Social interaction in the digital workplace

Covid-19 has forced the world of work to adapt at an unprecedented rate, and the most glaringly obvious example is how we have changed what it means to communicate. Digital collaboration tools that once were optional or nice-to-have are now implicit parts of our working lives, meaning that we continue to be ‘present’ despite physical distance.

However, if you think that workplace communication has suffered from the huge shift to online collaboration, you are not alone. The loss of face-to-face social contact is widely noticed and mourned. Indeed, in a recent study, 64% of our surveyed professionals reported that losing out on those informal kitchen and watercooler-style exchanges had been a real challenge.

Fortunately, leaders and employees alike have embarked on innovative efforts to mitigate this. We are now all more than familiar with social video meetups, chat channels, and the eagerly anticipated (or dreaded!) team quiz. Yet, the obvious question remains: are these efforts sustainable in the long run?

Still longing for the personal touch

Undoubtedly, the use of digital collaboration tools has been instrumental for organisations to just stay afloat, let alone for facilitating missed social connections. Yet, the research strongly suggests that people still long for that personal touch at work – the ability to just “sit down and have a chat.” One interviewee even noted that the ability to hit targets had drastically decreased owing to a lack of the ‘togetherness buzz’ which only face-to-face social contact could facilitate.

It would therefore seem that, despite our resourcefulness and creativity in socialising digitally, we should not pretend that digital interactions reach the same level of richness as in-person ones.

Yet at the same time the strides we’ve made towards a ‘digital workplace revolution’ – with all its potential benefits to health and wellbeing, as well as to business effectiveness – cannot and should not be undone.

With this in mind, one big thing that comes through in our recent studies in this area is the value of a flexible ‘best of both worlds’ approach to work, which balances the benefits of both virtual and physical work environments.

Given the continued uncertainty about when, if and how the physical work environment will again become a central part of business life, it is paramount for employee wellbeing and productivity that leaders continue to both facilitate and empower social connectedness.

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