Distance at Work

Since corona infections started rising and the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic in March 2020, I’ve been working from home as many people across the globe. As many countries are currently experiencing a second wave of infections, this is not going to change in the next weeks or even months.

Luckily, the fact that we’re all in the same boat made it fairly easy to deal with all the changes remote work brought to us: The internet got swamped with ‘How To’ articles on setting up a healthy home office, new digital tools became relevant and suddenly everyone engaged in debates about the new way of work.

We more or less managed to transfer our workflows, routines and rituals into the digital space. And it still surprises me how well it all worked out.

There is one thing though that remote work will never be able to replicate: physical contact.

How physical contact is experienced at work

As an attempt to define physical contact in the context of remote work, I take a closer look at one of the situations where we probably have maximised amount of physical contact: the meeting.

When meeting people physically in one room, physical contact is experienced in 3 dimensions:

1. Individual response

Example: When you enter a meeting room, one of your co-worker is looking and smiling at you.

2. Proximity

Example: You take a seat next to the co-worker who was looking and smiling at you.

3. Multisensory experience

Example: When sitting next to your co-worker, you realise she is warm and sweating from her ride to work.

Already realised what you’re missing every day (for good or bad)?

In the digital world, meetings are usually held with the help of a video call to speed up communication, discuss time-sensitive matters and get as close as possible to the experience of a physical meeting. However, taking the examples above, video calls fail on all 3 dimensions of physical contact:

No eye contact

When you enter a video call, nobody is looking into your eyes, but everyone is looking somewhere on the screen. The closest you can get is by looking into the camera, but then you don’t see your co-workers’ faces. It’s a dilemma.

No grouping

Everyone gets an equal tile on the screen and the order is usually random or even shuffled during the call. There is no such thing as closeness or belonging to a certain group or topic.

No or limited body language

If you’re lucky and your internet connection is stable, you can see and hear your co-workers without major delays or interruptions. Still you don’t see what they’re doing below their face or chest, e.g. their posture, the movements with their hands or if they’re wearing shorts. You also don’t smell them or feel their mood or body temperature.

Physical contact shapes our social systems at work

But there is more to it than a physical level. Let’s think about situations besides formal video calls and understand why virtual coffee and lunch breaks don’t work.

A lot of small talk in the office is initiated by the way how we perceive someone. From the non-work-related topics my co-workers used in the past to initiate a conversation with me, these are the top 3:

  • The way I drink my coffee
  • My look / dressing
  • Things I said in an office meeting

At least 2 of these topics don’t get experienced, let alone spark thought or conversation when there is no physical contact. But these conversations are important to identify ourselves with the people around us which in turn form mutual understanding, sympathy and relationship.

Physical contact indicates preference and relationship

Not only helps physical contact to initiative and form relationships with our co-workers, it also helps us to structure and prioritise them. For example, if you realised in a chat that you and the other person have something in common, it’s likely that you turn to this person again in future situations rather than to someone you haven’t had the chance to identify with.

How do you turn to this person? By sitting next to them in a meeting room, asking them to have lunch together or initiating another chat in front of the coffee machine. At the same time, these actions signal to the other person that you chose them over somebody else and tadaa – a bonding is created.

Notice something? These things never or barely happen remotely. So remote work doesn’t only make it incredibly hard to form relationships in the first place, but also to maintain and nourish them due to the lack of both occasions and social dynamics physical contact enables.

Is this good or bad?

For me personally, removing social clutter from work makes me more focussed on my job – at least for now. I guess there is a chance that one feels more productive short-term, but isolated and unhappy long-term. Hence, having close relationships and physical contact outside of work is crucial.

The fact that I joined a new team this month and never worked with them in one physical space before makes it even more interesting. For now I can say I’m doing fine, but I’m also looking forward to returning to loud and busy office life, at least for 2 days a week.