Why restoring social capital is rising up the business agenda

Social capital – the glue that bind us together in the workplace – suffered during the pandemic. Now companies are keen to build it back up. Can technology help the process?

A recent gathering to celebrate a very special team birthday got us thinking about some of the old rituals of workplace life.

The (often awkward) drinks, a ceremonial Colin the Caterpillar for the birthday person (for overseas readers – Colin the Caterpillar is a seminal British supermarket celebration cake who incidentally is the unlikely recent subject of an intellectual property dispute), and a peppering of safe-for-work small talk, made up the delicate  parts of the social workplace experience.

There is a worry that these soon look set to be relegated to the museum of workplace past. Yet, for all the eye rolls and potential embarrassment, something the past year has demonstrated is actually how meaningful such observances are. The simple reason – social capital.

Shared norms and values

Social capital is defined by the OECD as ‘networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate co-operation within or among groups’. This is manifested in a variety of settings in different ways. Most common are family and community connections (religious/social), but increasingly important are the shared bridges and linkages which colleagues hold in workplace communities.

The core fabric of these networks is to stimulate feelings of trust and acceptance which help people work together towards a common aim or benefit. Of course, as per Robert Putnam’s seminal 1995 book, social capital has been decreasing since 1960s; a trend he identified in the uptake of Americans who opted to bowl alone.

Such social alienation, Putnam mused, had a wide range of collateral impacts on civil society. While this was framed in a social setting, with the emergence of the pandemic, there has also been a renewed focus on the how remote working has influenced social capital in the workplace.

Loss of time together

Less time spent physically collaborating with people has a naturally cannibalistic effect on social capital. As mentioned earlier, the shared moments of joy, frustration and even mundanity, all go some way to create bonds of community between co-workers. Even moments of forced social participation, such as birthday, welcome or even leaving events, have powerful abilities to forge connections.

Even fully remote companies are aware of this – most remote-first firms such as Zapier, Buffer, Knack, Articulate and Toggl, amongst others, provide employees with annual weeklong company retreats in the hope that these moments together will gather social capital to build meaningful work connections.

Benefits to business

Companies are rightfully interested in social capital. If it creates meaningful relationships and bonds, people are happier and more productive, which in turn benefits the business. On the flip slide, if employees are unhappy and lack meaningful connections at work, this can lead to malaise and attrition. According to Gallup, 63 per cent of people who agree they have a best friend at work are more than twice as likely to be productively engaged in their work.

Historically, if the physical office has been a garden for cultivating social capital, which blooms over ‘how was your weekend?’, quick coffee catchups and shared workplace experiences, how can we begin to recreate such experiences online? Software such as Slack and MS Teams, which connect colleagues instantaneously and include more informal media formats such as gifs, are one way of helping to build social capital.

‘Virtual happy hours all too often resulted in a cacophonous mess, which put people off…

Alas, virtual happy hours and socials – the zany craze that took off at the beginning of the pandemic – all too often resulted in a cacophonous mess which put people off. When you layer VC fatigue on top of that, it is no wonder that such initiatives failed to invigorate.

Apps and AI show some promise, but the technology has yet to prove itself. Saying that, one leading tool from Mapiq is paving the way – through this tool colleagues can interact and organise themselves based on when others will be in the office. The app also provides helpful nudges and suggestions to encourage encounters, thereby creating opportunities to increase social capital.

Reimagining the office

Ultimately, it appears that social capital is most effectively build when people are together, but this shouldn’t mean that remote or hybrid working will always undermine social capital. Initiatives such as annual retreats and reimagining the physical office as a place for collaboration can still help to create meaningful bonds and connections.

In the hybrid model, regarding the workplace as a destination for socialising, connection, combustion and collaboration not only draws employees back to the office, but also provides fertile ground for enhancing social capital and in turn creating healthy workplace cultures.

But, of course, a word of warning: social capital is not a silver bullet. Cliques, toxic work culture and bullying also stem from another form of intense social capital – one that alienates. So balance should always be struck to ensure that workplace social capital is healthy.

Clients matter too

And of course, social capital relationships in workplace settings are not merely limited to colleagues; consider also how social capital helps to create and reinforce bonds of trust and connection between clients and those who serve them. Cynically, these bonds are good business value as they increase the likelihood of repeat business, but more holistically, they also create more meaningful, transparent interactions.

Statistics show that the switch to hybrid work has made it more difficult for service providers to create strong bonds virtually, which provides pause for thought as to how the standard workplace can be reimagined. Physical client-dedicated spaces such as clubs and lounges can become sites to materially manifest social capital.

‘Social capital has the power to transform service providers into trusted partners…’

By providing spaces to work, socialise and connect, clients are able to glean greater value away from core services, and this in turn creates enhanced feelings of connection. Social capital has the power to transform service providers into trusted partners or even friends. This is a  currency that cannot be overlooked in the competitive market of client-provider relationships.

Indeed, one of the joys of hybrid working is that structures can be put in the place to intentionally create combustion. Why not create a team anchor day where members of a team come into the office and collaborate, or perhaps host a lunch-and-learn, happy hour, in-person celebration? For clients, why not invite them to co-work from your office, try a new piece of technology or test an innovation?

These initiatives  create perfect opportunities to take the best past of workplace past – connection and socialising – and combine it with the new world of work. In the long run, the best of all worlds.

Krupa Solanki is Innovation Director of Unwork. She has a background in human rights and criminal law.
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