Exploring the impact of remote working on Melbourne millennials during COVID-19 : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Business Studies at Massey University, Albany - Auckland, New Zealand
The COVID-19 pandemic catalysed, for the first time, a forced global experiment in remote working with unprecedented volumes of employees working from home. Previously physically co-located teams became entirely virtual, having a significant impact on relationships between team members and leading to implications for workplace performance. Millennials were among the most affected demographic groups in the COVID-19 pandemic, with increased vulnerability and lack of experience to similar hardship in the workplace. As the youngest cohort in the workforce, their limited experience had not enabled them to build the same resilience as their elders. Furthermore, a preference for working collaboratively and a desire for social interaction made them particularly vulnerable to social isolation while working from home. My research explored the impacts of remote working on social cohesion from the perspective of millennials working in the most COVID-19 affected region in Australia: Melbourne, Victoria. There is a gap in the literature and an opportunity to further understand teams who have, like during the pandemic, been forced to work entirely virtually and the effect of this on their capability to form social bonds. Social cohesion has long been on the agenda of researchers due to its connection to workplace performance, organisational productivity, and employee happiness. This qualitative study utilised virtual semi-structured interviews and thematic analysis through an interpretive lens to better understand individual’s perceptions and experiences of how remote working impacted social cohesion. The findings from ten research interviews strongly indicated that the platform of communication, from face-to-face to virtual methods of interaction, significantly impacted the ability to develop and maintain social cohesion in work teams. There were both advantages and disadvantages to virtual communication in the context of social cohesion, ultimately determining that virtual relationships can be as fulfilling as those forged in person if given enough time to develop. However, the methods used to support social cohesion in face-to-face teams did not translate seamlessly to virtual communication, which was perceived as awkward and unnatural. A theoretical pivot in the study saw an evolution of social capital and social identity theory, instrumental in developing an interview schedule, toward communication-based theories utilised in thematic analysis. The study furthers the application of media naturalness and social information processing theory to explain how virtual interaction has affected cohesion and highlight that these teams are still able to build strong relationships with time. The contribution of my study to the research literature are four-fold; firstly, they further understanding of the importance of social connection in virtual teams. Secondly identifying the role of cohesion in the workplace for millennial employees. Thirdly, they extend knowledge on media naturalness theory in application to the current context and update the continuum of Kock’s (2001) original theory. Finally, the findings develop social information processing theory in relation to understanding the relationships of virtual and hybrid teams. My study emphasises that the world of work has changed irrevocably because of the pandemic. Future strategies to support engagement in millennial teams will need to shift to better support virtual relationships and social cohesion in the workplace.