Remote work is a mixed bag. Some aspects are wonderful. The lack of commute and extra flexibility is great. But there are drawbacks. Being remote comes with radical changes to how we communicate. Things that were effortless and unconscious in person become tiresome when we’re remote. And right now, so many of us are trying out this remote experiment together. But as time goes on, maybe the novelty is starting to wear off.
As a result, I think it’s important we talk about Social Capital. And in particular, how it decays over time without in-person communication. When we’re all together in the same office, building social capital can ‘just happen’ for many.1 It doesn’t take much thought. In a friendly organisation (like the one I work for), it may not be automatic, but it doesn’t take much effort.
When we’re co-located there is a lot of accidental, incidental, and tacit communication that helps form social bonds. When leading remote teams, these things must be done purposefully.2
When we’re working remotely, social capital starts to decay over time. We don’t have those accidental, incidental moments that help build trust and psychological safety. I was in a remote team before COIVD-19 became widespread. As a team, we were already aware of this. Our old way of managing was to get together in person, 3–4 times a year. But with COVID-19 travel restrictions, that’s off the cards for now. We can’t get together and refill our social capital tanks, so to speak. So what do we do?
What is social capital?
It might help to first be clear on what we’re talking about. What is Social Capital?
Social Capital “is a is a somewhat amorphous and academic term.”3 It tries to capture the idea that social networks have value. You could, for example, look at how well-connected an entire nation is. And then try to put a value on the advantages that connectedness provides. That’s where the idea of social capital started. But it works all the way down to the individual level.
Social capital is the value that results from trust and connections that have been carefully cultivated between individuals in networks at any level.4
It’s helpful to think about social capital along two dimensions:5
Structural embeddedness: Who you know. This describes the quantity of relationships.
Relational embeddedness: How well you know them. This describes the quality of those relationships.
They’re both important. Especially in a large, diverse organisation. Structural embeddedness is helpful for execution-oriented tasks. That is, the more people you know, the easier it is to find the right person to talk to and get a particular job done. Relational embeddedness, however, is helpful for innovation-oriented tasks. That is, you’re more likely to share ideas and listen to criticism with people you trust.
social capital: the trust, knowledge, reciprocity and shared norms that create quality of life and make a group resilient. In any company, you can have a brilliant bunch of individuals—but what prompts them to share ideas and concerns, contribute to one another’s thinking, and warn the group early about potential risks is their connection to one another.6
This second dimension, relational embeddedness, is related to psychological safety and trust. In contrast, the first dimension takes into account the value of a diverse social network. A wider, more diverse social network gives you access you have to a broader range of ideas and tools. So structural embeddedness is also important.
Don’t be too dismissive of very casual forms of social connection, because there has been good experimental evidence that if you nod to people in the hall, they are more likely to come to your aid if you should have a fit or have a heart attack, than if you don’t nod to them, even if you don’t otherwise know them. Merely nodding to someone in the hall generates visible, measurable forms of reciprocity.7
Why is social capital important?
We all know that being nice to each other is better than being mean. It seems self-evident. So it’s reasonable to wonder: Why bother thinking about this at all? Is it all mere academic over-thinking?
First: It’s not about ‘being nice’, or even ‘trust.’ Social capital captures two key dimensions. Both how connected we are, and the quality of those connections. There are subtleties here that are important to understand. For example, according to Margaret Heffernan, social capital helps teams disagree better:
Without high degrees of social capital, you don’t get the vigor of debate and exchange that hard problems demand. Creativity requires a climate of safety, but without social capital, no one will risk the fresh thought, the unpredictable idea, the testing question.6
Second: There’s a tonne of research showing that social capital makes for better-performing teams. I’m blessed to work at a large, successful technology company. So I’m surrounded by smart, talented people. But it’s social capital that helps make a team more than the sum of its parts. And the lack of it stops people getting things done.
Not being seen or being able to find and identify others appears to have a knock-on effect on productivity, with almost two thirds (64 percent) of those feeling invisible at work reporting a productivity drop since remote working became compulsory.8
Social capital helps us get things done. It’s like the lubricant that keeps a high-performance engine running at maximum efficiency. Without it, gears start to grind. Turning the engine takes more energy. We get less output for the same amount of input. But with the right amount of lubricant, gears turn with minimal resistance.
How do we build social capital?
If social capital is so important, how do we get more of it then? How does social capital accumulate?
When we’re co-located in an office, building social capital is easier. We have more of those incidental, accidental interactions. We nod to people we pass in the hallway. We ask someone how they’re going when we both turn up two minutes early for a meeting. We chat in the lunch line. It happens almost automatically and unconsciously.
Building social capital sounds like an abstract idea but it derives from an accumulation of small actions.6
Those small actions add up. And they’re further boosted by rituals like team lunches and demo sessions. Over time, we recognise people. We start to understand their sense of humour. We learn what people are good at; what they’re interested in. But when we’re all remote, those serendipitous interactions don’t happen quite so often.
When people work together in the same location, informal or tacit communication takes place—so-called ‘water cooler conversations’—and these help to form social bonds. This sort of communication doesn’t exist with remote teams and so the gap needs to be deliberately filled to create cohesion and start to build those all-important social bonds.6
Social capital in remote teams
Building social capital in remote teams is hard. It’s not only that we miss out on a lot of incidental interactions. Worse yet, the social capital we’ve built up can start to decay. When we’re out-of-sight, we’re out-of-mind—as the cliché goes.
Finding ways to get to know your fellow coworkers and interact casually is more challenging in a virtual environment.4
There is hope though. We can build social capital in remote teams. It just takes more deliberate effort. Zara Abrams writes:
Fortunately, geographic distance is not destiny, says Wilson, whose research shows that communication and shared identity within a team can mediate the effects of physical separation. In a study of 733 work relationships among colleagues from a variety of industries, she found that relationship quality was more closely tied to “perceived proximity”—or relational closeness—than it was to physical proximity […].
Teams with a strong group identity—for instance, those that have unified against a competing team or organization—tend to have more perceived proximity, Wilson says. At the personal level, team members who disclose personal information, such as a favorite television show or the birth of a child, also build stronger connections and more trust.
“Trust among team members starts lower in virtual teams than in face-to-face teams, but over time, it can build to the same levels,” she says.9
The trick is to find a set of strategies that work for our specific circumstances. The tools and tricks that work for another tech company might not work for you. Every organisation is different. What works for teams in a Bengaluru might not work for those in Gdansk. So we need to think it through.
So, what might that look like?
The truth is, I don’t know the best way for us to start building social capital. It’s difficult to find much beyond listicles suggesting “do fun stuff on video chat.” Though Margaret Heffernan gives an interesting example in her TED article. In the example, Carol Vallone asked department heads to defend another team’s budget allocation instead of their own:
The impact of this simple exercise was profound. Everyone had to see the whole company through eyes not their own. They felt duty-bound to do the best job possible—if only to ensure their counterpart did likewise. They had to listen to everyone, not just wait their turn.
It sounds awesome. But it’s also context-specific. I can’t think of a simple way to translate it to engineering and design practices. (Though perhaps you might). That said, there are some interesting things going on already where I work.
In the product team I work on, we’ve been using the Donut Slack plugin. The bot is attached to a ‘new friends’ room. It introduces anyone who joins to a random person each week. So far, it’s been going really well. It’s a great way to increase structural embeddedness. I hope it continues.
Stella Garber from Trello recently shared some ideas for sustaining a strong remote team. These focus more on the relational embeddedness side of things. And the Trello team have been sharing tips on remote work for years. There’s plenty of people around who have been thinking about this stuff.
But, as I mentioned, few sources offer anything more than trite recommendations. Most seem to be variations on the theme of “make time to socialise over video chat.” Not that there’s anything wrong with doing fun things on video chat. Especially not if it makes a difference. But it seems a little obvious.
For my part, I’ll be running a brainstorming workshop with our team to try and think this through. I’m hoping we’ll generate some good ideas to experiment with and see what works. But I’d like to hear from others too, outside our team.
That’s one of the reasons I’m writing this. I want to hear what people are already doing. I want to share ideas and inspiration. Are there ways we can be more creative about this? What has your team tried? What worked? What hasn’t worked so well? Are there ways to use existing tools that we haven’t thought of? Are there low-tech things we could be doing?
Just so I’m not misunderstood, I’m aware that there are many people who find in-person interactions difficult and stressful. When I say it ‘just happens,’ I really mean ‘for most neurotypical people, much of the time.’ ↩︎
Isabel V. Sawhill, Social Capital: Why We Need It and How We Can Create More of It, Brookings Institution, July 2020. ↩︎
Darcy Jacobsen, Social Capital: What It Is & Why Your Employees Need It, Workhuman, 13 January 2015. ↩︎
Margaret Heffernan, ‘The secret ingredient that makes some teams better than others,’ ideas.ted.com, 5 May 2015. ↩︎
Neil Franklin, ‘Remote working productivity will slump as firms burn up their social capital,’ Workplace Insight, 6 July 2020 ↩︎