The danger of remote work: Living in your bubble

Hi from a very hot Gran Canaria. I was promised year-round 25º but got more than I bargained for. I keep cool by reminding myself that this is just for a short time, and it's anyway better than the 232 days of rain we had in Galway (Ireland). 

One nice thing I started again this week was writing a short essay. These are short pieces on whatever crossed my mind. A way to develop ideas or just speak my mind.


One common complaint about remote working or working from home is that people miss the social interactions, and innovation will decrease because of a lack of serendipitous chats at the coffee corner or in hallways. How much truth is there in those statements, and where should we lay the blame?

Key points

1. You have distant and close relationships. Each relationship you have, regardless of how close it is, is valuable. 

2. Staying in contact with distant relationships is hard. 

3. Take time to build trust in your distant connections. 

Essential concepts in this post

  • Close connections are those with whom you interact frequently. They are also called strong connections or strong ties. 

  • Distant connections are those with whom you do not talk often. They are also called weak connections or weak ties. 

Working from home and talking with near-strangers

For employees working in offices, the sudden change in the work environment in Spring 2020 changed their communication patterns. Before being forced to work from home, they spent 45% of their interaction with close colleagues (i.e., close colleagues are those you interact with frequently). However, when people started working from home, this percentage jumped to 60%. On the other hand, the time people spent talking to distant colleagues decreased by 30% (i.e., distant colleagues are people with whom you do not work but who you would see once in a while in the corridor, at the water cooler, or when entering or leaving the office). 

There is no denying that those who did not have experience working remotely changed their interaction patterns.

The dangers of remote work

Work gets done thanks to collaboration: People who have to talk with each other, talk with each other. But that's not sufficient. 

Companies need employees to talk with each other even if they do not work on the same teams or have shared workflows. People who do not have a shared workflow need to be familiar with each other. There is no need to know all the details of each other's work life, but just enough to get an idea of their expertise and aspirations. In brief, employees need to have distant ties

The danger of remote work is that keeping those distant (weak) ties alive is more burdensome. Or to phrase it differently: Keeping those distant ties alive is hard for employees who have been suddenly forced to work from home. Others who are used to this way of working have processes to keep those weak ties alive. 

Chase Warrington, Head of Business Development at Doist, confirms my idea in a Running Remote’s AMA session: remote-first companies do not have social interaction issues. The main point is to be intentional about meeting people and being creative in doing it. Meeting people and talking with them should be part of work and not seen as something extra. That means management should also not treat it as something additional or something people should do in their free time.

Valerie Thörner, Director of Remote at Klaus, also highlights this: Leaders need to model the behavior. Chase talked more about how to keep social connections alive at Running Remote (add link). 

When working in an office, people relied on chance and coincidences to keep distant ties alive. But, when working remotely, people have to be intentional about it. That's why it's hard. You need to do something. 

Research snapshot: The value of distant ties

The following is a summary of a research paper. As this is about human behavior, it is never black and white, but it always depends. Certain statements are simplifications of reality.

Among scientists researching people's behavior at work, a common fact is that close ties are good for sharing tacit knowledge, and distant relations help access unique information. The arguments for these two facts are the following:

Close ties are good for sharing tacit knowledge

Tacit knowledge is the type of knowledge you gain after many years of experience. It is hard to describe quickly. You can't find it in textbooks or in a youtube video. You need time to explain it clearly. In short, it's hard and takes time to learn. Close relationships are those people you spent a lot of time with. There usually is trust. People are ready to spend several hours together to learn from each other. That's why close relationships are essential. 

Distant ties are good for sharing unique knowledge

Unique knowledge is the knowledge nobody else *around you* has. People who often interact with each other know the same thing. For example, those with whim whom you are working are familiar with the same tools and processes. But other teams might use different tools or organize their meetings differently. People in other units are your distant connections. You don't share the same workflow and hence spent less time together. Distant connections give you access to unique information and break the echo chamber you are living in.

Who shares helpful knowledge?

The knowledge you get from close relationships is considered valuable. That's thanks to the trust you have in your close relationships. You trust that the person's expertise and that they want to help you. 

Now, what about the knowledge you get from your distant relationships? Keep in mind that these are people you don't know well. You don't see them more than once per month. The level of trust you have towards those people is, generally, lower, and therefore the information they are sharing is believed to be less useful. 

But this is an oversimplification. Let's add trust to this mental model. The question is: If you trust a distant connection, would you find the knowledge that they are sharing more or less valuable than the knowledge shared by a close connection? Remember that distant connections provide unique information. The answer is yes: *knowledge shared by a distant and trustworthy connection is more valuable than knowledge shared by a close and reliable connection.* This is thanks to the unique knowledge shared by distant connections. 

To sum it up, distant connections can give you valuable knowledge. Don't leave it up to chance to connect with people. Don't rely on hallway corridors, water coolers, or coffee corners. Be intentional. 


Upcoming speaking events:

Data strategies for community management: 14th September 2021

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Interested in becoming more intentional about evaluating your community? I'm running a practical work session for community and team managers on September 14th. During this session, participants will

  • reflect and decide on the purpose of their community

  • determine members' most essential behavior and actions

  • decide which data to collect (data plan)

The session is open to everyone responsible for the success and experience of a group of people, such as a business unit, a team, an online community, or an offline group. No technical skills are needed.

Learn more and sign up: data-class

Trust and communities in collaboration with the Remote Leadership Accelerator

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A learning platform and community for team leads, managers, and founders navigating a new reality where offices are one option out of many. A four-months program for leaders who want to succeed in a remote or hybrid environment by supporting their teams to move from surviving towards thriving - wherever they happen to work.

Learn more and sign up: Remote Leadership Accelerator


Background reading

  • J. Deal and A. Levenson, “What Millennials Want From Work: How to Maximize Engagement in Today’s Workforce” (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2016)

  • Levin, D. Z., & Cross, R. (2004). The Strength of Weak Ties You Can Trust: The Mediating Role of Trust in Effective Knowledge Transfer, 50(11), 1477–1490. https://doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.1030.0