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Arizona State University (ASU)

Clicking with co-workers is key to working remotely, ASU professor's study finds

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many employees out of the office into their homes. A recent Gallup poll shows that 62% of employed Americans report having worked from home during the crisis, twice as many as in mid-March.

But the key is that workers now have no choice in the matter, according to Blake Ashforth, who holds the Horace Steele Arizona Heritage Chair in the Management and Entrepreneurship Department of the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. Ashforth studies how people identify with organizations, which has produced studies on topics such as stigmatized jobs and bullying in the workplace.

“In pre-COVID times, working remotely worked pretty well because there was self-selection going on,” he said. “When people self-select to work at home, they have the resources to make a go of it, and they can create a home environment to block out those distractions.

“COVID times are different. You’re in a situation where you don’t have a choice and people are scrambling to figure out how to make this possible.”

Last fall, Ashforth published a study in the Academy of Management journal about how workers who rarely see each other face-to-face form relationships. He and his co-authors found that a key to bonding with remote colleagues is “cadence,” defined as being able to predict how co-workers interact, and that managers should set aside personal time during conference calls for workers to have some fun.

Ashforth answered some questions about the new way of working.

Question: What makes working remotely successful?

Answer: The key things that need to be there are, first of all, an ability to create boundaries, temporal and spatial. You need to able to carve out a hunk of the day to say, "This is what I’m going to do."

It’s hard to work with kids at home but you want to carve out time where you will be primarily focused on either work or home.

The other part is spatial — "This is where you do your work that’s efficient."

Question: What else is different about working at home compared to the office?

Answer: Having rituals. In pre-COVID days, the daily commute was the big ritual. If you get into the car, that’s a strong sign that you’re on your way to work or you’re on your way home.

Now, some people get dressed for work even though they don’t need to look like they’re at the office, just so they’re getting into work mode.

Question: What did your research on teams that work remotely discover?

Answer: It was with technology workers who work primarily on the road and in teams. How do you pull that off and create relationships with very little face-to-face contact?

We found that people were able to personalize their relationships, and have, if not a full-on friendship, at least a sense of friendliness. They were more efficient team members and felt better about being on a team.

We think of home and work as separate and friendships as different from officemates. People who were able to blend the two were able to get things done — get immediate responses, get the benefit of the doubt if problems arose and have people vouch for them.

Also, they don’t have the normal friction of the office and, given the distance in virtual work, don’t have the office politics.

Q: How did they do that?

A: This division was almost entirely remote. They would meet periodically, but there was no ongoing face-to-face communication. And no videoconferencing. Everything was by text, emails and instant messaging. The company wanted the visual privacy and asynchronicity of IM, where people can take time to respond.

Q: So how do you become friends in a world that’s all textual?

A: It was little things they did, asking, "Where do you live?" Or someone might tell a little off-color joke, and if it fell flat, back off.

The most efficient leaders were the ones who implicitly recognized this and created a moment for these interactions. In (phone) meetings, they would give five minutes for something unrelated to work, like the song of the day. They personalized relationships so when the meeting began, it wasn’t anonymous.

Q: What areas of research do you see in the future for this time?

A: There are certainly identity implications in this. What does this do for your affinity for the organization? When you work at a location like ASU, the campus provides a strong cue and that feeds our identity as an "ASU person.” When we’re working remotely, those cues are gone.

Already, pre-COVID, people were moving away from organizational identity and more toward occupational and network identity. This will hugely speed that up. People will be less inclined to invest in their organization.

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