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Jenny Baker
/ Categories: TIP, 591

Navigating the Expansion of Virtual Communication at Work

Alejandro Albedrop, Diana R. Sanchez, and Tamara Skootsky, San Francisco State University

Over the last year, COVID-19 has initiated a period of rapid adoption of virtual technologies for both social and work-related activities of companies and employees across the globe. Considering how COVID-19 will impact the future of work has remained a critical topic for researchers and practitioners in I-O. As pandemic restrictions begin to subside, many organizations will be making decisions regarding the virtualization of their workforce. To help understand the potential implications of remaining virtualized or returning to in-person work, we conducted a literature review of empirical research on in-person versus virtual interactions. We aggregate these results into themes and present a set of recommendations based on these research insights that may be beneficial for practitioners seeking resources to help guide clients through this time of decision making.

As the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic spread, organizations rapidly developed and implemented technological innovations and infrastructure to support alternative work, which often included telecommuting options and technology-based collaboration tools (Branscome, 2020; LaBerge et al., 2020). Much of this change was to support companies in their ability to sustain normal business functioning. As the number of vaccinations administered increases, many organizations have begun to consider what changes their company will make as business returns to relative normalcy (PwC, 2021). Companies will be weighing the potential pros and cons of virtualized work systems. From some perspectives, technology improvements may have improved efficiency and productivity or enabled other benefits (e.g., removed commute time for employees). However, some organizations may have difficulty replicating critical benefits of in-person interactions in the virtualized world of work and may want to avoid some of the unforeseen pitfalls of virtual work (e.g., Zoom fatigue). 

Although the future of work is uncertain, the relative success of increased virtualization suggests technology-based work interactions will continue to some extent (Akala, 2020; PwC, 2021). Therefore, it will be helpful for I-O researchers and practitioners to understand how organizations may benefit from continuing and increasing virtual work while understanding the potential risks of eliminating or reducing in-person work arrangements. In this report, we summarize research-based information on the benefits of virtualized (e.g., competitive outcomes for productivity; Credé & Sniezek, 2003; Furumo & Pearson, 2006; Hiltz et al., 1986; Shin & Song, 2011) and in-person (e.g., unique and intangible feeling of connectedness and belonging; Credé & Sniezek, 2003; Okdie et al., 2011; Sprecher, 2014) interactions in the workplace. We highlight the impact each may have for organizations and employees and conclude with recommendations for each, including envisioning possibilities for a future of hybrid work arrangements.

 

Benefits of Virtualized at Work

 

Improved Accessibility

One of the more prominent benefits of virtual workplaces is the increase of accessibility options. Virtualization enables organizations to work with individuals across space and time because employees may no longer be required to travel to a physical office or regularly attend work meetings and events at specific times (Ekberg et al., 2016). This enables organizations to attract individuals with talents and skills that may have otherwise been inaccessible when requiring in-person workspaces (Rau & Hyland, 2002). Apart from permanent virtualized work alternatives, organizations can also offer flexible virtualized workspaces that can accommodate individuals with specific needs or life circumstances (Beigi et al., 2018). Drafting policies and guidelines that allow employees the flexibility and possibility to use virtual work to accommodate particular barriers can create a more equitable playing field for employees (Kelly & Kalev, 2006).

Productivity Outcomes

A notable consideration of virtual work is the amount of research that has highlighted the productivity benefits that can come from a virtualized workspace. In part, this productivity benefit is enabled by the number of workplace technology tools, applications, programs, and solutions that have been designed and implemented over the years to facilitate effective virtualized workspaces (Cascio & Montealegre, 2016). Research on virtual interactions has generally shown that productivity often meets or exceeds that found within in-person workspaces (Credé & Sniezek, 2003; Furumo & Pearson, 2006). For example, when evaluating productivity in a team context, the quality of decisions made by virtual teams has been shown to be as effective as decisions made by in-person teams (Hiltz et al., 1986; McLeod et al., 1997). In other instances, virtual teams have demonstrated better outcomes (e.g., task focus and efficiency), particularly when informal conversations are limited and technological tools are available to assist with work processes (Shin & Song, 2011). Based on these findings, increasing the frequency of virtualized interactions can maximize employee productivity without compromising the quality of work, which could provide overall cost savings opportunities for companies and time-saving processes for employees.

Social Impact

Research has also demonstrated a potential benefit to social interactions within virtualized workspaces, particularly for underrepresented groups. Although some research has conceptualized the reduced number of social cues in virtual communication as a drawback (e.g., App et al., 2011), a positive consequent is that these reductions may lead to mitigating social anxiety and interpersonal biases (Lundy & Drouin, 2016; Straus, 1997). One explanation for this is that virtual interactions often limit the amount of information that is accessible about the person’s gender, race, or visible disability status, demographics that have been tied to unconscious social bias and prejudice (Chin, 2004). When these cues are less prominent, they may have less impact on the virtual exchange by reducing social pressure and allowing individuals to express themselves more authentically than with in-person interactions (Connell et al., 2001). In addition, some researchers have found greater equality of participation among group members when interacting virtually. Specifically, virtual interactions demonstrated greater participation from minority group members with unpopular opinions (Ho & McLeod, 2008; McLeod et al., 1997; Straus, 1997; Walther, 1995). Considering these results, virtualized interactions may provide an added social benefit, particularly when considering populations that have traditionally been underrepresented or less recognized in conventional, in-person workspaces.

Benefits of In-Person Work
 

Richness of Experience

Although virtual interactions offer important benefits in terms of accessibility, equitability, and productivity, our modern technologies are still incapable of replicating the rich interpersonal experiences offered by in-person interactions (Bavelas et al., 1997; Reader & Holmes, 2016). These enriched experiences of in-person interactions likely provide inherent value for organizations and individuals, especially when relationship building is core to the business goal. To elaborate, in-person interactions encompass higher levels of visual fidelity, which can intensify emotions through eye contact (Ponkanen et al., 2011; Reader & Holmes, 2016). When comparing virtual interactions with in-person interactions, recent advances in social cognition research have demonstrated that the areas of our brain that allow us to process other people’s behavior, thoughts, and emotions (Aihara et al., 2015) are more highly activated when we are interacting face to face (Jarvelainen et al., 2001; Prinsen & Alaerts, 2019). In essence, in-person interactions neurologically heighten our senses and amplify our experience of others when compared to virtual interactions. This leads to the possibility of unique benefits for specific workplace processes such as gaining organizational commitment from employees or fostering high-quality leader–member exchanges (Eisenberger et al., 2010).

Social Needs

Human beings are a social species that place value on connecting with others. Psychology has long studied these aspects of the innate human need to belong (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). I-O psychology has devoted much focus to the social aspects of the workplace and on research regarding the development of employees’ sense of belonging, affiliation, and group commitment (e.g., McClure & Brown, 2008). The science of how we communicate various emotions suggests that in-person interactions may be essential to effectively achieving our interpersonal needs. Although facial features can adequately communicate anger, disgust, fear, happiness, and sadness, research has shown that the natural expression of embarrassment, guilt, pride, and shame requires the use of our whole body (App et al., 2011). Although video and voice enabled technologies do offer nonverbal cues, and more advanced technologies such as VR interactive workspaces are providing a stronger sense of presence in the virtual environment for users (Sanchez-Vives & Slater, 2005), there are still aspects within virtual interactions that are lacking when compared to the benefits of in-person interactions. In-person interactions offer higher fidelity facial information and nonverbal gestures displayed by the whole body (Bavelas et al., 1997). Furthermore, physical touch may be necessary to effectively express deeper feelings of care, such as love and sympathy (App et al., 2011). Although these may initially seem like less pertinent experiences for the workplace, the potential lack of these opportunities to connect with fellow employees and coworkers in the workplace can lower an employees’ feelings of closeness and care, which provide essential social and emotional benefits, leaving those who interact virtually at a disadvantage (Prager, 1995). Due to the pandemic, many individuals may be feeling the long-term effects of these distanced interactions through fatigue, exhaustion, and burnout.

Making Better Impressions

The impressions that individuals make upon others have also been found to produce better outcomes when in person. Research suggests that people tend to perceive themselves as more similar to and understood by others when they interact in person as opposed to virtually (Okdie et al., 2011). Individuals also report that when meeting in person, this experience offers an easier to navigate interpersonal interaction (Shapka et al., 2016) and a higher reciprocity of positive regard (Credé & Snizek, 2003; Okdie et al., 2011; Sprecher, 2014). The research for positive impressions has been extended in a comparison of work groups where in-person groups demonstrated greater consideration of others’ ideas (McLeod et al., 1997) and less interpersonal conflict when compared to virtual groups (Hobman et al., 2002). These results could represent the influence of healthy and functional impression management strategies (Leary, 2019). In person, individuals may be able to interpret a wider array of social cues and use those to adjust to others’ needs more effectively, offering an environment that creates unique connections between people. It is pertinent for the future of work to discover how the unique qualities of in-person interactions constrain our behavior and self-expression yet foster a valuable sense of connection and understanding that is difficult to achieve in other formats (Leary, 2019). These aspects are often critical for the workplace, especially in roles where networking, building relationships, and forming connections is crucial to the services and practices of the business.

Recommendations for Moving Forward

With government restrictions and health concerns continuing to subside, some organizations have expressed an eagerness to understand the benefits and detriments of in-person and virtual work interactions. It is imperative for organizations to consider and prepare the work arrangements (e.g., flexible work hours, telecommuting options, compressed work schedules) they plan to offer employees in a post-pandemic world. Below we provide a set of guiding recommendations focused on improving in-person, virtual, and hybrid work environments.

1. Build on What We’ve Started

Despite consistent growth in virtualized work options, in-person work arrangements have continued to be the norm in the world of work. Because of this, I-O psychologists continue to focus on improving in-person work interactions by default. As mentioned, in-person work environments excel in their potential to create connection, a sense of belonging, and positive interpersonal impressions (Credé & Snizek, 2003; Okdie et al., 2011; Sprecher, 2014). To follow in the footsteps of researchers and practitioners specialized in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), there is value in utilizing this transformative period to continue to evaluate the way biases arise in the workplace and how employee technologies can mitigate these adverse events (Ellsworth et al., 2020). Maintaining and improving accessibility and work–family balance can support this through the continuance of remote or flexible work arrangements. Regarding productivity, several virtual tools (e.g., learning management systems, cloud file hosting services) were already commonplace for in-person offices, and these tools should continue to be utilized due to their effectiveness at enhancing productivity and collaboration. We recommend that organizations build on what has been initiated by the pandemic and promote progressive policies and standards to further support flexibility and accessibility for employees.

2. Counteract Limitations as They Arise

Subtle nonverbal signals (e.g., nodding one’s head) are essential for effective interpersonal communication and tend to be less noticeable in virtual environments (Bavelas et al., 1997). These signals may be less important for casual conversations, but for crucial conversations (e.g., performance reviews, discussing sensitive topics), nonverbal cues may be increasingly critical to communicate empathy and understanding (Holstead & Robinson, 2020). Sensitive conversations, which were a common in-person business practice, are now more commonly practiced virtually due to the pandemic. Reducing these signals by moving communication online may inhibit people from fully expressing thoughts that seem unimportant or minor (Bavelas et al., 1997; Shapka et al., 2016). Managers can help promote improved communication by offering to have sensitive conversations in person when this is possible again and promoting the improvement of more casual communication within the workplace. Employers and team members can foster a productive and collaborative work environment by encouraging others to react to messages, acknowledge a message was received, and communicate frequently to share progress updates, ask questions, or offer insights (Walther & Bunz, 2005). Clear, frequent communication is a pillar to workplace effectiveness, establishing this need in advance can increase trust and satisfaction within interdependent group members (Bos et al., 2002; Furumo & Pearson, 2006; Zaheer et al., 1998). We recommend that organizations address the limitations of virtual communication by promoting frequent and improved virtualized communications in low-stakes situations and offering in-person availability, when possible, in high-stakes situations.

3. Match the Technology to the Intended Purpose

A paramount difference between virtual and in-person interactions is the intensity of the experience one has when they are truly in the presence of another person (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Jarvelainen et al., 2001; Ponkanen et al., 2011). By assisting clients in understanding the specific benefits of each technology, they can effectively choose the optimal mode of communication while considering the culture, experience, and goals of the organization or team. Through the use of video and voice-enabled tools, organizations can potentially increase engagement, positive regard, and feelings of recognition and connection (Sherman et al., 2013). Take time to provide resources to employees to learn about and practice using various tools available to them in the workplace. If a meeting’s goal is to foster connection, encourage people to identify themselves using names, images, or avatars, and designate time and structure for people to interact in smaller group contexts (Lowry et al., 2006). Conversely, these same elements may be distracting (Jarvelainen et al., 2001) or add unnecessary social dynamics (McLeod et al., 1997) for meetings in which interpersonal connection is not a primary goal. For many situations, video-off calls or simple phone calls may be the most effective in producing desired work outcomes (Brodsky, 2020). We recommend that organizations focus on thoughtful consideration of different technologies and utilizing the specific type of technology that meets the scope and needs of the intended interaction.

4. Considering Virtualization Moving Forward

All things considered, much remains unknown about the impact of in-person, hybrid, and virtual work interactions on individual-, team-, and organizational-level outcomes (LaBerge et al., 2020). At present, virtual environments offer a unique medium for productive work activities, as well as unparalleled access across time, money, ability, personality, and social status (Connell et al., 2001; Credé & Sniezek, 2003; Furumo & Pearson, 2006; Hiltz et al., 1986; Shin & Song, 2011; Straus, 1997). As individuals become more accustomed to virtual communication, they may develop more nuanced strategies to generate positive regard, develop trust, communicate efficiently, and work productively. Concurrently, improvements in technology design (e.g., to allow for organic small group interactions) and facilitation in virtual environments (e.g., to structure, focus, and encourage frequent and meaningful communication) will help bring the possibility of these types of meetings and events to fruition. We recommend that organizations embrace technology to the level that meets their organizational needs and to actively integrate new forms of technology to continue to promote employees’ skills and connectivity through virtualized workspaces.

Final Considerations

Nevertheless, in-person work environments still offer their own unique benefits, especially for relationship building and impression making (Credé & Sniezek, 2003; Okdie et al., 2011; Sprecher et al., 2014). Whether it is due to certain emotions and affections that can only be expressed through body language and touch (App et al., 2011), or simply because in-person interactions activate some unique phenomenon that cannot yet be achieved through distanced communication (Aihara et al., 2015; Jarvelainen et al., 2001; Ponkanen et al., 2011; Prinsen & Alaerts, 2019), the sense of connection and belonging we feel in person is nonetheless difficult to approximate online. When maximum functionality, productivity, and creativity is needed, virtual interactions can assist organizations in facilitating these conditions by reducing the counterproductive social dynamics that would otherwise occur in person. When attempting to foster more personal connections between managers and team members, in-person interactions may still prevail in reaching these goals. As we trudge through this transformational and ever-shifting period, I-O psychologists must learn from both past research and present experiences what practices and technologies can aid in building systems, infrastructures, and cultures that promote highly effective and inclusive work environments within any context.

This article was adapted from a white paper sponsored by HeadBox, which investigates the affective outcomes of virtualized interactions within the context of corporate meetings and events. This white paper can be accessed at the following link: https://resource.headbox.com/whitepaper/

 

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