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All-Virtual Work – What Is the Long-Term Impact on Productivity?

Many team leaders we talk to believe that work-from-home will have no negative impact on their team’s productivity. Their teams found that abrupt switch to remote work due to COVID-19 did not reduce their output and performance. In some cases, teams’ productivity improved as their work environment became more structured, and they were able to invest more focused uninterrupted time in their tasks.

Harvard Business Review (HBR) shared a set of findings from their research that challenge this point of view. While the research confirms that most white-collar employees made the transition to virtual work well, it reveals a critical risk for the long-term organizational health and performance. This is the risk of losing the connection that is typically created through spontaneous communication, small talk, and casual interactions.

HBR highlights three types of connections potentially undermined by all-virtual work:

(1) Integrating New Employees
As London Business School’s Dan Cable, Harvard’s Francesca Gino, and the University of North Carolina’s Bradley Staats have shown in their research, great onboarding involves allowing new employees to apply their signature strengths and express their genuine selves. This typically requires numerous in-depth interactions, and existing employees are accustomed to having those in person.

(2) Creating “Weak Ties”
This refers to shallow or peripheral relationships among members of an organization who don’t work closely with each other but have nonetheless connected over time. By providing novel information and complementary expertise, weak ties have been shown to play an important role in organizational performance, including innovation, raising or maintaining product and service quality, and attaining project milestones.

(3) Fostering Relationships
Virtual work makes it difficult for leaders to observe and foster the creation of relationships among their pools of talent that are likely to produce benefits for the organization in the future. Managing by walking around does not translate into managing by emailing around (as Ethan Burris, a McCombs School of Business professor, put it). People are still getting the work done, but the long-term relationships that once sprang from the shared experiences are undoubtedly at risk.

What are the implications for teams?

All-virtual work requires proactive strategies for deepening connections in teams. This is the only way to avoid an inevitable drop in performance in the long term. Moreover, by actively working on maintaining and expanding connections virtually, teams can improve their productivity and become happier in their job.