- In less than two years, almost every aspect of socializing at work has been turned upside down.
- Rather than forcing Zoom happy hour to be fun, experts advise us to be honest about the weirdness.
- By embracing “emotional ambivalence”, teams can feel more connected and improve their performance.
Imagine a man sitting alone in a 45,000 square foot office, having lunch at his desk. Three hours before that, he individually released “Hello!” to six people. An hour before, while getting dressed, he said to himself: “It’s been a while since I’ve seen my colleagues. I think I’ll go to the office.
You imagine me on a recent Monday.
Such is the life of a pandemic colleague: everything is extremely bizarre. In less than two years, almost every aspect of socializing at work has been turned upside down. Familiar office customs, such as handshakes, birthday parties, and impulsive happy hours, have given way to COVID-specific etiquette: fist bumps, festive e-cards, and pre-planned events.
Many of the alternatives are horrible.
“Many of us recognize how troublesome these types of interactions are,” said Naomi Rothman, a management professor at Lehigh University who studies decision-making and emotions. “They feel really scripted and fake.”
As silly as these moments may seem, Rothman and other researchers say that when these moments make up the entirety of the employee experience and we try to ignore them, morale and performance can suffer. In the meantime, acknowledging that life is complicated can make us better decision-makers and more receptive to feedback.
“It’s worth taking seriously,” said Dominic Packer, professor of psychology at Lehigh University, co-author of “The Power of Us” and colleague of Rothman.
In order to regain some sense of normalcy, experts say we don’t want to suppress those weird feelings. We should share them, shed light on them. By embracing the weirdness, research suggests that many benefits of office social life could carry over into the workday and, much to the delight of managers, improve team performance.
Understand what is new and strange
As strange as work is these days, it’s not all bad. Hybrid working is often more effective than working entirely in person. It allows for flexibility in attending appointments and caring for hungry children, and it eliminates time spent commuting or suffering from unwanted small talk.
But efficiency is also the big downside. A few minutes of spontaneous chatter is often the perfect respite after a busy day at work. Organizational behavior expert Kirsten Robertson says her research has shown that those little moments do a lot of work to make work meaningful.
“When we work together in person, there are more informal opportunities for these interactions to take place,” said Robertson, an associate professor at the University of the Fraser Valley School of Business. “For example, chatting with a colleague about your weekend will be more natural if you go up to the office together by the elevator.”
Where we have trouble is trying to replicate those experiences online. We try to force “pure positive emotion,” Rothman said, even though much of office social life has become highly planned, scripted and transactional. The result: What should give us the hot fuzzies ends up falling flat.
“It’s totally fun to see your co-worker’s cute kid,” Rothman said. “But it’s also frustrating trying to make that connection through
Our efforts are better spent, her research suggests, embracing and normalizing a state of being known as “emotional ambivalence.” It’s the feeling of being torn, knowing that there are aspects of hybrid work to be grateful for. and things to hate.
Over the past 10 years, Rothman and his colleagues have shown that when people embrace emotional ambivalence, they become better decision-makers, more creative, more eager to get feedback, and less defensive when they receive it.
The reason for this, she said, is that when people — especially leaders — allow their teammates to embrace emotional complexity, their minds open up to other kinds of complexity as well. We see the big picture. We don’t try to stay in our bubble of positive emotion by fighting anything that might puncture it.
“While this can be quite mind-boggling for some people, who might be used to seeing their ambivalence as a weakness,” Rothman said, “the truth is that it’s actually very helpful to feel ambivalent, especially in times of like these where we’re dealing with a lot of complexity.”
Putting emotional ambivalence to work
Recent research on emotional ambivalence should offer some comfort as to why the social life at work seems so strange.
A 2018 study showed that if people felt negative emotions — like the regret I felt eating my lonely lunch at the office — being encouraged to suppress those emotions, or even amplify positive emotions, only make the situation worse. In the experiment, they found that failing at a task in happier environments often led people to dwell longer on their failures.
So not only are Zoom happy hours (or even highly planned in-person drinks) a poor substitute for spontaneous after-work beers, the more we lie to each other as teams that we’re having fun making them, the more painful it is.
Instead, we should call a spade a spade. To be emotionally ambivalent about office social life is to say, “It’s super weird, isn’t it? Let’s all agree that it’s very unnatural.” Team members don’t have many ways to truly bond with each other, but an emotional connection is one of them.
Concretely, the teams still have to work. Here, Rothman’s research on emotions and Packer’s research on teams come together perfectly to provide leaders and employees with strategies.
Managers should routinely discuss their conflicting emotions — about a project or the job itself — at the top of group meetings, in one-on-one discussions, and in digital communications. Openness can signal to employees that feeling torn is okay, which can ultimately help them think things through.
When it comes to the social events we all miss, Rothman and Packer said open communication is key. Don’t assume that weirdness also shows up.
If you are a leader, ask each of your team members, privately, how important these aspects of the job are to them. If you’re an employee, don’t be afraid to say Zoom happy hour isn’t your cup of tea. Clarity can help everyone get more of what they want and less of what they dread.
“Companies can create opportunities for interactions that aren’t fake, that aren’t fake,” Rothman said. “I’m glad they tried, but I think we can be more creative about what those interactions might look like.”
Something to think about at your next sad office lunch.