When COVID-19 first sent office employees home last year, many managers filled their teams’ calendars with online check-ins, drop-ins, and updates to make up for the loss of spontaneous interactions—often sinking morale and efficiency.
Knowledge workers and managers didn’t know what types of interactions they needed to succeed. When managers understand the building blocks for team work, they can allocate time better and select the right communication tools, whether teams are dispersed or together, a new study from Harvard Business School suggests.
Executives are starting to envision post-COVID collaboration in organizational cultures reshaped by remote work. Research by Leslie Perlow, the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership at HBS, and colleagues sheds light on the interactions that were lost during the pandemic’s early weeks, and how teams adapted or faltered. The findings also hold practical implications for managers struggling with low engagement and inefficiency amid a lack of face time and continued pandemic stress.
“One of the big insights from our work has been that, just because you went to the meeting doesn’t mean you know what happened,” explains Perlow. “The more senior people assume that the more junior people understood the meeting because they were there.”
In reality, while technology makes it possible to invite more and different people to virtual meetings, the lack of spontaneous “huddle time”—quick post-meeting conversations to process what just happened—can leave some attendees in the dark about nuances and next steps.
The researchers also found that switching from on-site to remote work reduced “bounce time,” a term they use to describe impromptu brainstorming sessions. The disappearance of bounce time stunted innovation and caused content discussions to intrude on meetings scheduled for other purposes.
“Grabbing a marker and sketching ideas together on a whiteboard—that's much more difficult in the virtual environment,” says Ashley Whillans, assistant professor at HBS and co-author of the study Experimenting During the Shift to Virtual Team Work: Learnings from How Teams Adapted Their Activities During the COVID-19 Pandemic, which will appear in the journal Information and Organization.
Perlow, Whillans, and HBS doctoral student Aurora Turek interviewed 51 knowledge workers at a professional services firm from April to June 2020 to chart teams’ interactions as they transitioned to remote work. The name of the firm and its industry are confidential, but its teams routinely traveled together to visit clients prior to the pandemic.
Drawing on past research about collaboration, the study identifies three categories of interpersonal interactions essential to knowledge workers and looks at how teams tried to facilitate them. They include:
Task interactions, when team members collaborate on activities that directly contribute to output;
Process interactions, such as the agenda-setting that structures a team’s work by laying out responsibilities and timelines;
Relationship interactions in which colleagues support each other and share skills.
Task interactions: Harnessing the right technology At the office, the teams studied would often sit together and discuss content or projects, providing feedback about ideas and early iterations. Like with bounce time interactions, these “content interactions” were usually spontaneous, so the shift to remote work made it difficult to give and receive early input.
In response to these challenges, the teams found that using asynchronous communication tools—specifically, Slack or similar messaging apps—helped compensate for the lack of spontaneity. Moreover, the researchers suggest that this change could permanently improve team collaboration, even when teams reunite in person, by giving individual members more time to think through their responses.
To compensate for lost bounce interactions, the teams used synchronous communication tools, such as WebEx or Zoom, to simulate in-person work conditions and brainstorming.
Even with these tools, it took time for teams to adapt, the study says. The researchers quoted one of their study subjects in the paper as follows:
“In the first project, we didn’t have a virtual team room, and didn’t have a rhythm for working together and organizing our work,” the interviewee said. “In the second project, we had a smoother teaming process because we tried to relax the norms around communication, do more virtual brainstorming, and allow for more personal autonomy over the work.”
Process interactions: Prioritizing quality over quantity In terms of agenda-setting, Perlow, Whillans, and Turek found that balancing the quantity and quality of process interactions was critical for teams as they adjusted to remote work. In an office, it’s easy to ask a manager or colleague, “When is this due?” or “Who’s working on that?” Without those informal interactions, teams often went too far, scheduling too many meetings to touch base.
“They would have check-ins and check-outs, and then that process time would start to get usurped and there would be other kinds of interactions happening within it,” Whillans says. “Process time started to become content conversations because teams were not getting as much feedback during the day.”
With so many check-ins, burnout became a real concern. Over time, teams discovered that using Slack or minimally disruptive technologies for process questions helped them achieve balance.
Relationship interactions: Connecting through huddles, not yoga The importance of nurturing social relationships has come sharply into focus during the pandemic, as often isolated coworkers communicate exclusively online. Spontaneous socializing in the office helps build bonds, and “huddle time” offers opportunities to learn from one another.
When these interactions could no longer happen organically, teams started scheduling them. Virtual drinks, team dinners, and yoga sessions became opportunities to learn more about colleagues than was possible in the office, as videoconferencing offered glimpses into people’s home lives.
But as they interviewed employees at the firm they studied, the researchers found that scheduled social time tended to feel forced, and not everyone was interested or able to attend. Still, those who participated found the experiences worthwhile, even if they fell short of past in-person gatherings.
Not all social time is the same, however. “Huddle time” helps workers understand the team’s work and context. For teams that valued these “hallway conversations,” especially after meetings, and made an effort to replicate them online, “the results were striking,” the researchers write.
“The challenge of replicating ‘hallway’ conversations via digital communication led interviewees to realize that these conversations were more than ‘downtime’—it became apparent that these conversations helped the team qualify their thinking,” they write.
Short, scheduled debriefs after client meetings helped team members process what transpired and the work that needed to follow.
Moving forward in a virtual world By labeling the types of interactions a team needs and tracking the quality of scheduled time, managers can systematically improve collaboration, the researchers write.
“There’s huge inefficiency in so many meetings, and it became even worse in the virtual world,” says Perlow. “So, how can we think about, what are good meetings, and what are less-effective meetings?”
Inevitably, various types of team interactions co-occur or overlap. Perlow says she and her fellow researchers are continuing to examine those intersections and ways that different technologies can improve team collaboration long term.
“When we go back to the new normal,” says Perlow, “now that we better understand that you need these different types of interactions to work well together as a team, can we figure out how to do them more effectively?”
Kristen Senz is the growth editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.