Research reported by MIT Sloan Management Review, a survey provided to one organization compared the purpose of network interactions with employees’ preferences for in-person versus virtual connections with others, showing which kinds of interactions are best held in person and which are perfectly fine to maintain virtually. This revealed disconnects; for example, while managers might default to in-person interactions for project coordination and informational updates, the analytics make clear that this is not the best use of newly scarce in-person time. According to the survey data, employees want more in-person interactions with peers for rich qualitative exchanges and would rather use virtual modalities for lean transactional interactions.
Based on the results of the survey here ways managers can maximize both working environments:
- In-Person Environment Activities
- Performance and development feedback conversations for growth
- Problem solving and brainstorming sessions
- Remote Work Environment Activities
- Information sharing meetings and project coordination
- Decision making and seeking approvals
In-person work also allows the serendipitous, one-off peer-to-peer connections that are so critical to engagement and innovation. Most leaders have had little success re-creating these interactions in Zoom or Teams, though many have tried virtual happy hours and other open-ended forums that faltered because they became yet another work demand for employees who were already stretched too thin. Despite craving in-person time, most leaders have not put any real thought into how to optimize those interactions differently than in the past. Many leaders are trained to use meeting and in-person time for things like information sharing, project coordination, and decision-making. Just as employees may feel comfortable falling back into old in-person work habits, managers are often happy to return to running meetings with their trusted flip charts and the dynamism of in-person interactions. But this is exactly the wrong strategy. Rather, they should be using virtual collaboration for these kinds of interactions and finding more creative uses for in-person time to spur interactions that generate energy or developmental growth. For example, leaders could apply this shift in thinking by doing the following:
- Being more open to brainstorming, starting with the “why” of the work before the “what” and the “how,” and diffusing ownership early to generate purpose.
- Focusing more on developmental feedback that helps people grow when engaged in one-on-ones or group reflective processes such as after-action reviews.
Many employees have become hesitant to incur the personal costs of going to the office if they think they’ll have exactly the same interactions that could have been done virtually. Showing employees that the more precious in-person time will be used only for interactions that really do have more value in person than virtually can make it worthwhile for employees to endure a lengthy commute. Creating more-effective interactions will generate an organic pull where people begin to see the value of coming in, and this message will spread to others and generate a positive grassroots response.
This content is adapted from the full article Optimizing Return-to-Office Strategies With Organizational Network Analysis.