Collaboration in the Physical Distancing World

Emerging social and environmental factors will be certainly influencing people’s feelings and behavior. Such physical distances may slowly reflect in the distance in social relationships.


Coronavirus pandemic has changed our lives. Many countries, including India, adopted measures of “social distancing” or “physical distancing” to handle the outbreak of COVID 19. The intervention led to limiting the size of gatherings, the closing of institutions and workplaces, travel restrictions. Many organizations adopted a virtual approach to ensure continuity of their businesses. The shutdown compelled the dispersed employees to form online teams, connect customers, engage with supply chain networks using the internet or phone to ensure continuity of their operations and activities. In the quickest possible way, the interacting teams formed the ground rules of interaction and ways of engaging, most of them yet to formalize. As we move to post attenuated COVID 19 phase, the new ways of working in this “new normal” will evolve in terms of structure, systems, and processes leading to the shaping of a new culture.

Given the transmission dynamics of this disease and its mutation behaviour, experts suggest that the risk of coronavirus is going to stay with us for some time in the future. As the restrictions are lifted, the coming months are going to remain uncertain and living with fear. For organizations, this creates a challenge for managing the operations at the individual level, at the team level, and organization level. Physical meetings, networking, social meets, forum discussions, seminars, which was a norm in the pre-COVID period, may see everything going virtual way. Organizations will need to quickly learn new ways of doing business, evolve robust structures, firm up processes, and develop a culture of working in the new normal. The limited experience of organizations going digital, holding virtual meetings, using mobile technology, using various platforms to ensure engagement will guide us in developing the new reference to manage organizations, teams, and individuals working in the distance economy. The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated the signs of unease and fear affecting our attitudes. What will be the implications of these for our businesses and our working relations from remote? Understanding of how to go about working in the distance world would be critical. All of us need to quickly learn and developing strategies to adapt to this new normal. How to handle the surprises and shocks in the process and how to deal with them needs to be found. We have never faced this situation in our lives, and there is no experience of how we will perform in this distance world. Are we resilient to face this situation? Some preparation always supports, some understanding will always help.

Learning to live with a distance is the new norm 

Physical distance is there to stay for at least a few years. Intrinsically people have realized their

interconnectedness and defining new ways of getting connected. They also know that others' wellbeing is in the interest of self. People are going to reiterate the need for distances and practice at workplaces to protect themselves and others. This norm will change the way offices are going to be organized and the way meetings are going to be conducted. Our minds are conditioned to the fact that teams excel and perform better when their teams are co-located. But this mind set need to change. While being in the office, the majority of the meetings would perhaps still happen in the virtual mode. Joint exercises for team building and trust would be redefined and reconfigured.

Principles of operant conditions in the distance world

B F Skinner, in 1938 in a controlled experiment, demonstrated that the best way to understand behaviour is to look at the causes of an action and its consequences. Pleasant consequences induce repetitive behaviour, and unpleasant consequences discourage a repeat of behaviour. In the emerging scenario, rewards, and punishment to promote distance behaviour will be institutionalize. There would be hardships to organizations having limited office spaces and therefore work from home will evolve as major intervention. Media, Government, and peers will continue to be attentive to these developments and show sympathy for the difficulties of these organizations and employees. This continuous attention and sympathy would act as reinforcement to live in those difficulties. The reinforcement of this would be further strengthened by organizational practices of work at home, welfare measures, and uncomfortable social situations. In the emerging workplaces, there would be more work for retained employees, and a large population may face the challenge of not having productive employment. Automation will further accentuate this.

Preparing for the distance world

Physical distances will bring new challenges in organizing the workplaces. Business organizations will find it tough to create additional office space for employees. It would be essential to identify roles that could be executed from home. Most of the sales, administrative, and accounts activities could be executed from home. The organization would necessarily require to strengthen their work from home infrastructure and put better security and control measures in place. In manufacturing, there would be more automation. Retail will further gravitate towards e-commerce leading to higher employment in gig economy and reduction in traditional employment. Ensuring motivation, coordination, commitment, and monitoring of such employees would remain a challenge in the emerging conditions. Given the hardship around, people would learn to be frugal in their daily lives, which will further dampen the demand. Organizations would see a shift in the way the meetings are organized. Owing to the difficulty in coordination, there would a shift towards "small is beautiful." Large organizations would create smaller business units. Such a structural shift would help in gaining the speed of decision making.

How to deal with the new psychology of distance working 

Emerging social and environmental factors will be certainly influencing people’s feelings and behaviour. Such physical distances may slowly reflect in the distance in social relationships.

Such social distance may get reflected in the lower comfortable working of members within the group and between groups. The attitude of people towards others will undergo significant change. Such social distance will further strengthen the need for physical distances. Social distance may create psychological distances between people. Incidences of procrastination would increase. Trust and reciprocity are an important pillars of culture of an organization, and the studies suggest they both decay with the social distance. Several studies indicate that collaboration improves with the increase in levels of trust between team members. With the decay in trust, the collaboration may suffer. Team members’ proximity has been found significantly related to quality of teamwork.

Organizations, therefore, would have huge task of finding ways to encourage physical distances without impacting the social relationship and psychological proximity and wellbeing. For example, psychological proximity has been found to critically influence teamwork and performance in many service based organization teams. Capacity building and training provided by the organization will be critical to ensure high-performance of remote teams. At the same time team autonomy will play significant role in quality decision making, strengthening problem solving approaches, especially when working in social distance environment. Leadership role must focus on assisting the teams in bridging and addressing the challenges emerging from the distances. Inadequate knowledge transfer, lack of team cohesion, inadequate technical resources, lack of understanding of company process, loss of key resources have been found greatest risk factors in virtual teams as compared to physically co-located teams.

It would be essential to strengthen the welfare measure, including counselling. Organizations would be expected to develop simulations that could sensitize and train people to be effective in the emerging world. Employees need to learn to be physically and socially distant yet emotionally closer if they have to achieve a common goal. Organizations need to create opportunities for such supportive behaviour that needs to be monitored and encouraged. It will help if organizations, society, and the Government create forums for emotional and psychological support to people in distress.

In the emerging scenarios, old heuristics and assumptions will not remain valid for many businesses. Leadership will have to remain careful in decision making to avoid biases owing to their past experiences and commitments that they might have made in good times. The ongoing commitment of resources would need a fresh evaluation without any "sunk cost bias" in decision making. It will be helpful if an independent team evaluates all the on-going projects before committing additional resources.

Regularly new surprises would be experienced in the emerging scenarios. Organizations will need to cope up with them by committing additional resources for any contingencies. Leadership will have to build trust at all levels so that people could share their ideas, observations, and feelings in the new scenario. Such sharing will be an important deciding factor for survival in the VUCAF world.

The roles of people would be changing fast. Organizations will have to find ways to develop new competencies to execute those new roles effectively. Leadership would have a major challenge in coordinating the efforts of these people. Complete psychological, physical, and social fitness would be essential for leaders. Organizations would be required to commit resources for fitness at all levels in the organizations.

Nudging the behaviours in the distance world Nobel laureate Richard Thaler suggests that people will need nudges for decisions that are difficult and rare, for which they do not get prompt feedback, and when they have trouble translating aspects of the situation in terms that they can easily understand. Post attenuated COVID 19 world will see people facing difficult and rare situations and making decisions under these circumstances. A lack of prompt feedback will characterize these situations.

Communication and developing an understanding will be a priority. In such situations, organizations can use nudges to encourage better decisions making and pushing the behaviour of employees in desired directions. This has to happen at all three levels: individual, teams, and organization. For organization it will be important first to understand the underlying behavioural mechanisms and barriers and then develop interventions to target the desired behaviour. At the same time, organization need be conscious of the fact that everyone is affected by behavioural barriers emanating from self-control, cognitive ability, loss aversion, self- and social image and social norms, and biased beliefs (see Box). Working in the distance world with high dependence on digital mechanisms will aggravate many of these barriers. The organizations can effectively use various nudges to alleviate the intensity of these barriers.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house


Around The World