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Keeping Social at Arm's Length

Physical Distancing Is Not Social Distancing

Whenever we’re cleared for returning to the office, public health agencies are asking everyone to minimize physical contact and maintain at least 6 feet from others to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus. But physical distancing doesn’t have to mean “social” distancing. The goal is to distance physically, not socially or emotionally. Human beings fundamentally are social animals. So as we practice the necessary physical distancing in the workplace, we need social connectivity now, perhaps more than ever. With that in mind, Wolcott suggests emphasizing social behaviors as your team returns to work, including:

1) Collaboration: Creativity has always been at the heart of business, and innovation has never been more important for future potential success. Shared work environments are crucial to creative collaboration, where people can better respond to the subtleties of body language and think together. The “myth of the lone inventor” is an elegant story, but as innovation firm IDEO has been arguing for a long time, creative teams yield greater and more consistent results.

2) Team-Building: Studies suggest that in times of crisis people have an increased capacity to band together for a common cause. For better or worse, that sense of engagement might be the survival of the organization. Studies by the Queens School of Business and Gallup have shown that engaged workers demonstrate greater productivity, profitability, job growth, and help increase share price over time. Businesses with highly engaged employees enjoyed 100% more job applications.

3) Brand-Building: Use this moment to gather the troops (in acceptable sizes, of course) and tell the foundational and future vision stories that binds your culture. There has been a trend over the last decade in brand-building that’s been moving towards the use of shared space to build more loyal followings that are more like churches than advertising slogans. For example, look at the way SoulCycle uses its space to congregate, or the rise of physical spaces for previously online-exclusive brands, like Warby Parker.

4) Collegiality & Bonding: A 2020 report by the health insurer Cigna found that more than three in five Americans say they’re lonely, with people reporting feeling like they are left out, poorly understood and lacking companionship. And that was before the pandemic required social distancing. However, the same report found that people with good co-worker relationships were 10 points less lonely on a 80-point scale. And when colleagues felt like they shared goals, loneliness scores fell nearly eight points. "In-person connections are what really matters," says the chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna. Further studies have shown that loneliness can actually reduce the body’s ability to defend itself from viruses.

As we stand back from each other, we should reflect on the value of social relationships in the workplace. This is part of an ongoing project at Wolcott called HomeWork, which seeks to envision the future of work in a diverse range of environments.