Social connections and productivity in remote work are waning—that's where an adaptive hybrid model can help.
The past 22 months have been a quantum leap forward for the workforce. The sudden shift to remote work has advanced the future of work five to 10 years. And there has been a shift from human capital-centric organizations toward entities that equally consider how people are connected.
During these extraordinary times, though, virtual work has resulted in a social fragmentation. And that has threatened to deplete one of our most important and relevant resources: social capital.
Prior to the pandemic, only 5 percent of US employees worked virtually. That number skyrocketed to more than 60 percent in May 2020. Almost immediately, employers began to ask whether they would be able to maintain productivity.
Quite surprisingly, according to a study by Great Place to Work, most people reported stable or even increased productivity levels. Employees and employers alike quickly adapted with videoconferencing and other virtual collaboration tools. Add in the repurposing of commute times, fewer work breaks, and even longer days and the net effect has been a productivity boost.
However, more recent studies have shown a slippage in productivity in the most recent months. Perhaps burnout, exhaustion, and a declining sense of belonging are finally taking their toll on organizations. Furthermore, employers are still wondering what the long-term implications will be on such areas as innovation and culture development.
Types of social capital
Not surprising, companies have experienced some significant changes in their social connections since the beginning of the pandemic. Those shifts have long-term implications on organizational results.
More than ever, how we are connected is essential for determining productivity, innovation, and culture development or tacit learning. Human capital is the summarization of a person's skills, experiences, and knowledge. Social capital is how well someone is positioned to leverage those traits.
In particular, there are two primary types of social capital—bonding and bridging—that business leaders should be most concerned about when evaluating work outputs.
Bonding social capital helps facilitate in-group connections, such as interactions within a team. People have a high degree of bonding social capital when they are highly interconnected with one another. For example, within a given team, each individual actively interacts with other team members.
Bridging social capital connects those from outside a given group or links one team to another. For example, if an individual from one team or department acts as a bridge to an individual on another team or department, that person has strong bridging social capital.
Both types are essential to long-term success for organizations across various types of work. Strong bonding social capital enables a team to move fast and quickly iterate by sharing ideas, challenging assumptions, and building better products with trusted peers. It acts like superglue and holds a group together.
In contrast, strong bridging social capital provides access to novel and diverse sets of information, making them essential for generating new ideas and breakthrough insights. Bridging connections also provide access to resources outside an employee's immediate team that help to facilitate scaling and adoption activities.
In short, bonding connections enable productivity, tacit learning, and other development activities. And bridging connections help in facilitating idea discovery and, ultimately, the diffusion of those ideas and learnings more broadly across an organization.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, virtual work has taken a toll on both types of social capital. Connected Commons, a research consortium, conducted analysis and found that almost immediately, companies experienced a nearly 30 percent decline in bridging social capital. That number was even greater for teams that were already more distant from one another. Connections across teams quickly eroded.
Yet, initially, people experienced an increase of nearly 15 percent in bonding social capital, according to Connected Commons' research. In the early days of virtual work, employees leaned into their local connections and existing teams to get work done. Perhaps that explains the initial productivity increases.
However, as the pandemic persisted, those patterns shifted. The deterioration in bridging connections has at least stabilized and, in some cases, creeped upward.
That's not the case for bonding connections, which Connected Commons found more recently have decreased by 20–30 percent from their peak during the pandemic's early days. That decline is on the high end for newer teams because it is much harder to build social capital virtually.
The long-term implications of virtual work are becoming clearer as time passes. People are becoming socially disengaged. There has been a breakdown of tacit or local learning, especially for newcomers.
Furthermore, bold idea generation and scaling of new insights have eroded. And we are seeing early signs of productivity dwindling.
An adaptive hybrid model
Employers have recently moved to a hybrid working model—an approach that implicitly understands the importance of social capital. Many have announced return-to-work guidelines, such as that everyone must be in the office two to three days a week.
While such guidance recognizes the problem, it won't necessarily solve it. The hybrid approach leaves building connections to chance.
For example, if an employee from a given team chooses to come to the office on Monday and Wednesday and another selects Tuesday and Thursday, their ability to forge the bonding social capital to enable idea development is restricted. Likewise, if an engineer manager and a finance manager are in the office on different days, their capacity to cultivate the bridging connections necessary for diffusion is inhibited.
When considering social capital, talent development executives need a more responsive framework: an adaptive hybrid model with more intentionality in cultivating the right connections for the right outcomes.
If a team is in the early stages of a new initiative or project, for instance, a focus on broad-based discovery is necessary. The team may need to more actively engage customers, listen to employees, partner with external experts, or seek out novel ideas from other teams.
That requires an intentional focus on building bridging connections through activities such as customer empathy visits, employee listening sessions, cross-team collaborative inquiries, or maybe benchmarking reviews.
As such, periodic face-to-face interactions should focus on building bridging connections to enhance discovery. Once established, the team can more easily nurture those connections virtually.
If a team is in the development phase of work, it needs to connect more frequently with each other in a physical setting. Those face-to-face interactions create the bonding social capital necessary to facilitate tacit learning and culture evolution as individuals model behaviors naturally to one another. Such behaviors are more caught than taught.
Bonding connections also create the trust necessary to increase the speed of solution development and the fortitude to deep dive on challenging problems. Many believe that virtual work has restricted people's ability to openly debate and dive deep into more challenging issues. As a result, when teams do gather, they need to fully exploit the benefits that emerge from face-to-face interactions.
Finally, in the later stages of a project or initiative, diffusion activities become more important. At some point, the team needs to scale solutions and innovations for broader organizational impact and adoption.
Bridging connections help leaders to actively combine and diffuse ideas throughout the company. That requires purposeful interactions with key stakeholders and dependent teams to facilitate scaling activities.
Research suggests that as much as 80 percent of people's ability to influence others results from face-to-face exchanges. Those interactions may occur in formal business reviews, live prototype demonstrations, or informal hallway interactions.
Regardless of the methods, face-to-face interactions can't be left to chance. They need to be purposefully facilitated.
As talent development executives, we need to lead the way for our organizations. We have spent years focusing on human capital development. Now we need to pivot and actively challenge leaders to focus on social capital solutions.
If they are not properly engaged, leaders could unknowingly lean into well-intended models of work that do not solve the challenges of social fragmentation. We must advocate for a more intentional, adaptive hybrid model.
Such an approach will enable us to maintain the productivity benefits discovered during the pandemic while encouraging the face-to-face interactions necessary to amplify innovation and tacit learning. It will also catapult the workforce into the future by using the learnings from this unexpected yet extraordinary experiment.
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