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Work-From-Home and the Loss of Social Capital

Why businesses should foster reconnecting

For the past year, we have all been part of a massive social experiment, separating us from human connections at work and in our personal lives as a result of COVID-19. No spontaneous brainstorming with a colleague from a different department in the break room. Missing out on stopping by to wish a co-worker happy birthday and grabbing a piece of cake. Restricted from after-hours sports or socializing. All the little social cues we benefit from when meeting in person and contributing as a group have been curtailed. 

Companies are beginning to realize the value of these missing bits of social interaction. Social capital—a measure of people’s willingness and ability to work together to get things done—has eroded, especially for people who work from home (WFH).

Even as we push toward “getting back to normal,” it may be a much different version of normal. Remote work has increased 87% over pre-pandemic levels, and industry experts anticipate a large percentage will continue to work from home. 

A new study from VitalSmarts, a leader in employee development and learning, suggests many businesses have not maintained social capital building practices through the pandemic. This can have significant financial consequences. Before, it was generally thought that social capital had a direct relation to physical proximity. Data shows that a productive social system can be achieved, even among WFH employees, with appropriate leadership practices.

About social capital
We build social capital at work through interactions with co-workers. Each conversation reveals a bit about the people involved, project challenges and personal influences. How social capital returns benefits is by tapping into these social contacts to resolve problems. An employee has reached a dead end on a project, and someone from their network jumps in to help. Or a person gains new insight from someone they have a brief conversation with. On the flip side, employees build the social capital of others by offering to help. 

Social capital develops through myriad tiny connections we typically make each work day. These interactions are critical to a thriving workplace. New ideas are hatched, creative thinking is expanded, and employees are happier.

Woman working from home at a brown desk

When social capital declines
Many business leaders have ignored the degradation of social capital. This puts companies at risk, including being impacted financially. Companies who have done little to address social capital needs in WFH staff risk:

  • Higher employee turnover
  • Decreased productivity
  • Diminished employee commitment and connection
  • Negative team performance and teamwork
  • Reduced employee engagement and morale
  • Eroded employee/manager relationships

According to the VitalSmarts study, organizations that have done nothing to sustain or rebuild social capital are 200 percent more likely to have employees less committed to the organization. This is directly linked back to the basic premise of social capital- people’s willingness and ability to work together and accomplish goals.

Microsoft’s data contribution
Microsoft also noted how the shift to remote work changed the social capital within their organization. The company conducted over 50 studies to understand how the nature of work itself has changed since early 2020. Data was collected from more than 30,000 people in 31 countries. In addition, trillions of communication bits across Microsoft and LinkedIn’s user base, including emails, meetings, chats and posts, were analyzed.

One of the biggest takeaways—WFH employees report more meetings than ever, but still feel more isolation and less connection. Younger and new employees may be particularly vulnerable since they did not experience the same onboarding, networking and training over the past year. The shift to remote work meant losing those important interactions and social networking that build social capital.

One solution proposed by Microsoft is to add some in-person time back into the workplace, creating hybrid jobs. You can read Microsoft’s full report on “The New Future of Work” here.

Successful companies run on social capital

Create new approaches. With remote work there are not the same opportunities for spontaneous, in person conversations. New ways must be developed to have the same net effect. Take a cue from Manpower Group, a world leader in innovative workforce solutions that was an early adopter of a massive remote workforce within its own company.

Having a “people first” approach is a good start. As a former executive coach with a division of Manpower, I was impressed by their inclusive techniques, from onboarding through career advancement. They offer flexible hours, continual opportunities to learn new skills, and weekly team meetings that encourage group brainstorming. Each employee was assigned a mentor and had access to one-on-one time with supervisors. 

The work was challenging, but the company made time for enjoyable work-related socializing. Instead of just being a name on an email, time was allocated out of each monthly meeting for two employees to share personal photos and details about themselves. This helped us get to know the people we interacted with daily. There were some work-related team challenges with rewards, or gameshow type quizzes that helped reinforce details of a new program. All of these activities took place online, but felt like we were a real-life work group.

Bring fresh viewpoints. Consider bringing in visitors from other teams or outside your organization to a group meeting. In addition to expanding social interactions with new faces, employees gain different perspectives on work projects. Team members can check for groupthink on an idea with employees outside their group, or spend one-on-one time digging into details with a supervisor. Research from Microsoft shows that remote employees do better when managers take time for regular one-on-ones, which can lessen feelings of isolation.

Make space for social capital. Making time to build social capital does not mean more meetings. If workers are already feeling overtaxed, asking them to participate in socializing activities may not be received well. However, managers can adjust workloads so people have time and energy to make work relationships a priority. Also, exercises to build social capital can be incorporated into regular meetings. Here’s the key—supervisors have to recognize the value of social capital. Meetings shouldn’t be extended, but incorporating social capital methods is just as important as reviewing a status report.

Encourage and reward social support. Chat that occurs outside a meeting may be considered nonessential or go unrecognized by a company. However, when a company encourages and rewards people for providing support to others with bonuses and promotions, employees are more likely to feel satisfied with their job and are happy about where they work. These “side conversations” are quality social interactions, critical to a high functioning business. So, consider rewards not just for individual accomplishments, but also to recognize when employees support the work of others.

Make meetings intentional, inclusive, and social. With WFH growth, how online meetings are conducted is critical. To engage participants, meetings must be focused and well-planned. The meeting facilitator should encourage people to speak up and integrate different voices into the conversation. While we all want our time to be valued and get things done, don’t try and squeeze all the pleasantries out of a meeting. A few moments of connection, fun and words of support can make an otherwise serious meeting less exhausting. Oh, and please, make sure everyone has their camera on. We want to emulate being together in person as closely as possible with visual cues. Attendees should be engaged, not playing with their phone or making a sandwich during a meeting. 

Addressing social capital needs of WFH employees will create a more engaged and creative workplace, which in turn improves a company’s bottom line. When organizations value time spent helping each other, connecting through fun team building activities and building an enjoyable culture, productivity and positive employee relationships will be maximized.

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