What Your WFH Team Really Needs: Unstructured Interaction

New research suggests the problems with work from home (WFH) don’t emerge because employees are no longer co-located. Its weaknesses arise when leaders fail to create an unstructured connection.

In August 2020, we surveyed 2,300 executives and employees who were abruptly thrust from the workplace due to COVID-19. The results question the long-held pessimism that virtual technologies can promote the frequent informal interaction needed to generate social capital—a measure of the healthy functioning of social systems. We see hopeful evidence that virtual tech can be used not just for working, but for creating a connection.

We’ve known communication technologies are adequate for structured interaction. Need to get a geographically dispersed team to develop a budget? A 1980s-style conference call worked fine. Want your team to critique a marketing plan? A 2015-era video conference is terrific. But what we never found a way to do with these technologies was to promote unstructured interaction that reliably produces deep human bonds.

Unstructured interaction is free-form contact that promotes exploration, social learning, and social connection. Research shows it’s a critical ingredient of high-performance organizations. Much of the trust you might develop during a stressful product launch comes from unplanned moments where you show colleagues a prized video of your daughter scoring a goal, or when you share a special headache recipe with a coworker who is repeatedly rubbing her head.

Because few have historically used virtual communications to consistently promote this kind of interaction, we’ve assumed it couldn’t be done. That’s how we came to assume that the only way to create a deep connection is to pass pizza over a cubicle wall.

The Office is a Way, Not the Way

We found tremendous social capital can be generated if leaders match new social technologies with virtual technologies. The limiting factor has never been distance, it has been an absence of innovation in social rituals that create similar effects on proximity.

What worked about the office was that it was a highly structured way of promoting unstructured interaction. It gave the illusion of agency to our spontaneous connection. But in reality, those “chance” happenings were always engineered. We were required to arrive at 8 am, have lunch at noon, and work where we were assigned. And it worked. Like marbles in a bowl, our contact with each other was not elective.

Leaders in organizations that have thrived in recent months understand that WFH demands more than substituting conference calls for conference rooms. They are experimenting aggressively to create new norms and rituals for unstructured interaction. For example, here’s how one leader promotes unstructured virtual contact:

“Every morning at 9:30, my team meets [online] for a ‘Check-in’ to make sure everyone is okay. Initially, it was very work-focused. Now it has become a time to share personal stories, give tours of our homes, see each other’s families, have our morning coffee together… If anyone is upset, we show compassion. If anyone needs help, we provide assistance. If anyone has a success, we celebrate. [We] have really come together as people who care about each other…”

Similar to office-based rituals, everyone must arrive at the same virtual location at the same time. From there, the agenda is loose and social. But the result is deepening feelings of connection and trust.

When we asked respondents what tactics leaders used to offset WFH challenges, we found that leaders in healthy organizations went beyond the obvious interventions like altering work hours or offering flex-time policies, and were far more likely to use:

  1. Fun, off-the-wall virtual events (virtual dance parties, online eating contests, etc.).
  2. More frequent team meetings.
  3. Scheduled non-work-related team meetings for team members to connect.

Notice what these have in common—they enable not just structured, but unstructured interaction. And their social capital effects were strikingly different, showing a two to four times greater impact on social capital than offering a more generous flex time policy.

This study provides early evidence that leaders need not choose between developing a high-performance culture and allowing home-based work. It may be possible to have both, provided leaders to take responsibility to embed new rituals that provide an ample mix of structured and unstructured interaction.

Joseph Grenny is a four-time New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. He is the co-founder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and leadership development.

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