Virbela screenshot

A Work Revolution?

UMass Amherst faculty share what has been learned as a result of the natural experiment in remote work prompted by COVID-19.

In March 2020, when the start of the COVID-19 pandemic spurred a mass migration from office buildings to home offices—or garages, kitchen tables, closets, really whatever was available—workers developed a new reliance on technology to accomplish their daily tasks and stay in touch with colleagues. Many who had never logged onto Zoom before suddenly found themselves tied to it for hours every day. After they finally logged off for work, some even signed back in for Zoom happy hours, family reunions, or baby namings—all in the name of staying connected.

Anne Massey
Anne Massey, dean of the Isenberg School of Management

Anne Massey, dean of the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has studied computer-mediated communication in work teams for nearly 30 years. She is particularly interested in teams whose members are physically dispersed, even across time zones. She explores questions around how technology enables or hinders collaboration, and how people build relationships with others through technology. While Massey focuses on teams that are physically distributed, she notes that since the internet and telecommunications boom of the 1990s, we have all taken advantage of virtual work to some degree, even if it’s just emailing with a colleague in the next office. Massey, a student of history and the disruptive role played by communication technology, observed back in 2019 that we are living in an “age of acceleration.”

Now, she said, the pandemic has super-charged that acceleration, with technology taking center stage not only in our work lives, but in our personal lives as well.

“It has been really jarring,” she said, adding that everyone from preschoolers to the elderly are affected, forced to use technology to work, learn, and maintain personal connections.

As the pandemic drags on and businesses try to find a path toward normalcy in fits and starts, many companies continue to operate in remote or hybrid configurations—perhaps for the long run. Going forward, Massey predicts that more companies will embrace flex schedules, with technology playing a key enabling role.

Colleagues Reduced to “Small Rectangles”

Over a year and a half into the pandemic and this mass experiment in remote work, clues are beginning to emerge about the impact on workers. Emily Heaphy, assistant professor of management at Isenberg, studies the effects of positive work relationships on employees and organizations. She is particularly interested in the “role of emotions and the human body as integral components of work relationships.”

“Pre-COVID, we were used to having at least some part of our work life be in person. You get to learn so much about a person and what they’re thinking and feeling through conscious and unconscious observation of their body language and emotions,” Heaphy said. “That just gets so much more complicated when you’re living in a virtual world. As opposed to seeing my colleague’s whole body, I’m just seeing a small rectangle. We have far fewer clues—and must use a lot more energy—to try to understand what’s going on in another person’s mind and heart.”

In August 2020, Heaphy and Gihyun Kim, a doctoral candidate in management, surveyed 100 workers in a wide variety of settings in the United States about how COVID has changed their socializing in the workplace. Many participants reported that their organizations had made efforts to host virtual social events early on in the pandemic, but that these were largely unsatisfying. The technology took away a lot of their agency over whom they interacted with, while the logistics associated with scheduling and logging onto a Zoom event made it feel like “just another task on the to-do list.” Many workers began skipping these optional events, which eventually fell away.

Emily Heaphy
Emily Heaphy, assistant professor of management at Isenberg

At the same time, remote work afforded few opportunities for casual, serendipitous interactions with others. As a result, Heaphy and Kim found that many workers tended to hold on to their closest friends at work, while friendly acquaintance relationships mostly fizzled out.

According to Heaphy’s research, positive work relationships play an important role in promoting creativity and happiness while helping workers withstand stress.

In addition, she said, “When people don’t feel emotionally connected at work, they tend to be more likely to leave in general.”

Zooming Better

Yet Massey said research shows that people can build relationships over technology—even something as basic as email—though it may take extra time and effort. To help foster the types of personal relationships that develop naturally as part of in-person work situations, she recommends that managers come early to virtual meetings and engage team members in friendly conversation as they arrive. She has also encouraged teams to post personalized Zoom backgrounds to share things of importance to them, such as pets or favorite travel spots, and start conversations.

Massey has also studied the effect of aesthetics in virtual workspaces. Drawing on attention restoration theory and biophilic design—which posit that exposure to nature can help workers feel refreshed and restored—she conducted experiments that found strong evidence that including imagery of nature in virtual spaces can improve the performance of teams.

“I still want you to go outside and take a walk,” she joked, but virtual spaces designed with images of nature can help mitigate screen fatigue.

Continuum of Communication

Of course, some types of collaboration are naturally more challenging when co-workers cannot physically be in the same room together. Massey described a “continuum of communication” used by physically distanced colleagues. For example, she said, one person may begin by sending an email, but finds the issue is too complicated to explain in writing. The coworkers get on a phone call, but they cannot view something together to conduct their work. A video call allows for screen sharing, but makes it difficult to see physical objects with which the co-workers may need to engage.

One alternative, which offers everything people need to work in one place, is 3D virtual workspaces. Massey has studied 3D virtual spaces for more than a decade, as their popularity has ebbed and flowed. She said the pandemic sparked a resurgence of interest in these environments amongst diverse organizations for a broad range of purposes—from trainings to product development to hosting of virtual conventions and conferences. The military uses 3D virtual spaces for training, while museums have used them to welcome in the public while closed due to COVID.

Virbela screenshot 2
A virtual workspace in Virbela.

Workers can engage with 3D virtual spaces on desktops or via virtual reality headsets. Users can design their own avatars and move around spaces to do work with others. Avatars can write on digital whiteboards, interact with digital 3D objects, or work on Microsoft documents along with others.

Last year, the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship at Isenberg dipped a toe in the 3D virtual world. Pre-pandemic, at the Berthiaume Center in Bartlett Hall, students interested in entrepreneurship and innovation regularly collaborated on ideas or had chance collisions when working in the Incubator Space, an area open 24/7 and equipped with reconfigurable tables, whiteboards, screens, study nooks and light snacks. COVID put a sudden halt to these activities. Meanwhile, Berthiaume Executive Director Gregory Thomas ’91, also a lecturer at Isenberg, had heard from his colleagues that many students were turning off their cameras during Zoom lectures. They had grown tired of having their personal spaces “invaded” during class every day.

Massey encouraged Thomas to explore using 3D virtual workspaces at Berthiaume. Thomas tasked a small group of undergraduate and MBA students with evaluating various platforms, and they ultimately selected Virbela as their favorite. The Berthiaume Center obtained a license, and student clubs used it for their meetings.

Gregory Thomas
Gregory Thomas '91, executive director of the Berthiaume Center

Thomas said Virbela offered spaces where students could mill about and see one another, and conference rooms where they could speak privately with a small group. Conference rooms and lecture halls could be configured in customized sizes and designs. The platform also had a variety of recreation areas—a courtyard, outdoor picnic tables, a soccer field, and a beach where users could kick around a beach ball or drive a motorboat. The students described it as being very similar to a video game.

At the end of the semester when it came time to renew the license, Thomas asked the students what they thought about using the 3D space going forward. Their answer: The platform was great when COVID required them to be apart, but they were looking forward to being back together in person.

Thomas said he doesn’t foresee 3D virtual spaces being used much in the near future at Berthiaume, since being in person is an option again. However, he can understand how they would be very useful in circumstances where people are unable to be together physically, such as in an online class or conference with participants from disparate locations.

The Future of Work?

The future of work is yet to be written, and many feel deeply ambivalent about their hopes for the new normal. As Heaphy pointed out, for everyone who misses seeing their work friends around the Keurig or sharing a weekly lunch, there are others who did not feel comfortable socially at work, or who don’t miss their long commute one bit.

“After living through a pandemic where things have had to change, I really hope it shows people that things can be different than they were, and that this leads to improvement in quality of life,” Heaphy said. “For an individual, that might mean being able to work from home more often. From an organization’s perspective, it might mean not renting expensive office space in downtown Boston and trying to figure out other ways for their employees to connect.”

“I hope that it does spur multiple revolutions—even if they are small revolutions,” she said. “I think it will probably be a back-and-forth process as we all figure out what our new normal will be.”

This story was originally published in June 2021.