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Interacting in the workplace: Do we miss socializing with our colleagues?

“Operating completely through digital means won’t be good. I think it’ll have a disastrous impact on human beings.” — Stéphanie Rivier, workplace psychologist.

In spite of the many proven advantages telework offers, it took a global pandemic for companies to implement it on a large scale. The lack of social interaction has always been the greatest deterrent against adopting it more pervasively. In response to the quarantine, many organisations deployed tremendous efforts to enable their employees to work from home and their operations to carry on. As social distancing measures are progressively being lifted, a plan for their return to offices has yet to be formulated. With every passing month, one not only wonders how companies will ensure the safety of their staff while they share an office, but also whether they will be the same as they were before the COVID crisis.

“Before the end of the 19th century, offices and factories didn’t exist, everyone worked from home,” says Karina Kesserwan, a lawyer who investigates cases of harassment in the workplace. She references the examples of Doctors making house calls and lawyers conducting business from a home office. “Nowadays, we normalized having a social life outside of home.” Although working in common spaces is a relatively new custom, it’s deeply imprinted in society’s perception of the workplace. This image is hardly shaken regardless of what most data suggests about remote working.

Studies dating as far back as the 1980’s have shown benefits to telework for employees and employers alike. Organisations that allow staff members to work remotely for part of the week have recorded a productivity increase of fifteen to thirty per cent. Their error rate also drops significantly. For their part, employees are happy to eliminate a time consuming commute from their daily routine. This would diminish traffic immensely, therefore having a positive impact on the environment as well. Still, the need for human contact weighs heavily on the scales against these combined advantages.

“The human brain often reacts based on emotion rather than facts and data,” says Koffi Hounou, who works as a coach in Desjardins’ agile expertise center. Face-to-face interactions are such a big part of how we collaborate that it’s difficult to imagine working away from one another. The past few months have also proven we communicate less effectively in such a context. Hounou’s role is to optimize communication between colleagues and teams, as well as creating an environment conducive to continuous learning in the workplace. The quarantine forced him to adapt his methods, since people are no longer able to interact directly.

“Having to distance ourselves is a little unsettling, because even if the goal is to facilitate interaction between individuals, the best means to achieve this is face-to-face communication,” he explains. A key principle of the Agile method Hounou employs is to prioritise discussion over the processes and tools which enable communication. The fact is that direct interactions diminish the risks of misunderstanding one another. “Non-verbal cues add a layer of analysis pertinent to simplifying things,” he explains. “The absence of face-to-face communication makes it so that the person on the other side will try to imagine the person they can’t see.” Employees therefore spend substantial amounts of energy trying to fill the gaps in their communications.

Much like Hounou, Stéphanie Rivier, a workplace psychologist who works as a consultant and guest speaker, is having to develop new strategies for interacting in the context of teleworking. She specializes in the efficiency of individuals, teams and processes, because of her personal interest in the condition of humans in the workplace. Overall, she thinks that being forced to adopt teleworking on a larger scale gave many companies the opportunity to realise some of their misconceptions toward it were unfounded. But even if people are able to improve the way they communicate virtually, the need to interact in person remains. “Some people are loving working from home, but others are really getting tired of it, especially not being able to interact with their colleagues,” says Rivier. “People are realising the importance of meeting in person. People have a need to function through face to face interactions.”

As a junior electrical engineer for Bouthillette-Parizeau, cooperation holds an important part in Joel Bouchard’s work. When you have a number of technicians and drafts people designing different components of a single technical plan, there is no room for error. “You can’t just walk over to your colleague’s desk if they don’t understand something,” Bouchard says, explaining some of the drawbacks of working remotely. To emulate the interactions he and his colleagues used to have, they rely on tools such as Zoom and Teams. But according to the engineer, they’re simply temporary measures to accommodate them in a situation that was forced upon them.

Bouchard feels privileged to have been able to work from home and keep his job during a period through which many lives were thrown out of balance. He believes, however, that offices will remain an important space for cooperation. “I think the future is more of a hybrid,” says Bouchard, who feels the past months have proven to both his colleagues and superiors that telework is not only feasible, it also presents a lot of advantages. “At the end of the day, a lot more people than we think enjoy the whole socialization aspect of the office.”

After working from home for the past four and a half years, Karo-Lyne Denis agrees that teleworking suits a particular type of personality. “It’s not for everyone, to not be able to see someone that you’re working with, to not be able to have someone physically there that you can reach out to,” says the business helpdesk specialist, who works for Telus’ IoT (Internet of Things) department. In her experience, in order to enjoy teleworking, one needs to be extremely organised and self sufficient. It also requires the ability to set clear boundaries between one’s personal and professional life.

Denis imagines the isolation experienced by some of her colleagues must have had a certain effect on their mental health. “If I didn’t have my child, I would probably be asking for things to reopen too,” she says, adding that while teleworking offers employees the flexibility to manage their work-life balance, some people may have a hard time adjusting to it. “We can’t forget the people who it’s not right for and we need to find solutions for them as well.”

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