The Power of Proximity: Influencing in the Era of Social Distancing

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Michael Arena

Workplace proximity

Research has shown that our face-to-face interactions are crucial to success. These exchanges inspire trust, increase learning and emit the energy necessary to influence others.

According to researchers at MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab, as much as 80% of our ability to influence someone else, happens in these face-to-face interactions. Researchers within the lab have spent years tracking data from electronic interaction badges and correlating it to various performance drivers across industries. In one study they were able to demonstrate that face-to-face requests are 34 times more effective than those sent by email. In fact, over time, the lab has determined that up to 35% of a given team’s ability to drive performance can be explained by the number of times team members engage face-to-face.

We should not be surprised by this, after all, we are social creatures at our core. Over the years, we have become tremendously astute at reading others’ social signals. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we are always observing others’ facial expressions, body movements, and gestures as an expression of their emotions. This is how we have been taught to relate to others. However, in the current era of social distancing, this becomes very challenging.

It is nearly impossible to engage in small talk using email or text, and at minimum, it is more challenging on Zoom. These channels of communication, while certainly helpful in the current era, nevertheless present obstacles to actively empathize with others and therefore limit the natural trust building process through human interfaces.

In our natural face-to-face exchanges, we are able to engage in shared experiences that facilitate group learning. In physical interactions, our emotions are naturally contagious to one another and easily spread from person to person as energy. Each of these are hindered in our virtual interactions, requiring us to become far more intentional than normal.

Building Trust

Building trust is an outgrowth of empathy for others. It requires us to actively listen to others and to be present, creating a psychological safety that inspires trust. The richness of our face-to- face interactions is hard to mimic in our virtual exchanges.

In one study, at the University of Michigan, researchers evaluated the emergence of trust in a social dilemma game across four different communication channels: face-to-face, video, audio, and text chat. They studied small groups that engaged in the game for 30 rounds. The face-to-face groups quickly built trust by generating the cooperative behavior necessary to perform an activity. The text chat channel never did reach the same level of trust that the face-to-face group did. While it took 26 rounds for the audio channel to reach the same level and 16 for video interactions. It seems trust is established much more readily in our physical interactions.

The good news is trust can be built through virtual channels. It just requires much more time and many more iterations.  

It starts with turning on your video cam, as much as 55% of your ability to communicate comes from your non-verbal cues. If your video camera is off, you cut your communication ability in half. A simple smile, direct eye contact (into your webcam) and an occasional nod of your head helps to build virtual empathy. However, we need to slow down our gestures to ensure they are being transmitted.

We also need to ensure that we are using video not only for group meetings, but also in our one-on-one interactions. Finally, we need to provide some space to go off script. Empathy is unleashed in the free flow of our casual conversations, this is just as true in a virtual context. Rigidly clinging to a formal agenda limits these interactions.

Shared Learning

As human beings, we all desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves, to belong to a team, a community or an organization. Each of these groups have a set of social norms that emerge to encourage or discourage given behaviors. As individuals connect and bond through shared experiences they also learn from one another. Indeed, as many parents can attest, social norms are caught more than they are taught. This can be a challenge in a virtual environment.

Just consider the case below (figure 1.), each individual (represented by the nodes of the network) was rated based on their behavioral strength. The top three predominate strengths are color coded. The orange nodes are one behavioral norm, the blue nodes are another and the green yet another. Notice how these norms tend to cluster together. The orange nodes, tend to be closer to other orange nodes on average. While the blue nodes cluster with other blue nodes, as do the green. Our behaviors spread tacitly, based on physical proximity.

Figure 1. Tacit Learning through Proximity

The problem is, these behaviors do not spread in the same manner virtually. They are much more like the building of trust in the social dilemma game. In a virtual environment, the diffusion of a norm is much more disjointed and takes considerably more time. Social signals are severed. Shared learning is a tacit process that transpires naturally in a physical network. A message is reinforced by those local to us, or a person is marginalized for operating outside of the expected norm. In such a setting, learning is an implicit activity.

In a virtual environment, this is far more challenging. We need to be explicit to ensure these learnings are occurring. One way to do this is to consciously share stories that reinforce the expected norms. Another is to more openly talk about the successes or failures to reassure group sensemaking. Finally, we need to more actively provide feedback at the individual level. When our natural social signals are short circuited, we have to find new ways to build learning circuitry.

Energy Emission

Anyone who has spent time within a team has had the opportunity to experience the energy from the people around him or her. In some cases, there is a noticeable buzz around a team or project in which ideas flow freely and individuals are able to easily build upon the viewpoints of others.

Other times, these interactions are simply grueling. Perhaps most importantly, these emotions are contagious. That is, we walk away from these conversations feeling more or less energized.

Understanding how energy is emitted in face- to- face interactions is critical to ensuring creativity and generative thinking. Positive energy forges innovative relationships. These dyadic relationships become the simple building blocks for new ideas. They create the critical links for positive energy to readily flow, and these relationships build hope and excitement about new possibilities. Indeed, high-energy dyadic relationships are the foundation of innovation that spread energy and ideas across a network.

In the group below (figure 2.), each individual is part of a 650-person organization that must remain innovative to succeed in a highly competitive market. By tapping into the power of just 8 energizers (slightly larger green nodes), the organization is able to super charge the network with new possibilities by activating nearly 30% of the individuals. In such a context, ideas flow readily and innovation is far more likely. Research suggest that thriving organizations have a 3-to-1 ratio of energizing connections to de-energizing connections. Energy is therefore essential to innovation.

Figure 2. Energy Emission in a Physical Network

The problem is the natural emission of this energy erodes in a virtual environment. As a result, we need to actively ensure high energy connections in our virtual interactions. One way to do this is to be intentional in creating shared experiences that encourage excitement. This could be as simple as a virtual sprint, or a think big brainstorming session. Celebration is also critical in a remote environment. Groups need to create energy producing moments that inspire one another. This might include some new competition or a virtual award.  Whatever it takes, groups need to find creative ways to amplify positive energy and shift interactions when energy is low.

At this point, none of us know how long the era of social distancing is going to last. Or, if this has become the new normal, but a few things are certain, we need to become far more intentional at ensuring that our virtual exchanges inspire trust, increase learning and emit energy. Our virtual success depends on it.


Arena, M. (2018). Adaptive Space: How GM and Other Companies are Positively Disrupting Themselves and Transforming into Agile Organizations. New York: McGraw-Hill Education

Bos, N., Gergle, D., Olson, J. S., & Olson, G. M. (2001). Being there versus seeing there: Trust via video. Retrieved from Olson_BeingThereSeeingThere_CHI01.pdf

Cross, R., Baker, W., & Parker, A., “What Creates Energy in Organizations?,” MIT Sloan Management Review 44 (2003): 51–57.

Pentland, A. & Heibeck, T. (2010). Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

The science of being there: Why face-to-face meetings are so important. Washington Post. (2018, April 9). Retrieved from The+science+of+being+there:+Why+face-to-face+meetings+are+so+important&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8