. Traditional, richer communication channels, such as in-person interactions, are ideal for conveying complex information and ideas, whereas asynchronous channels like email and instant messaging are better suited for transmitting simpler information.

Unsurprisingly, the study found that remote work led to a decrease in synchronous communication, including scheduled meetings and audio/video calls, and an increase in asynchronous communication, such as email and instant messaging. This shift in communication mediums could make it more challenging for workers to convey and reach a consensus on the meaning of intricate information.

Synchronous communication, which requires the simultaneous presence of the sender and receiver, involves the real-time exchange of messages. Commonly used in professional settings, synchronous communication occurs through mediums such as telephone conferences and video meetings. In contrast, asynchronous communication permits the exchange of information without time constraints, allowing recipients the flexibility to respond at their convenience. Business professionals often utilize asynchronous communication methods like email, digital forums, and collaborative documentation platforms.

By comprehending how remote work influences collaboration networks and communication practices, informed decisions can be made regarding work arrangements that foster creativity and knowledge transfer. For individuals, connections to various parts of an organization's formal and informal network are beneficial, as they can serve as conduits for information flow. For companies, specific network configurations correlate with high-quality creative output, and effective knowledge transfer can offer a competitive edge.

The strength of ties plays a critical role in transferring or providing access to new information. Strong ties facilitate information transfer and cooperation, while even weak ties grant access to novel, non-redundant information. Understanding the impact of remote work on these dynamics is essential for creating a productive work environment.

The value of "weak ties" and addressing proximity bias in hybrid workforces

Weak ties, which are essential for cross-disciplinary innovation that drives growth, can become problematic in hybrid workplaces. Effective middle managers must purposefully foster weak ties among employees, particularly within hybrid work environments.

One approach to nurturing weak connections involves organizing in-person events that unite members from different teams. Social gatherings, training sessions, and remote activities can also contribute to building weak ties. Research indicates that pairing junior staff with various senior staff as mentors effectively expands networks and establishes weak connections, while simultaneously providing valuable on-the-job training.

Former Accenture Managing Director Kevin Singel frequently recommends dedicating an hour (or half an hour) each day to working with subordinates on teams or Zoom calls, as though they were seated together in a cubicle. Discussing work is helpful, but casual conversations unrelated to work can also strengthen connections.

Evaluating employees based on face time can lead to proximity bias, a growing concern as more organizations embrace hybrid or remote work arrangements. To combat this, hybrid managers should prioritize meaningful goals and outcomes that support their team's business objectives, rather than focusing on time spent working.

Proximity bias particularly affects remote employees, who may be unintentionally excluded from decision-making processes due to their physical distance from in-office conversations. Remote workers also confront misconceptions about their productivity and work quality, with some assuming their performance is subpar compared to in-office colleagues. A Stanford University study found that remote employees faced a reduced promotion rate in comparison to their in-office counterparts.

To address these challenges, managers can incorporate performance evaluations into the weekly one-on-one meetings already scheduled with supervisees. During these sessions, managers and supervisees can agree on three to five key objectives for the employee to achieve. The supervisee then reports their progress at the following meeting, where the manager offers guidance on problem-solving and conducts a weekly performance evaluation. By emphasizing meaningful goals and outcomes, managers can maintain strong connections among staff members and ensure accountability.

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