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June 11, 2021

Remote Workers Feel Social Presence When They Have Spatial Presence

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As companies advance into remote and hybrid work, we’re learning more about what employees need to be happy and productive. At this year’s eXp World Holdings Shareholder Summit, Virbela President & Co-Founder Alex Howland peels back the psychological layers to reveal a new set of needs with a simple solution: spatial presence, or the ability to feel like you’re in the room with someone.

Balancing Real Life

For the most part, working remotely is awesome. Employees are happy to give up the soul-sucking parts of office life: the expense of lunch and gas. A wardrobe you never wear anywhere else. The tedium of commuting. The constant pressure to schedule everything that isn’t work on a Saturday. Buh-bye to all that!

And companies are satisfied with reduced real estate and equipment costs. But, more importantly, they can attract the world’s best talent, regardless of location.

It all sounds so rosy—except humans are social creatures. Working alone on a computer all day is not the pinnacle of human experience. 

With a year-plus of remote work under their belts, many employees are starting to realize it for themselves. They still want the flexibility of working from anywhere, but they miss the human interaction. 

The Value of Social Interaction

Howland, who holds a doctorate in organizational psychology, addresses these realities upfront. 

His take is that social interactivity is a must for any organization to maintain its culture and uphold its mission. Companies can still accomplish their objectives online, but a social component needs to shape the work environment.

Otherwise, a new set of challenges can threaten your organization’s success. These are the factors that create resistance to remote work in the first place, but they’re totally solvable. 

Parsing the Challenges

We know humans need social presence to feel grounded. In a physical office, that might have been a cubicle mate or the camaraderie of a staff meeting. Without social presence, it’s easy to become lonely—or lose empathy.

Then, if you're not careful, remote work can lead to silos. Each department meets only with its own members, communication becomes purely transactional, and no one is sure who they can trust when it comes to brainstorming or taking risks. 

Learning becomes limited, because you’ve eliminated social presence and the smaller learning communities that occur naturally across an organization. 

Over time, psychological safety breaks down. This is when companies start to see burnout—employees aren’t sure what everyone else is doing, so they overcompensate by working too much. 

This is a total worst-case scenario, one that’s highly unlikely to happen at most organizations. But it can happen in part without reasonable social presence.

Providing Spatial Presence

Howland admits he’s biased here. He literally designed virtual worlds to provide social presence during remote work. But there’s a lot to be said for sharing space during the day.

By recreating virtual environments in the form of offices, hallways, auditoriums, outdoor settings, expo halls, and more, employees work together just like they did in physical offices.

They walk to meetings together or watch presentations as a group. They have conversations in all directions—with leaders, managers, and employees from other departments. When work winds down, they talk about weekends or share personal news.

As work shifts into a virtual space, employees quickly get comfortable with the new environment. Culture comes back and evolves. Co-presence returns a sense of trust and teamwork. 

Boundaries feel clear, since employees know they’re getting credit for their work and aligning with their teams. It’s nice to “leave” at the end of the day, which makes it even nicer to come back the next.

Play the recording to hear all of Alex Howland’s breakout presentation from eXp World Holdings Shareholder Summit or follow Virbela on LinkedIn for more. 

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