Do I have a story for you this week!   As many of you know,  when the pandemic shut down our collective society in March of 2020, we shuttered our offices and went 100% virtual for months…seeing our clients and each other on the computer screen only.  In past blogs, you have probably read my advice during that strange time in history.  I tended to get on my soapbox about following the lead of the 10% of companies who thrived during the 2007/2008 recession.  Those companies who did really well had a growth mindset and acquired resources and talent – definitely taking some risks in the process.  Those same companies also doubled down and invested time and money in fixing broken systems and processes.  At Steople, we decided to take this same approach and adjusted accordingly.  We not only put our noses down and supported our clients in every way possible, but we also grew, fixed anything that was broken or clunky, mitigated risk, figured out technology, revamped procedures, and nestled into this new way of being.

There is one big BUT to this story.  While going virtual improved our focus and was needed to keep healthy and be good citizens, just like you, we noticed, over time, that the connection for our team (long-term) just wasn’t going to cut it.   Research shows a lot of things happen when we interact face-to-face that don’t necessarily happen virtually. Human beings had little ability to communicate with those who weren’t physically close to them until the past century, and our brains don’t evolve as rapidly as technology. Fortunately, understanding the science of what happens when people interact in person helps us see when this type of interaction is most beneficial, and when virtual meetings are sufficient. Here’s what’s going on:

You Pick Up Hidden Messages. Albert Mehrabian, a major figure in the study of non-verbal communication, introduced an equation about contradictory feedback in his 1971 book Silent Messages: “Total feeling = 7% verbal feeling + 38% vocal feeling + 55% facial feeling.” In other words, “the degree of liking conveyed by the facial expression will dominate and determine the impact of the total message.”  A lot of this is done unconsciously. People’s pupils dilate when they are happy or excited, and constrict when they are sad. As you look into someone’s eyes, you absorb this emotional information and respond. This means face-to-face meetings are best when you feel someone is being too guarded, and you’d like to know the truth (e.g., a client isn’t happy with your team, but doesn’t want to engage with the conversation). It’s harder to hide reality in person.

You Mirror EmotionsItalian neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti developed the idea of “mirror neurons”–when you see a person take action, your brain fires up the neurons associated with that same action. When your conversation partner smiles, a part of your brain smiles too. This emotional contagion shouldn’t be underestimated. If you want to introduce employees to a new program, you can send them an email or schedule a conference call to give them the details. If you want them to be as excited as you are about it, on the other hand, you’re probably better off conveying the excitement in person.

You Pay More Attention.  Partly this is just practical: There are social consequences to looking at your phone when someone is talking with you if they can see you do it. But also, as all your senses are engaged in noticing things about the other person, including aspects that wouldn’t be picked up by video conference, that forces your brain to work harder and be more engaged.  A face-to-face meeting conveys to the other person that the topic, and the person, are important (if only because you sacrificed the time necessary to meet face-to-face).

Lessons Learned from Quarantine
Now all of that being said, there were some things that we really appreciated about the lock down.  More time to focus with no interruption, independence, less time traveling, and more work-life balance.  From the beginning, we said we would be back in the office in the Spring.  We are excited to let you know that after an extensive search we landed on some great office space and have decided to integrate all the lessons of 2020 and develop a new, improved culture space for our team in order to service our clients better.  Now I know some of you never had to work remote in the past year (our healthcare and construction workers), but for those of you who have started coming back to the office, we hope that the research we have done in building out our new office space might help you as you adapt in the coming year to working in a new, flexible world of work.

Ideally, hybrid work is the best of both worlds: structure and sociability, and independence and flexibility

The natural experiment of Covid forced all of us to re-think every aspect of the world of work…from our global supply chains to hospitality to the Monday morning meeting.  Pre-pandemic, most businesses saw the office as a place where individuals could get work done. Post-pandemic, the office will only secondarily be a place to carry out tasks or engage in routine meetings, especially for knowledge workers. Employees are able to do much of that from home, thanks to the growing functionality of information and communication technologies. As a result, employees will increasingly be working in what we call the hybrid office—moving between a home-work space and a traditional office building. The latter will become primarily a culture space, providing workers with a social anchor, facilitating connections, enabling learning, and fostering unscripted, innovative collaboration.

The Office as a Social Anchor
Studies in cognitive psychology and neuroscience show that human cognition depends not only on how the brain processes signals, but also on the environment in which those signals are received. That’s why the limited body language available in videoconferences can trigger misinterpretation and make bonding difficult. Being physically co-located helps people interpret others’ moods and personalities, making it easier to build and cement relationships.  Neuroscientific research suggests that the brain chemistry of people in human moments is distinct from that in purely transactional encounters.  Many remote encounters are purely task-focused and largely free of emotional connection.   Studies have long shown that frequent in-person interactions lead to commitment, support, and cooperation among people on teams
Consider This:
Employee Preferences – Our capacity to operate at peak productivity and performance varies dramatically according to personal preferences. Having discussions with individual employees about what worked well remotely in the past year and what work would be best done in person is key to implementing a new work situation.  So in designing hybrid work, consider the preferences of your employees—and enable others to understand and accommodate those preferences that make sense.

The Office as a Schoolhouse
The really critical knowledge in most organizations cannot be made explicit. Ask new employees at almost any company and they will say that they learned as much from observing their colleagues and managers and interacting with various stakeholders as they did from going through new-employee orientation and specialized training—if not more. Classically, this on-the-job learning takes place in simple interactions. New employees learn the correct and proper way to behave, essentially the cultural norms – “how things are done around here”- from directly observing those around them.
Consider This: 
Fairness and Inclusion – As you develop new hybrid practices and processes, pay particular attention to questions of inclusion and fairness. This is vitally important. Research tells us that feelings of unfairness in the workplace can hurt productivity, increase burnout, reduce collaboration, and decrease retention. In the past, when companies began experimenting with flexible approaches to work, they typically allowed individual managers to drive the process on an ad hoc basis. As a result, different departments and teams were afforded varying degrees of flexibility and freedom, which inevitably led to misalignment. Don’t just talk to senior managers to make change decisions in the hybrid space- make involvement as broad as possible.  Who does it make sense to be in the office or working remotely and for what reasons?

The Office as a Collaboration Hub
When people from different functions and departments collaborate, they can solve complex problems and generate innovative new ideas. Such collaboration is usually triggered by chance encounters—in conversations around a coffee machine or a copier—in which people identify others they can get help from or work with.  Research confirms this: The Human Dynamics group in the MIT Media Lab collected data from employees’ electronic badges and found that frequent face-to-face interactions outside formal meetings were the best predictor of productivity.
Consider This:
The challenge in designing hybrid work arrangements is not simply to optimize the benefits but also to minimize the downsides and understand the trade-offs. Working from home can boost energy, but it can also be isolating, in a way that hinders cooperation. Working on a synchronous schedule can improve coordination, but it can also introduce constant communications and interruptions that disrupt focus.  Create a work space that allows for individual focus, but also invites informal “collisions”.  Research indicates that 55% of US workers want a mixture of home and office working.

So what are we going to do with all of this information?  We have really worked to integrate all of this as we move forward.  We have a small office near our a local university so we can start an intern program.  We are near restaurants and entertainment venues so we can entertain clients.  We have designed the office for maximum collaboration and interaction – not a desk to be found!  We plan to still do much of our client work remotely. We will have big-screen TVs meant for Zoom meetings.  We will have a coffee bar and some loungy-divided work spaces to facilitate those impromptu interactions.  We also realize that while we enjoy seeing our colleagues, it doesn’t mean everyone needs to be in the office five days a week. Working remotely can be really productive for us especially with certain projects and tasks.  Our philosophy of work has always centered on flexibility – it fits our personality.  We’ve found it to be a great recruiting and retention tool for people who desire a better work/life balance. We do plan to have  “core hours” when everyone’s there, with flexibility at other times. That way we can receive the advantages of what we know happens during face-to-face interaction–but have the opportunity to accomplish work with no distractions on our own as well.

Look out…you will be getting an invitation to visit us in the near future.  We look forward to hosting you soon!  Let us know how you are adapting your workplaces as we, hopefully, step into this post-pandemic world and go out and make that impact on the world!