How to Overcome Social Loafing in a Virtual Work Environment?

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Priyanka Prashob
Priyanka Prashob is an organizational psychologist with 6+ years of experience in the field of Content and Psychology. She is a passionate writer and has authored 2 books. She has designed content for corporate training programs, worked on organizational behavior reports and numerous individual personality assessment reports. Several research articles written by her are published on platforms like Academia and Research Gate. The articles have gained recognition and appreciation from universities, academicians, and researchers across the world.

What is social loafing?

Teamwork is the root to success! Undoubtedly, we all believe and stand by this. As we say, the more people on a project – the greater the output! However, as the number of people increases, so does the issues. Have you ever worked in a group where some members contributed and others did not? If so, then you know how frustrating it can be. This is exactly what we call social loafing. It is the tendency of certain members of a group to get by with less effort than if they were working alone and who operate under the assumption that others’ efforts will cover their shortfalls. With a virtual work environment, the possibility of social loafing is greater when compared to a physical workspace. Social loafing can be harmful to a team’s and company’s growth. It can negatively impact work, damage professional relationships, and ruin workplace culture. Thus, it’s important to overcome social loafing before it can harm your brand’s reputation and slower productivity. 

The story behind social loafing

The 1st ever experiment on social loafing was conducted by a French agricultural engineer, Max Ringelmann in 1913. In this experiment, he asked participants to pull on a rope  – both alone and in groups. And he found that when people were part of a group, they showed less effort to pull the rope than they did when working individually.

A group of researchers replicated this experiment in 1974, with a few teaks. Here, there were 2 groups. The first group was consistent with Ringelmann’s original study and included small groups of participants. The second panel consisted of only one real participant; the rest were people from the researchers’ side who merely pretended to pull the rope. The researchers found that the groups with all real participants experienced the largest declines in performance – suggesting the losses were linked to motivational factors rather than group coordination problems.

A 2005 study found that group size can have a powerful impact on group performance. In this study, one half of the group consisted of 4 people while the other half consisted of eight. Some groups worked at a table together, while distributed groups worked on the same problem communicating only through computers. Here, the researchers found that people extended greater individual effort when they were in smaller groups – in both the distributed and collocated situations. However, when placed in collocated groups, people felt greater pressure to look busy even when they were not, while those in the distributed groups were less likely to feel such pressure.

Why 1+1+1 is not equal to 3: Possible reasons why social loafing happens:

  • Team size: The more people in the group, the easier it is to hide and let others do the work
  • The skill-gap: If people perceive that other group members are less motivated or less skillful than themselves, then this makes them reduce their effort 
  • Goal: Those who believe the group’s goal is impossible to achieve are more likely to slack off – because they may think the effort is futile. On the other hand, even if the goal can be attained, if people don’t believe in that goal then they are more likely to go easy
  • ‘The others’ are not working hard’ effect: When people begin to feel that others are slacking off, they may feel discouraged and reduce their effort
  • ‘Will I be acknowledged’ dilemma: Individuals who feel their efforts won’t’ be acknowledged while working in a group – especially when compared to working alone, might not show interest in group projects

3 Tips to overcome social loafing

Based on the experimental studies and the possible reasons why social loafing happens, we have outlined 3 tips to help you overcome social loafing in your virtual work environment. Let’s look into each of them one by one: 

1. Restrict the team size to 3 or 4 members 

Creating small groups and establishing individual accountability can help you overcome social loafing to a very great extent. Because when teams grow beyond 3 to 5 members, the potential for social loafing is greater. However, when your team expands from 3 to more members, it’s a good idea to break the team into sub-teams of no more than 3 members per group. Divide the main task/project into multiple chunks depending on the number of sub-teams and assign each sub-team a particular chunk of the project. This strategy will help you get the result you expect – in fact, better results! Most importantly, this will eliminate the chances of social loafing. 

2. Set up rules and well-defined work-flow 

The next important step to overcome social loafing is assigning individual tasks and responsibilities. This means you have set up stringent rules or a work-flow. If you set ground rules for group conduct at the outset, you’ll get less push back. Remember, the buy-in is essential when individuals are working closely together. Whatever parameters you create to set up the work-flow, make sure to inform your team members, and get their buy-in. Make them understand why it’s important to follow this work-flow and most importantly, convey how it will benefit them.

3. Classify projects and highlight the achievement of individual members

Make sure the assignment you assign to your sub-teams are distinct and not repetitive. The logic is if you assign tasks in this way, no one can rely on another team member to pick up the slack. Directly or indirectly, you will be motivating each team member to take up responsibility for their own task. And the best way to create mutually exclusive tasks is to classify project components into specific buckets as mentioned in the previous point. For instance: financial, communication, technology, etc. Not only will this help you overcome social loafing, but will also help the team members to create a pathway to achieve the desired results while ensuring no critical aspect is ignored. Most importantly, don’t forget to acknowledge and appreciate your team members for their individual efforts and contributions. This will boost their morale and encourage them to perform better!


Remember, people will be motivated to contribute if their efforts are acknowledged and appreciated. We hope these tips will help you overcome social loafing in your virtual work environment. 

Let us know if you are using a different strategy to overcome social loafing. Drop us a comment!

Also Read: Why Social Recognition Matters in Today’s Remote Work Era?

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