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22nd February 2021

Staying Connected Through the Disconnect

Written by our guest contributor Sonia Rignall

As we approach an unusual anniversary of lockdowns, separation, isolation and remoteness, many people are considering what to keep from the current imposed change and what to restore once the situation allows. So what can we learn from this mass-imposed social experiment? How much does remote working disrupt connection and how have people found innovative ways of staying connected through the disconnect?

The Value of Social Connection

Many HR strategies have been woven around the concept of a purpose-driven change and the strength of their organisational culture.  This cultural collateral is built and maintained through peoples’ interactions.  Moments of reinforcing norms of behaviour through conversation, observation and action are less obvious in a remote manner of working.  This social capital is harder to measure and understanding the impact of working from home on our organisations is only just becoming apparent. Why does this matter? Is it just a nicety, a luxury, that we can pick back up in time?

Social capital was a term popularised by the work of a social psychologist, Putnam, in the 1990’s with his seminal work in 2000, Bowling Alone[1], lamenting the loss of social connection and rise of individualistic interest within American society.  Subsequently, it has been a term applied to the organisation.  The simple assertion is that there is value in the relationships within an organisation and the outcomes of those relationships in reciprocity and trust.  These relationships bring value to the organisation.  Teams and organisations with a stronger social capital often have a higher level of employee satisfaction, psychological safety, organisational commitment and a stronger ability to collaborate for innovation.

Is Social Capital Suffering?

Recent research in August 2020 of 2,300 executives and employees who had been thrust into home working by COVID-19[2], revealed that the majority reported cultural strain and deterioration since being remote. Interestingly, some leaders have sought to generate greater social capital in this situation through non-task virtual meetings, frequent 1-1’s with their team, fun virtual events and more. The outcomes were clear; people were 60% more likely to respond rapidly to requests from each other; three times more likely to give each other the benefit of the doubt when problems arose; three times more likely to put the team needs above their own and finally, twice as likely to take initiative to solve problems rather than waiting to be told to do so.  All these behaviours are vital for a team focused on team goals, collaboration and innovation.

Andy Haldane[3], Chief Economist at the Bank of England, observed that much of the data on employee wellbeing and productivity is either neutral or positive from research about home working, which builds a good case.  However, when he turned our attention to long term effects of home working, it appeared that creativity and relationships could be the casualty of this pandemic from an organisation perspective.  The loss of serendipitous interactions that can ignite creative ideas and problem solving, combined with the lack of nourishment of relationships which in turn depletes social capital, are two significant concerns. Our virtual meetings tend to be structured and task-focused, losing some of the opportunities to share and build trust.  All those moments for people to share thoughts and ideas whilst walking to a meeting, grabbing a sandwich, making their coffee or meeting at the pub after work, are gone, for now.  This is going to take time to rebuild and foster again. So what can we do practically to cease or limit this loss?

Remaining Connected

After a year, we have learned about keeping connected in the truest sense of the word, that is, feeling a part of a team and wider organisation, growing relationships and trusting others and being willing to share and collaborate:

  • Technology is important. Even the greatest ‘Luddite’ cannot deny the benefits delivered by technologies such as Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts and Microsoft Teams to name a few.  Additionally, collaboration tools such as MIRO for facilitation of ideas sessions, Trello for project collaboration and management, Google docs for comment and simultaneous editing and Slack for keeping focused, project driven threads and interest driven streams of conversation. The key to harnessing these is not to simply transfer the way we have always done it to these channels but rather use them as an opportunity to adapt, change and experiment.
  • Stay connected and keep it personal. Keeping in touch with members of your team, colleagues and direct reports with a phone call or video chat.  Understanding the personal challenges, they have, home schooling, isolated and dependent parents, their isolation as someone living on their own, and checking how they are coping, surviving and thriving. Ask ‘are you OK’ and mean it, leave space and ask twice.
  • Use time zones to your advantage. The experience of our experts who have long supported a ‘Work From Anywhere’ approach to their work should help us here. They have seized on the value of time zone differences for asynchronous working to their advantage, handing off pieces of work for further addition and completion.
  • Socialisation and camaraderie, managing the opportunities. We can tend to romanticise the office context.  Research from Thomas Allen at MIT in the 1970’s showed that workers who were co-located on the same campus were often not interacting between rooms or buildings[4].  We are habitual creatures and probably set ourselves into work patterns that meant seeing the same people on a daily basis, our strongest connections in terms of social capital.  We have always had to manufacture the broader connections to some extent with  cross-organisational projects, development programmes, hackathons, annual global team meetings and leadership conferences.  The use of slack bots and ‘donut’ sessions where people are tied together for a finite period for meet-ups and sharing are an online equivalent. Virtual conferences have given many who wouldn’t normally attend, the opportunity and given comfort to those with degrees of social anxiety that they can engage with the content and interact in a thoughtful way online. Team members can event work virtually side-by-side.  Schedule an hour when you are connected through a live chat forum and working on a shared document. Or being on a video call for an hour whilst working on a connected piece of work so that you can ask questions and chip in.
  • What can we learn from the expert remote workers? Many of us are novices in the art of home working and virtual team working. As a novice we often turn to the expert for guidance. There are those that have worked in a remote fashion for many years. Software projects are run on a globally distributed, cross organisation, and asynchronous basis through open source projects. GitLab has operated on a fully remote basis for years and with 1,200 employees across 65 countries, so it has valuable experience in this.  They have developed their processes and tools to support this way of working and support communication across time zones with an employee handbook that is open to all (including you) and constantly changing in a Wikipedia fashion.[5]  Creative individuals have operated outside of organisations and come together in virtual teams to work on specific projects.  Additionally, many consultants are familiar with moving between clients, with shifting team membership and global dispersion.  The remote and virtual environments have become the playground for some.  These are the people we should turn to for inspiration at this time.

Beyond the Pandemic

We have a great opportunity, having navigated this live experiment. We can take the great bits about working from home; the focus, reduced interruptions from colleagues when we are not ready for them, access to greater talent pool and ability to submerge ourselves in tasks.  The trick will be alleviating and mitigating the less advantageous elements such as disconnectedness, erosion of social capital and reduced opportunities for collaboration and innovation.  The Oscillation Principle put forward by Nancy Dixon in 2015[6] may help here.  She suggested polarising the debate to 100% home-working and 100% office work misses the point.  The human needs for periodic, in-depth interactions in person and ‘collective sense-making’ calls for an appropriate balance between working on your own remotely and coming together to unite and connect facilitated by skilled leaders who help others converse as opposed to solve problems.

For those of you missing the huddles around a whiteboard, the serendipity of a sandwich conversation and the bubbling ideas from a shared brew, these will return.  The joy will be blending these two approaches and reinstating choice and agency back into our work situation so that it is by design as opposed to circumstance alone.

References

[1] Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert D Putnam, 2000.
[2] Vital Smarts Research August 2020. https://www.vitalsmarts.com/press/2020/10/work-from-home-and-the-collapse-of-social-capital-ignoring-the-cultural-impact-of-wfh-will-erode-relationships-and-results/
[3] Andy Haldane, Engaging Business Summit and Autumn Lecture, 14th October 2020.
[4] Our Work-from-Anywhere Future; Best practices for all-remote organisations, Raj Choudhury, Harvard Business Review, Nov-Dec 2020.
[5] https://about.gitlab.com/handbook/
[6] The Oscillation Principle by Nancy Dixon, 7th Global Peter Drucker Forum, June 22, 2015.

Sonia Rignall is an organisational consultant and a trained occupational psychologist with over 20 years of experience. She has consistently worked alongside Executive and Management teams to diagnose and deliver organisational interventions that make a difference. In her consultancy work, Sonia brings facilitation skills and insight into individual and team level relationships with a pragmatic approach and contextual sensitivity. Sonia also applies her organisational and psychological knowledge to her coaching discussions to enable people to get to the heart of the issue and move forwards with purpose.