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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.
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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).