Is social loafing worse in online meetings?

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Image: by Elvin Vizcarrondo from Pixabay

What is social loafing?

Put simply, in any group task, effort per person decreases as the group size increases. It can be very frustrating for a manager or facilitator, who has an action plan, a deadline to meet and an able group of people to work with. It’s hard to understand why things don’t get done on time, why people don’t seem to be communicating effectively; some parts of the job are duplicated, other people go off and do things without consulting the group, and so on.

Why do you get social loafing?

Partly it’s due to diffusion of responsibility. Each person in the group feels less personally accountable for the result and may also feel that their effort is of less value, especially in a larger group. If the individual is not motivated by that particular task, or their role in the group is one that does not fit with their style, they may be particularly tempted to slack off. For example, you have asked a group to brainstorm some ideas for a fundraiser. The divergent thinkers and more intuitive members of the group will do most of the work, while those who like working with information and facts will tend to sit out. (Although they will be valuable later on in the evaluation phase.) Perceptions of others in the group matter too. If a few members are seen as being very proactive and hard-working, it is tempting to sit back and let them do the work, After all, they may do it more efficiently. The same for people perceived as high achievers. There may be an element of social comparison; the others fearing they are not as good and not wanting to have that confirmed by putting their head over the parapet.

Is social loafing worse in online meetings?

Yes and no. To clarify: Yes. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that people do not feel as engaged in online meetings, and its certainly psychologically easier to leave the room for a while without any apparent explanation. Those who take part regularly complain of Zoom Fatigue, as virtual interactions can be hard on the brain. And even occasional meetings can create a sense of zoning out. If those attending are not active participants, they default into the role of observer- especially easy to do in front of a screen when you are not using a keyboard. All of these are exacerbated by meeting leaders who do most of the talking. read through slides, or think it’s more valuable to ‘update’ people via a meeting than through an email. Then there is the temptation to invite everybody who might have an interest in the project. You don’t have to worry about having a large enough meeting room, its easier for people to attend, ‘many hands make light work’ and so on. If you have remote workers, it feels like you are being inclusive and keeping a good group dynamic if you ask people to participate.  One of the main gripes about face to face meetings is when people feel their presence in unnecessary. It’s the same online. If they are not drawn into the purpose of the meeting quickly, and kept engaged, they will drop out mentally if not physically. It’s better to separate project work from relationship building meetings. Have a separate social catch-up, or a quiz, funny hat Friday – whatever. Social loafing is also known as ‘lurking’ in online communities, Generally, social loafers regularly follow the discussions and content of online communities, but choose not to expand on posts or add to the knowledge of the community. Lurkers are reported to constitute over 90 percent of several online groups. Reasons include not having a sense of who the other contributors are, and a fear that their posts will be undervalued.   No. In an experiment to look at social loafing in ‘technologically enabled groups’ (you can tell from the language this was some years ago, in 2005)  it was group size that made much more difference than whether the groups were in the same room, or ‘distributed’ with linked computers.  The groups of four people got better results (it was a brainstorming task) than the groups of eight, no matter whether they were face to face or online.

How to minimise social loafing in your online meetings, training, or qualitative research

Follow all the usual advice about who to invite, how to prepare them before the meeting and how to engage them in the overall task. Pay attention to clarifying roles in the meeting and set expectations about active contributions from the start. Often you will need to initially include more than four people; sometimes a lot more, so plan to have small group work – or to have larger teams but where everybody has a defined and public responsibility. If you know the participants, mix up the teams so they are not overwhelmingly high or low powered. Set guidelines and expectations. To avoid micro-managing, allow the teams themselves to report who will be responsible for what.  Check in regularly, so they know they are accountable. If you are running an online community, spending that time at the start on having people talk about themselves makes them easier for others to relate to. Just as in a focus group, participants want to know ‘Why am I here?’ ‘Do I fit in with all these other people?’ ‘Will they judge me for what I say?’.  Equally noticing, probing and praising individual contributions will help maximise the participation rate.

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