The Myth of Losing Social Capital in Hybrid and Remote Work

Google recently announced its new post-pandemic work policy, requiring employees work in the office for at least three days a week. A survey of over 1,000 Google employees showed that two-thirds feel unhappy with being forced to be in the office three days a week, and many intend to leave.

Yet Google’s leadership is defending its requirement of mostly in-office work as necessary to protect the company’s social capital, meaning people’s connections to and trust in each other. In fact, according to the former head of HR at Google Laszlo Brock, three days a week is just a transition period. Google’s leadership intends to enforce full-time in-office work in the next couple of years.

Google’s position on returning to the office for the sake of protecting social capital echoes that of Apple, which is requiring a three-day work week. Similarly, it’s meeting with employee discontent, with many planning to leave if forced to return.

By contrast, plenty of large tech companies, such as Amazon and Twitter, are offering employees much more flexibility with extensive remote work options. The same applies to many non-tech companies, such as Nationwide, Deloitte, and Applied Materials. Are they giving up on social capital?

Not at all. What research shows is that you do lose social capital if you try to shoehorn traditional, office-centric methods of collaboration into hybrid and remote work. Yet studies show that by adopting best practices for hybrid and remote work, organizations can boost their social capital.

One critically-important best practice is virtual coworking, which gives much of the social capital benefits of in-person coworking without the stress of the commute. Virtual coworking involves members of small teams working on their own individual tasks while on a videoconference call together.

This experience replicates the benefit of a shared cubicle space, where you work alongside your team members, but on your own work. As team members have questions, they can ask them and get them quickly answered.

This technique offers a wonderful opportunity for on-the-job training: the essence of such training comes from coworkers answering questions and showing junior staff what to do. But it also benefits more experienced team members, who might need an answer to a question from another team member’s area of expertise.

Another excellent technique for a hybrid or fully-remote format is the virtual water cooler, to replace the social capital built by team members chatting in the break room or around the water cooler. Each team established a channel in their collaboration software - such as Slack or Microsoft Teams - dedicated to personal, non-work discussions by team members.

Every morning – whether they come to the office or work at home – all team members send a message answering the following questions:

  1. How are you doing overall?
  2. What’s been interesting in your life recently outside of work?
  3. What’s going on in your work: what’s going well, and what are some challenges?
  4. What is one thing about you or the world that most other team members do not know about?

Employees are also asked to respond to at least three other employees who made an update that day. Such questions and mutual responses humanize team members to each other, helping them get to know each other as human beings, and building up social capital.

So no, hybrid and even fully-remote work don’t have to mean the loss of social capital. These work arrangements only lead to weakened connections if stubborn, old-school leaders try to force office-centric methods of collaboration onto the new world of hybrid and remote work.

Google, Apple, and similar traditionalist companies are refusing to adopt best practices for hybrid and remote work such as virtual coworking and virtual water coolers, and then blaming hybrid and remote work arrangements for the loss of social capital. The people leaving Google and Apple due to their inflexible work arrangements are going to more forward-thinking, progressive companies that use best practices for hybrid and remote work to build social capital and recruit excellent staff. Such companies will seize competitive advantage and old-school companies will be left in the dust in the war for talent.

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