The lack of physical proximity — caused by the shift to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic — decreased the types of connections that form via chance encounters between researchers, according to a study published in Nature Computational Science. These findings may help organizations to better anticipate and prepare for the potential collaboration and communication challenges of hybrid work.
The large shift to remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic removed physical presence as a major driver of communication, limiting chance workplace encounters that typically allow for new ideas to flow between individuals. As institutions transition to the ‘new normal’, assessing the minimum amount of in-person interaction required to facilitate a productive work environment will become important when implementing hybrid work policies.
Daniel Carmody, Martina Mazzarello, and colleagues explored the effect of physical proximity on human communication by analyzing a large email network of 2,834 researchers at a North American university over 18 months, starting in December 2019. The authors reveal that the removal of physical proximity — as a result of the mandatory move to fully remote work — caused an immediate and persistent drop of 39% in the number of new ties developed between researchers with no mutual contacts. Hybrid working only slightly recovered the number of new social ties made, suggesting that social connections cannot be immediately restored following a return to the office. Using their experimental results, the team also created a model which directly identified lack of physical proximity as the culprit for the loss of ties.
These findings may have implications for the design of future research campuses and work environments, as well as for the development of virtual technologies seeking to recreate interactions that occur in physical offices.
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