Remote working is here to stay, especially if employees have anything to say about it. Studies consistently report high numbers of U.S. workers favoring their work-from-home setups, with as many as 35% saying they’ll change jobs if required to return full-time to onsite work.
Employers have made adjustments to accommodate remote working, largely due to Covid-19 safety protocols. As some work to shift back to pre-Covid ways of doing business, they’re encountering worker reluctance and resistance.
It begs the question: is there a legitimate business need for employees to work onsite full-time? Or can the work be done just as well (maybe even better…) when people are working remotely?
Measuring productivity and output doesn’t tell the whole story. In evaluating whether or not team members need to be onsite, there are some important metrics and considerations that go beyond the obvious. These include:
- Are employees as engaged, happy, productive, and connected from home as onsite?
- Do employees have sufficient opportunities to get to know each other and experience a sense of belonging and team camaraderie?
- Are new employees integrated into the team, mentored, and able to learn quickly without same-space role models?
- Are errors noticed and corrected as quickly when people work in different places?
- Is trust between team members strong? Are there strong bonds across functions, too?
These gaps can have significant and negative impacts on individuals. Perhaps it’s gaps like these that are causing so many to consider seeking new employment even though they’ve been working from home for the 18+ months of Covid-19 safety protocols.
What You’re Missing Out on When You’re Working Remotely
Although it can be convenient and easy to work from home – no commute, potentially reduced expenses without the need for work wardrobes, childcare, gasoline, morning coffee stops, etc. – there is a price to pay in terms of personal effectiveness and growth, job satisfaction, and relationship building.
Observing people in virtual meetings simply isn’t the same as seeing them live and in person. Seeing people in action throughout the day reveals more than seeing people when they’re “on” for shorter, planned interactions.
Exchanging emails or Slack updates doesn’t have the same fringe benefits as impromptu hallway or over-the-cubicle conversations. Authentic exchanges don’t have the same filters as written correspondence. In-person, you’ll pick up on more body language, facial expressions, intonations, and other subtle cues.
Learning cultural norms and how to get things done is a whole lot easier when you’re spending time with and around people. Those who are new to an organization and working remotely are at an extreme disadvantage because they don’t have any history or sense of the norms regarding how people interact, how work gets done, how decisions are made, how conflict is handled, and so on.
Without organic, in-the-moment mentoring… without observing senior level behaviors and characteristics… without getting real-time reactions to your own behaviors… there will be gaps in your own development.
There’s one more gap to consider, and it’s a big one. The quality of relationships that is formed when people are in a shared space can’t be fully replicated remotely.
Without working alongside others, you may be missing out on increased production of oxytocin.
How Does Oxytocin Impact Work Relationships and Productivity?
This is a neurochemical matter. Paul Zak’s research into teamwork and collaboration reveals the importance of oxytocin in in human social behaviors at work.
When we feel trusted, our brain produces more oxytocin. This enhances our empathy and reduces our wariness in interacting with that person. Setting aside mistrust and empathizing enable tighter bonds and better cooperation.
Higher levels of trust produce higher levels of oxytocin. Higher levels of oxytocin produce greater focus on team outcomes and group goals. When team members know and trust each other, oxytocin flows and work feels more meaningful. Teams are more innovative and productive plus members are happier when there is more oxytocin released.
You may have heard about oxytocin in romantic and familial relationships. It’s often associated with love and is the hormone that’s associated with attraction, caregiving, childbirth, lactation, and sex. But oxytocin is produced by all types of relationships and encounters, even those with our pets.
Oxytocin is released in response to social contact. It amplifies brain activity and the feelings that come from how we feel about and think about others. That amplification happens when the thoughts/feelings are positive and when they’re negative, too.
Positive thoughts and feelings multiply and spread because of oxytocin. A smile, eye contact, leaning in, paying attention, and “getting” someone else increases your own oxytocin release and will likely stimulate oxytocin production in the other person, too. In turn, their oxytocin and reciprocal behaviors will cause you to have more oxytocin… and so on.
When we’re with people we like, know, and trust, we feel calm and positive. Our stress level drops. Oxytocin is known as “the feel-good hormone” because of this and because it also is linked to the release of serotonin and dopamine, the other “happy hormones.”
Teams that work together and trust each other experience this release and reinforcement over and over again, with little spurts throughout the day. It may be undetectable, but you know when you’re in that kind of a team.
How Remote Working Needs to Shift for Stronger Trust and Bonds to Form
Oxytocin release is triggered by talking, making eye contact, laughing, sharing, feeling heard, and being comfortable with others.
Working remotely, oxytocin production may be limited by:
- Conversations are less organic, less frequent, and more “on point” without as much time for casual or personal dialogue
- Eye contact is difficult to achieve in virtual meetings and almost impossible to have mutually (when one person is staring at the screen to give the illusion of eye contact, they’re unable to see the video of the other person doing the same)
- Virtual meetings tend to be more clinical and to-the-point than same space meetings. People are multitasking and fatigued from too much screen time. Connections aren’t the aim, so they’re neglected in remote meetings.
To compensate, when working remotely there are deliberate steps you can take. Some will potentially increase oxytocin. Others will help even if there is no chemical change.
- Take time to focus on individuals and their needs. Make sure people feel heard and understood.
- In meetings, facilitate camera-on and full-attention dialogue. Use icebreakers and humor to draw people together.
- Communicate clearly and consistently, but not clinically. Choose two-way dialogue over formal memos. Involve people in decisions that affect them. Convey trust and interest in the contributions they can make.
- Show empathy and build awareness of it for others. Ask questions like “How did that affect you?” and “What do we need to know to understand how others are experiencing this?”
- Express your genuine appreciation for the efforts and contributions people make. Be authentic and make it specific. Some studies have shown that recognition releases oxytocin.
- Create ways for people to get acquainted with each other. Encourage mentoring and job shadowing, especially for newer team members. Foster a sense of belonging for all.
- Pick up the phone. Don’t rely on apps and emails for communication. Talk one-to-one with people on a regular basis, just to check in and let them know you’re thinking about them.
Even if people in your workplace say they prefer working from home… even if they’ve maintained good levels of productivity/output… even if they report being engaged by their work, keep in mind that oxytocin deficits can become detrimental to teams. Employee engagement is an emotional connection, first and foremost. Emotional responses include oxytocin production and are enhanced by it.