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For many companies, the early months of the pandemic and the transition to remote work led to a jump in productivity. Despite the uncertainty and volatility of the global crisis — not to mention the seemingly constant Zoom calls — many teams were enabled by a strong foundation of social capital that had been established by previous long-term collaboration and in-person interactions.
Established social capital made it relatively easy to shift to remote work without losing a sense of the larger organizational context. But over time, organizations shift in the way they function — even ones where many employees are working remotely — as the economic situation evolves and teams are disbanded and reformed to address changing competitive landscapes.
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An unfortunate side effect of persistent remote work during the pandemic has been that social capital networks within organizations have weakened, making it harder for people to maintain the same high level of productivity. Concern about this phenomenon was voiced early on, in May 2020, by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who noted that people had been very productive initially following the quick shift to remote work but that “maybe we are burning some of the social capital we built up [while not working remotely] in this phase where we are all working remote.” What we saw collectively in the following months of last year and continuing into this year is that the social capital depletion was and is real.
When thinking about returning to the office — whether in person full time or a hybrid model — we recommend that leaders think strategically about how their plans address three key areas: strengthening weak ties, building social capital in new teams, and onboarding employees.
Why Weak Ties Matter in Organizations
The fabric of an organization’s social capital erodes if it is not shored up with consistent interaction that develops and builds on weak ties. Strong ties can form among long-standing team members, where common work and a shared history help create more lasting bonds. However, these types of ties are not isolated to one’s team or business unit; often, common interests with others in the organization create opportunities for more frequent interaction. Within organizations, weak ties may develop between people who rarely interact with each other or who don’t share common work, responsibilities, or interests. These are people who don’t rely on each other professionally or socially but see each other in the hallway or at the proverbial water cooler in the organization.
At the beginning of the transition to remote work, already established ties (both weak and strong) facilitated continued effectiveness, quick decision-making, and adjustments that supported teams’ productivity. After a few months of working at a distance, however, most weak ties had eroded, although individuals continued to have strong ties with those they worked with directly. These strong ties enabled teams and work assignments to proceed in the new normal of remote work and highlighted how strong ties within teams facilitated work regardless of where it happened.
When employees switched to working from home, many managers were concerned that the lure of laundry and dishes and the lack of anyone looking over employees’ shoulders would result in reduced productivity. Instead, employees were pleased with their increased productivity as they benefited from a nonexistent commute and fewer of the regular interruptions and distractions one might encounter in an office.
But as their time out of the office lengthened, team members began to feel more isolated and realized that interacting with coworkers they were only acquainted with was something they missed. Formal meetings didn’t provide the same type of connection, context, or understanding of what was happening in the organization that the hallway conversations in between in-person meetings had provided.
One advantage of the physical workplace is that informal interactions between people with weak ties support a significant flow of information in organizations. While connections among people who have strong ties have continued throughout the pandemic via technology, interactions across weak ties have suffered significantly because there are fewer easy ways to initiate these often chance encounters when working remotely.
What has become clear is that the joy in the efficiency of not being forced by context to have these side conversations isn’t necessarily improving organizational efficiency, because these side conversations end up being the catalyst that helps organizations move more quickly and easily. What was largely hidden from view before is now highlighted by its absence: When people aren’t having hallway and watercooler conversations, a lot of relationships that normally form through serendipity stop forming. These side conversations that help organizations move more quickly are facilitated by the weak ties that build up over time among people who have frequent, repeated, incidental interactions with one another — the kind of interactions that happen when people inhabit the same space but don’t happen when they do not.
This presents an issue for organizations, because the social capital held in weak ties supports work across silos, groups, and organizations. It turns out that the “informal organization” is largely constructed of the weak ties that need frequent strengthening to retain their functionality. Leaders need to think about how they’re going to improve this social capital and, if employees are going to continue to work remotely, how they’re going to invest in the social capital of weak ties, not just the social capital involved in intact or changing workgroups.
Forming Teams in the New Normal
One side effect of the coronavirus crisis is a forced experiment for most organizations in onboarding new teams remotely. Examples from this past year suggest that when teammates can’t convene in person for a first meeting, having everyone online for that initial meeting can level the playing field and create a more equitable environment than when some members are physically colocated and others are remote. In fact, many members of new teams have told us that this past year, they felt truly integrated into a new team from the beginning for the first time.
Another important aspect of team onboarding, getting to know one’s teammates, has also seen some positive side effects from the virtual environment. In order to get work done, teams have been forced to coalesce when none of the team members are together face to face. For global teams, this has been a particularly advantageous learning opportunity. According to one leader we spoke with who is frequently a part of global teams, this process has served as an equalizer, because everyone has had to meet online and no one has had to travel. This leader felt that new employees were more fully and quickly integrated into the team because everybody was meeting in the same way.
It’s possible that newly formed global teams will want to begin the teaming process remotely post-pandemic, so that everyone has a similar opportunity to contribute. While people might complain that that approach is suboptimal, given that most global teams don’t meet face to face as a whole before work begins, this more equitable approach may in fact result in stronger performance.
Onboarding as a Critical Component of Workforce Development
One concern for organizations is the loss of implicit knowledge transfer from established employees to those who are onboarding through regular interactions in the office. While new employees can learn technical processes and systems via virtual onboarding meetings, it is much more challenging to pick up on subtle subtext, political norms, and insights into organizational behavior without being able to observe it daily in person.
This is a difficult situation for all new employees, and it is particularly problematic for young people entering the workforce. As we know from our research, those who are newer to the workforce often must contend with squaring their outside expectations of how an organization is run with their eventual understanding of how it actually functions on a day-to-day basis.1
An online onboarding environment also does not facilitate younger employees having incidental interactions with leaders at other levels and in other departments. As a result, this cohort of the workforce risks missing out on a crucial part of their organizational career development: first-hand observation of the subtleties of how organizations run and how leaders act and interact with others. For this reason, we believe that it is critically important to get young people into the office alongside their older peers, who can help mentor them and improve their knowledge of the organizational context.
Part of the issue with remote onboarding for young people who are new to the workforce is that they don’t know what they don’t know about how organizations work. New employees who do have more substantial organizational experience should have a better idea of what they don’t know; although they may miss the implicit knowledge transfer, they likely have a better idea of what questions to ask to fill in the gaps between formal onboarding and implicit knowledge. Such employees have a better idea of what information about organizational norms may be missing from a virtual onboarding process and can seek out the information they think they need.
Principles to Think About With the Return to Work
As companies begin to strategize their post-pandemic planning — whether it is a return to mostly in person, remote, or a hybrid mix of the two — there are a few principles that we recommend leaders consider when making decisions about return-to-work procedures.
Think about the opportunities to develop weak ties. We strongly recommend that leaders prioritize the opportunities for employees to develop weak ties. While there are obvious efficiency arguments for bringing people back only to work in teams that have specific work they need to accomplish together, leaders need to think about the benefits weak ties have for the efficiency of the overall organization. Therefore, when planning how and when to have people in the office, leaders need to include time that both allows groups who work together to interact face to face effectively to get work done and facilitates interactions among those who don’t necessarily depend on one another for work. Maximizing the opportunity for the development of weak ties to improve the social capital of the network of the organization is important both for the employees who were in place before the pandemic and for new employees. While it is especially critical for those new to the organization, in truth everyone — and especially the organization overall — benefits when they have the opportunity for incidental interactions with others.
Make online team formation a standard. Another area we recommend that organizational leaders think about very carefully is how teams form. This means preparing for a future optimized for flexibility and hybrid work environments. Rather than returning to the status quo where teams, even ones that may not work together regularly in person, form via face-to-face kickoff events, it is arguably better to have new teams meet wholly online in the beginning.
We know of one division within an organization that has made the decision that all team meetings where everyone cannot be face to face will now be held online. Rather than having part of the group together in a room in person while the rest of the group is online, they’ve found that the team functions better, and all members of the team can contribute more equally, when every individual attends the meeting virtually on their own screen. We encourage leaders to think about how they can maximize contributions of all team members, regardless of where they are.
Support younger employees in the organization. Companies and leaders have many considerations ahead for their employees in a time of hybrid work, but they should be sure to prioritize younger onboarding employees’ development in their return-to-work planning. These employees have unique needs in a remote environment and will need proactive support and mentoring in order to gain their footing in the organization when daily observation, apprenticeship, and face-to-face interaction may no longer be the norm.
We recommend that any in-person solutions leaders come up with include the opportunity for young people to interact both with one another and with older, more experienced mentors. While it is important that new employees bond together as peers, it is also critical that they have the chance to develop relationships with established staff members who can provide real answers to their questions about organizational norms and culture.
Organizations must continue to balance managing the many ongoing effects of the pandemic while at the same time transitioning to a work pattern that includes more in-person contact. In the end, organizations and employees will be most productive if they can leverage all that has been learned in the past year about effective remote work and focus in-person work solutions in the areas that need the most support.
1. J.J. Deal and A. Levenson, “What Millennials Want From Work: How to Maximize Engagement in Today’s Workforce” (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2016).