During middle school I was girl-crazy. There it is, as embarrassing as it is to talk about, it is important to make you aware of my youthful character so that what I am about to tell you has a bit of context. Every summer I would attend a week-long camp. The camp was co-ed, but due to the strictly religious nature of this camp, there was very limited co-ed interaction. I mean, we couldn’t even hold hands with a girl at camp. How in the world was I supposed to advance a romantic relationship from first hello on Monday to a kiss by Friday if we couldn’t even hold hands!!?? Well, as you probably guessed it, year after year I would be struck by cupid’s arrow, and by the time Friday night rolled around I knew I had met the love of my life. We would surely stay in touch and one day marries and live happily ever after.
But without fail, something horrible would go wrong. At 14 years old (and in a pre-cellphone era), it was nearly impossible to maintain a face to face relationship with a girl from the camp who actually lived a couple of hours away. I would return home and begin feverishly writing passionate multi-page letters about romantic topics like math class, my dog, sports, etc. She, in turn, would send perfume-laced letters, enveloped stuffed to the brim with three or more page confessions of forever-type love. I would read and reread these letters, and they were showing up in my mailbox at least twice a week.
But then something happened. I began to notice that the letters were coming less frequently, maybe only once a week, and that they were getting shorter in length. To be honest, I was a bit concerned, but I, too, was beginning to send letters less frequently. Until one week when I almost forgot to send anything, which made sense because I hadn’t received anything for a number of days. I was crushed!
It took me years to understand this pattern, but to be honest, it worked out for the best in the end. As a happily married man with two incredible children, I say things turned out for the best. Nonetheless, there is something important to notice here. My experience in what we call long-distance relationships was only the reflection of what typically happens to so many in romantic, but also in professional relationships. For decades, researchers have affirmed the effects of what they call “proximity” on relationship development and sustainability. These studies affirm that the more time we spend with a person, the more likable they become to us. I know, right now you may be thinking, “Yeah, but what about those people I am around all the time, and the more time I spend with them, the less I like them?” Sure, this will always happen in some cases, but the opposite is usually true, and this truth works both ways.
Just as we tend to find people we spend time with more likable, we tend to begin emotionally and cognitively separating ourselves, or liking less, those we don’t see as regularly. Liking less may sound too harsh. Let’s say we just don’t feel as “close” to them. Ironic choice of word, but it is true that if we are physically close to someone on a regular basis (close proximity), we tend to like them more, and if we begin to distance ourselves from a person, our relationship begins to wain.
And this explains what would happen to me year after year post-summer camp. Without a cellphone (and my parents weren’t about to let me use the home phone due to long-distance calling rates) or a car (too young to drive anyway), I simply couldn’t spend enough time with these girls to maintain the relationship we developed after a week of seeing each other every single day. Do you see how this works? Some of you are rolling your eyes, thinking about all of those long-distance relationships you have attempted over the years: you get it! But even for those of you who never took this gamble, you are likely making a similar attempt today. Maybe you are doing really well, but likely you are struggling. Let me explain.
Due to COVID, many of us are working remotely for the first time. Whether we moved to remote work after years in an office with colleagues or we are joining a new company, working purely from home, we are experiencing the challenges of long-distance relationship development and maintenance. Romantic of work-related, it’s really all the same when it comes to the impact proximity has on our ability to develop and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships. And whether we want to admit it or not, business productivity lives and thrives amid strong interpersonal work relationships. But this is especially true when it comes to engagement among diverse workgroups. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) can be a challenge for many in the workplace. Research indicates that though there are incredible productivity benefits of diverse work teams, there is always a bumpy period when a diverse team is launched. But with a remote workforce, these challenges can be compounded, because remember, proximity often influences our level of liking.
As a research nerd for years, I once ran a study on this very topic. While serving as an intercultural communication consultant for a multi-national manufacturing company based out of Munich, Germany, I saw that the acquisition of multiple worksites came with interpersonal relationship challenges in the workplace. Just because everyone was on the same team, didn’t mean that they worked well together. The main reason was that the company was expecting groups of individuals in one location (culture) to work in-step with individuals in another location (culture). Many of these people had never met before, but we’re now expected to develop strong collegiality and push toward improved productivity as a single unit. You can probably see the problem, but to be clear, these groups were over a thousand miles apart. How can we expect people who have never even met (close proximity) to develop and maintain relationships long-distance? It is like my middle school summer camp problem, but even worse, it’s in reverse. At least at summer camp, I had the luxury of a week of in-person interaction (close proximity) before separating. But for many today, working remotely requires that we meet, get to know, and work well with people who we may have never met, just like the folks at this manufacturing company. This is tough. But at least we are dealing with a normal phenomenon. It is just packaged under a new term: remote work due to COVID.
So if you are thinking, “wow, this remote work stuff is tough. It’s hard-working with both new and old colleagues from a distance”. Don’t worry, you’re normal. With that in mind, let’s layout a few things to keep in mind that can help us clearly and successfully navigate the challenges of remote work relationship development and maintenance with a diverse workforce.
By now you are likely sick of video chats. I get it. But there is a hidden science behind this mode of communication that you may find fascinating. When working to help that multi-national company resolve their long-distance relationship issues, we ran a study to test the impact of using video chat rather than email and phone. What we discovered was truly fascinating. Employees who engaged via video chat gained the sense that they had actually been in the presence of the other person. Remember, this discovery is significant because in close proximity is where we find the strength to build and maintain relationships. When these individuals would meet again face to face, the video chat experiences in the interim had tricked their minds, leading them to sense they had just been with their corporate counterpart more regularly. You see, the logic we learned is that video chat gives our minds/hearts the perception that we are actually in the presence of the other person, and research has proven time and time again that when we are with someone, we tend to like them more! So embrace and make the most of these remote work opportunities to video chat.
Even the most ardent talkers can become wary of holding a phone. We have friends who are successful realtors and real estate developers who are always on the phone. They get tired of holding their phones and feel pinned down and underproductive while on the phone. So I recommended some form of earpiece technology (Bluetooth) to help them free up their hands and stop the neck-bending practice of holding a phone. This was a simple solution, but it has been liberating, as it has to me. I can get more done and experience less discomfort while making or fielding phone calls. Whatever it takes, we have to find a way to once again enjoy talking on the phone. We need and want face to face interactions, but during a remote work period, we must embrace the telephone without reluctance. For me, one of the best ways to do this is to take a call from my earpiece and take a walk down the street. This does incredible things for my outlook positivity, blood flow, and attention-span. I have also noticed how much more engaged I am in some cases. Sure, my hands are free so I have to fight the urge to type emails to someone else while talking with another person, but with an earpiece, I am less likely to be in a hurry to get off the phone, which means I am spending more time getting to know and developing a relationship with my colleagues.
We all categorize others. Whether this is good or bad, it’s natural. So when someone is different from us, we can make assumptions and subconsciously work to reduce interaction time, thus reducing time spent with the other person (reduced sense of proximity leading to a reduction in sense of liking). Instead, I want to encourage you to find and develop a healthy balance of task and relationship. I am a very task-oriented person, which can come in handy at times. But if I am not careful, I will take the relationships for granted in an effort to accomplish a task. In a remote work environment, where the success of your goals depends on you and your diverse team, you MUST make time for relationship development. I don’t mean a cheesy team-building exercise. I mean real, genuine getting to know someone. Seek convergence in diversity certification by looking purposefully for those areas where you overlap: religion, sports, family, hobbies, etc. You may be surprised to find how powerful a simple similar interest can bond you and a colleague who may look or act differently than you. Give it a try and I think you will find the results of this relationship development practice very rewarding in your efforts to accomplish tasks.
I get it. You have been on countless video chat calls and you are sick of these things. But I want you to notice something on your next group call. Look around the screen. Is there someone in your diverse workgroup who is typically disengaged or left out of the conversation? We often assume that this person is less interested in the topic, too busy to really pay attention, or for some other reason doesn’t speak up. Whether we realize it or not, we may be unintentionally marginalizing this person. So be intentional this week. Be sure that every single person is not only heard but sought after to provide his or her input on each subject and during each meeting. I think you will begin to see the breaking down of some invisible barriers and much greater buy-in from each team member.
These tips are only a few of the many ways we can improve DEI during remote work due to COVID. We don’t need to complicate things. Things are complicated enough during this challenging season. As the world makes leaps and bounds in technology, workflows, etc., let’s not forget those simple, lasting truths about the power of proximity (or the perception thereof) as we strive to develop and maintain strong working relationships across diverse teams. To learn more, visit www.gocuture.org today.
Justin C. Velten, Ph.D.