The virus, the distance and the curve


Workplace Communications in the Pandemic

It is quite impressive the way human beings are able to quickly adapt to situations. It definitely has to be one of the reasons why we have survived this long as a species. Our adaptability is simply amazing. Who would have thought that wearing of facemasks, washing of hands multiple times a day and observing all these other protocols meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 will now become a normal part of our daily lives? If a year ago, a prophet had claimed that he saw all of us in masks around town, I am sure people would have placed a direct call to one of Ankaful’s two famous institutions on behalf of the “man of God”. But here we are, that is the new normal.

Of all the protocols we are to observe during this pandemic, one that I find most interesting is the issue of social distancing, also called “physical distancing”—the directive to maintain a greater than usual physical distance from other people. Social distancing has now become a by-word in these times. As at March of this year, the terms, “coronavirus social distancing” and “social distancing definition” were among the most popular search queries worldwide, according to Google Trends.

To many it might seem like a new term, coined juts for this pandemic. For many students of communication however, this should not be the case. The importance of non-verbal communication is something that is paramount in any study of communication. Students of communication know that what we communicate goes way beyond the words we use. In differentiating verbal from non-verbal communication, students are introduced to various branches or subjects such as haptics, kinesics, vocalics, chronemics, etc.

Another of these branches of non-verbal communication is Proxemics—the study of how individual bodies react with each other and the spaces around them. In Proxemics, the messages communicated by the degree of separation that individuals maintain between each other is the main focus of the study. The man reputed to be the founder of this branch of non-verbal communication is American anthropologist, Edward Twitchell Hall, Jr.

In putting together his theory of the interactions between interpersonal distances or space, Hall described four distinct zones: (1) intimate space, (2) personal space, (3) social space, and (4) public space. For those who might be unaware, it is from these delineations that we have our buzzword for this pandemic—social distance. From Hall’s treatise, social distance is that distance midway between personal space and public space.

While on the subject of Social Distancing, it is important to note that social distancing is not just an attempt to halt a deadly pandemic. Social distance has real economic implications. Every business that relies on its customers being seated for a period of time has to face this challenge and find ways of overcoming it.

For the public transport operator, the number of passengers allowed per vehicle were reduced drastically to account for almighty social distancing. Drivers who came out to work during the peak of the pandemic have their own stories to tell. Restaurants and other eateries have not been left out. The number of patrons that a typical restaurant can seat have to be reduced to satisfy the social distancing requirements. For churches and other places of worship, the situation was even worse since those were some of the last places that were opened after the lockdown.

It seems the last of the affected industries to be tackled are the educational institutions. Understandably, no one wants to play with the lives of the next generation. Are first and second cycle institutions safe to open for all pupils and students? Will social distancing be practised in schools? If yes, to what extent? These are the questions that many proprietors and managers of educational institutions must answer before students are finally allowed back to school in their pre-pandemic numbers.

It is clear that regardless of the industry, economic considerations must always be made with the health of the customers in mind. The balance must be made between these two such that by the time the pandemic is over and done with completely, there will still be a business existing to serve customers and there will still be customers to be served.

It is important to remember that the call for social distancing during this pandemic affects all the business’ customers—both internal and external. I have although noted with a degree of worry that the concentration seems to be more on the latter than the former. In many businesses I have visited during this pandemic, it seems employees do not respect the social distancing protocols when they are around each other. They only observe social distancing when it comes to dealing with customers.

I believe this might be because these employees believe they know each other better than they do their customers. Having been around each other for long, staff tend to see one another as family. This can however lead to cases of COVID-19 spreading quickly within an establishment, as has been the case in a couple of organisations.

Some firms have found a way around this. They keep a minimum number of staff within the premises on a daily basis. This is to ensure that those who come to work are able to properly observe the social distancing and other protocols. I believe this practice of staff rotation would go on for a long time to come—at least until things return to pre-COVID-19 normal. That is assuming things ever return to that kind of normal. Until then, we have no other choice than to abide by all the laid-down protocols including social distancing.

It is interesting that in life, sometimes by solving one problem, another one is created. It is important that social distancing is practised as religiously among employees as it is encouraged among customers. For us to totally defeat this pandemic, it is essential that every single individual, employees and customers alike, takes the social distancing protocols seriously. In “flattening the curve” however, another problem arises. This time in the form of another curve—The Allen Curve.

As far back as 1966, Thomas John Allen of the Albert P. Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had started studying the flow of technical information among scientists and engineers. All through the 1970s, for more than a decade, Allen studied communications flow within science and engineering organisations, proving that productivity and interpersonal communication could be improved by restructuring human and organisational systems.

In 1977, Allen’s studies were captured in the book Managing the Flow of Technology, leading to what has been widely termed The Allen Curve Theory. The crux of that theory is that the frequency of communication between individuals in teams was directly related to the distance between their desks or their proximity to each other. The farther people become separated from each other, the less frequent the communication between them.

Allen found out that when physical distance was more than 8 metres, communication dropped significantly. The theory holds that employees are four times as likely to communicate regularly with a colleague who is six feet away than with someone who is 60 feet away. As a matter of fact, colleagues in separate buildings might never communicate at all. Out of sight, out of mind is evidently more than just a great saying. It has scientific basis.

In plotting the level of communications against distance on a graph, the data took on a curved shape and thus the name Allen Curve. It is important to add that the frequency of communication was directly related to the success of whatever process the team was undertaking. In other words, the distance between the scientists was affecting the success, or otherwise, of projects.

Over the years, the Allen Curve Theory has been tested and it seems to have held its ground. Studies have even shown that the theory even applies to electronic communication as well. In a study by behavioural analytics expert, Ben Waber, it was estimated that colleagues who share the same office space were 20% more likely to communicate electronically than with colleagues working elsewhere.

Waber’s study also revealed that, when there was a need for collaboration on a project, colleagues within the same workspace e-mailed each other four times more than colleagues in other locations, leading to 32% faster project completion times. It seems there is something about spending time in the same space that brings people a lot closer to each other.

One of the clearest proofs that organisational leaders find some veracity in the Allen Curve is in the architectural design of the office spaces of today. Many of today’s high-flying organisations design their buildings such that employees get to interact with each other more frequently. Gone are the days when people will work in the same organisation for years and not know each other. Gone are those days when colleagues were siloed up in their own little offices without a care for what is going on with a colleague next door.

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