What is social capital?
Previously unheard of, social capital has become a key part of the workplace conversation over the last 12 months. While remote working initially seemed to be going great, as isolation continued over time and teams dispersed, the level of understanding and collaboration between staff dropped significantly.
This is social capital – the understanding and commitment built between colleagues and teams over time, through small, frequent interactions. Remote working denied teams these “watercooler moments” by making communication much more formal and structured. At first, this didn’t matter, as teams had high levels of social capital already built up, but over time, the gradual erosion of this team spirit has caused a serious wellbeing and productivity drop.
Social capital is defined as “the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.” The concept has been around for more than 200 years, but until recently remained unknown to the wider public. Over recent months, however, the lack of it has led to far greater awareness. The drop in motivation, productivity and effectiveness of remote working has all been attributed to the lack of social capital.
Social capital has two main forms: bonding and bridging. Bonding is the social capital created within a group that have common interests and aims – such as departments and functions within your company (and your company as a whole). Bridging refers to the creation of social capital across these groups, who have some common interests, but separate purposes or roles. This could mean between two different functions of your business, or between your company and a client.
Social Capital in Covid-19
At first, remote working seemed to be going great. We had fewer distractions, no commute, and a healthier lifestyle. We could work with close colleagues in virtual meetings, and ignore all the distractions of the busy office life. It became fashionable to loudly herald the end of the office and a new era of remote working. The office was a thing of the past, now obsolete and irrelevant.
But over time, a realisation has emerged of the long-term damage that working from home is doing to both people and business. As social capital is diminished between teams over time, and not built up with new team members, working together becomes a lot harder. While staff are holding more meetings than ever before, they are also feeling more isolated and lonelier. That instinctive understanding is lost, making meetings slower and more laborious.
Social Capital in Your Company
Social capital is critical for the creation of a thriving workplace (and company). In the physical workplace, every time someone is stuck, they can share a problem with helpful co-workers, who will offer expertise and assistance, even if it's “not their job”. And when you help someone out, even though you stand to gain little from it, the reason behind that urge to help is the social capital you have built with that person over time. So, while remote working may make everyone better at their own roles, it can lead to reduced innovation and problem solving, which could be fatal for your business in the long run.
Crucial to the successful building of social capital in your workplace is designing for “collisions” -unplanned meetings of co-workers who may or may not know each other. It's why Google encourages staff to move around their workplaces and create long queues – so that unrelated staff members can build networks and openly discuss problems and solutions. This is why done right, over time, social capital creates successful organisations.
It enables the effective flow of insight, expertise, and information. It empowers innovation and creativity. The inevitable constriction of networks when a team is working from home not only prevents all these essential interactions but makes your staff more isolated and less productive over time.
Building Social Capital with Furniture
As the elements of your workspace that your people interact with the most, furniture has an integral role to play in the building of social capital within your workplace. Ordering your staff back to the office (whether full or part-time) and hoping for the best won’t work. By creating social spaces with the use of breakout furniture, you can encourage people to relax and bond, building the foundations for effective teamwork.
Creating different zones in your workspace designed for different types of working will encourage your people to move around throughout the day, building new relationships and strengthening existing ones. From small team pods to events and training spaces, communication happens best in environments designed for it.
Ultimately, a culture that promotes wellbeing, happiness, and collaboration is as important as effective time and task management. Socialising and enjoying time together is not an unproductive waste of time – it’s an essential team-building exercise that makes the “real work” far quicker and more effective.