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Burden and Benefit of Using Distancing in Work and School

Here's how social distancing is being employed to combat COVID-19.

Experts recommend social distancing to combat COVID-19. For many, distancing will involve working from home. Many companies have implemented remote working policies. Just last week, the two remaining Democratic contenders for the U.S. presidency announced that their campaigns will move online.

My employer, the University of Texas at Austin, recently announced that classes will move online as soon as possible. When I last held class, I told students that it would likely be the last time it was in-person. One responded, "Most of America seems to be moving to Zoom or something like that to work or go to school. Will it hurt or help how people perform?" I told them it will likely do both.

First, let's consider how distancing might affect cohesion at work and school. This is especially important when you consider something like a presidential campaign in which staffers' motivation is based on feeling like they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Gravitating to virtual teams will deprive people of personalizing information that fosters strong emotional bonds with others. Moreover, being mimicked by others, which happens in face-to-face settings, increases how much people like others. With remote communication, such experiences will be diminished.

Programs like Skype or Zoom allow people to see non-verbal cues (e.g., facial expressions) that increase their feeling of being physically present with others, but such programs are limited. For example, students often check whether others seem confused before they summon the courage to ask questions. With remote teaching, this is less likely to occur.

Distance learning may also threaten students' sense of belonging. Many students, particularly students of color, question whether they belong in school, which can lead to adverse health and academic consequences. I'm not arguing against social distancing, as history shows such efforts are effective at combating the spread of infectious diseases. However, educators need to be vigilant when it comes to monitoring not only students' physical health but their emotional well-being too.

But, will it be all Zoom and gloom? When it comes to how distance will change the way employees and students think and perform, my research suggests that people may also benefit from working or learning remotely.

When people think about others who are farther away, they typically think in more abstract, broader terms. For example, in one study, we found that participants who viewed a video of two people having a conversation that was purportedly taped in a distant (vs. near) location used more abstract language to describe the video's content—participants were more likely to describe the actors in the video using abstract adjectives (e.g., she seemed considerate) rather than just concrete descriptors (e.g., she said thank you). Other researchers have reasoned that more abstract, higher-level thinking should facilitate creativity, and they, in fact, demonstrated that portraying a task as originating from a far (vs. close) location led participants to perform better on a problem-solving task that required abstract creative insight.

As far as capitalizing on this moment, this is the time for companies to go big. With more employees moving to remote work, this could be an ideal time to move employees away from mundane, routine activities and give them time to be bold and risky in their product development and creative brainstorming sessions. Managers may be surprised to find employees who normally don't exhibit creativity and a broad vision do so now that they are teleconferencing.

Teachers who will be holding class virtually should find ways to enhance their students' feelings of connectedness with their fellow classmates. It may be especially challenging, as they may not be able to see students' "tells" and emotional signals that let them know when they are feeling disconnected. Obviously, as a teacher myself, I recognize that this will not be easy, and I look forward to getting back in the classroom with my students.


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