Written by roundPegz fellow Dr. Richard Claydon
Work from Home hasn’t been so bad so far. Productivity and engagement haven’t slumped. There’s some learning to be taken from that. Now the initial shock has passed, however, it is imperative we start planning for the short, medium and long term.
In the short-term, people will start feeling stir crazy. Humans are social animals. Our primal drive is to be social.
If we succumb to that drive, we will risk our own wellbeing and the health of our loved ones as well as potentially increasing the length of the lockdown to a dramatic extent.
If we don’t succumb then we risk reduced wellbeing and the health of our organisation. We will also discover that much organisational performance is underpinned by social connectedness. While productivity and engagement might have increased in the early stages of WFH, it is not a long-term solution.
We have no choice. We are going to have to learn to virtually connect.
The Human – A Social Animal
Aristotle first noted that “man is by nature a social animal.”
Today, neuroscience is revealing that our need to connect is as fundamental as our need for food and water.
This does not mean it is easy to socially connect. Unfortunately, “being social is far from easy, automatic, or infinite. Our (social) brains, (social) hormones, and (social) cognition on which social processes rely must first be triggered before they do anything for us.”
So while it is natural, social connection is also hard, even at the best of times. How can we do it well during a lockdown?
What is Connection?
Cal Newport, the associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of Deep Work, argues that we confuse connectivity and connection.
Connectivity is when we are logged onto a digital system that connects us with other members of our organisation or social network. It is the act of signaling and monitoring that we are present or active on a digital system. At work, it is logging onto the server to show we are working. It is the modern day equivalent of the time-stamp card, as is being visible on interminable email chains. With friends or acquaintances connectivity ranges from checking our social media feeds to designing a full-scale social media strategy that demonstrates how we are the successful winners in life.
For most of us, it is two things, either a shallow distraction from real-world tensions and demand, or a form of impression management in which we illustrate how hard we work or how wonderful our lives are.
Connection is different from connectivity. It happens when we are fully present in the company of others. When we listen deeply. When we open up and become more vulnerable. When we admit mistakes, ask questions, offer ideas and challenge one another. Connection strengthens social bonds and encourages new and different ways of thinking.
Unfortunately, even in the best of times we don’t do this well in the workplace. Most of it happens in liminal spaces such as the watercooler, in corridors, or during a coffee break. It’s not taken very seriously, but strip it away, and the consequences will soon become apparent.
A Systematic Prevention of Connection
The first thing to understand is why social connection is not taken seriously at work.
Forced Ranking Methodologies
One of the biggest obstacles in the workplace is the forced ranking system. Connection is a threat in a company that ranks its employees as A, B and C players, and routinely lays off the bottom 10%. In such an organisation an employee who admits a mistake is considered incompetent. If they ask a question, it is seen as a lack of knowledge. If they offer an idea, it can either be considered intrusive or, even worse, it may be stolen from them by a ruthless colleague. And if anyone challenges somebody’s thinking, they are supposedly exhibiting a negative attitude.
At its most extreme, such a system results in ambitious people developing sociopathic tendencies as they vie to be promoted over their colleagues. These people tend to be:
- Only interested in shareholder value
- Uncaring of redundant workers during cost-cutting/down-sizing
- Target driven
- Top-down focused
- Unwilling to change direction when emergent bottom-up data is presented
While such tendencies might indeed lead to promotion, they actively prevent social bonds from forming, resulting in a general loss of performance. They also create great risk because such behaviour leads people to cover up mistakes, not ask pertinent questions, hide ideas, and generally keep their heads below the parapet.
Our Efficiency Fetish
A second major obstacle is what the late Clayton Christen, originator of the concept of disruptive innovation, calls efficiency innovation. In essence, organisations looking to increase shareholder value, try to become more and more efficient ,via, for example, business process re-engineering, zero-based budgeting, just-in-time manufacturing, etc. Time spent away from productivity systems is deemed as time not adding value. For many knowledge workers, that means having to be connected to the digital systems rather than connecting with each other.
This attitude has resulted in connection opportunities being stripped from many workplaces.
- Spending time chatting over a coffee = NOT work
- Having coffee at the desk = work
- Having lunch with a colleague = NOT work
- Having a solitary lunch at the desk = work
- Going to afterwork drinks = NOT work
- Staying late logged onto the system = work
Basically, any time spent in the company of others now signals that an employee is NOT working. Consequently, many of us remain chained to our desks, covertly socialising with one another via texts, WhatsApp and other person-to-person applications.
Even meetings have been stripped of connection opportunities. They are so agenda-driven and either boringly routine or badly organized that attendees barely bother to listen to each other anymore. In the US, over two-thirds of meeting participants routinely check messages on digital devices during meetings. As a consequence, 46% of employees rarely or never leave a meeting knowing what they are supposed to do next.
Conference calls are even worse.
- 63% of people admit to reading and writing emails during conference calls.
- 40% drop out of the call without telling anybody.
- 27% have fallen asleep at least once.
We no longer seem to connect at work.
The Power of Social Connection
Why is that a problem? We are at work to work, not to socialise. Socialising should take place in our own time. Why should a company pay for its employees to drink coffee with a mate? What is the value of a cup of coffee?
The few bucks an organisation spends on coffee, coupled with the time colleagues spend drinking that coffee together, is seen as lost time; time when they should be doing far more productive things.
Alex Pentland, founder and director of MIT’s Connection Science project, would suggest otherwise. He argues that the value of a cup of coffee might lead to as much as a 50% increase in team productivity.
Hired by the Bank of America to improve productivity in its call centre, Pentland persuaded the bank to abandon its practice of having team members take breaks sequentially so the phones were always staffed. Instead, they took their breaks together, drinking coffee and eating lunch as a team.
This simple experiment yielded the company $15 million in productivity gains.
Employee engagement scores went up by 10%. Even the worst performing teams saw productivity gains of 20%. Over time, this regular social interaction improved overall communications by 50%. Furthermore, the simple act of extending dining tables so that more people could sit together increased overall organisational productivity by 5%.
Pentland’s research illustrates how an individual’s social group is positively related to productivity. It also illustrates that giving employees breaks at the same time, thus allowing them to chat face-to-face about work and non-work activities, increases the strength of their social cohesion, which greatly improves productivity.
What is happening?
- Shared stories – two things occur in such environments. The first is social bonding, which is when team members begin to understand one another more intimately. They share details of their family life, social life, likes and dislikes, and expose their personality traits as they chat socially. The second, which follows on from the first, is the development of a trusted sharing of work stories, and a social learning of how others have solved problems. In addition, larger tables increase the chance of others, not directly involved in a specific social group, still becoming part of a general conversation and thus sharing different perspectives and ideas.
- Liminal environment – a place that is somewhere between work and home. In Australia, which is leading the way in the design of liminal spaces, the foyers of office buildings double up as wine bars, cafes, food courts and meeting rooms, giving employees an easily accessible not-quite-at-work but not-quite-not-at-work space in which to have informal and semi-formal interactions. Such spaces can further enhance collaborative connection.
- Psychological Safety – Liminal spaces are also places where employees share organisational critique and work out how to translate their ideas into something that will engender a positive rather than a negative reaction from their managers
- Virtual and analogue connection – People who have indifferent interpersonal skills are far happier with an online methodology. Gamers, particularly, play longer when the level of communication is high. Others need the face-to-face connection.
All of these forms of social connection have a positive impact on wellbeing and the bottom-line, even if they don’t look like work.
The Hubs and the Glue
The second body of work to examine the power of social connection is social network analysis. Originating in Leonhard Euler’s solution to the Seven Bridges of Königsberg mathematical challenge in 1735, it is used by computer scientists and sociologists to examine how information flows through a system.
Within any networked system, there are hubs that connect vast numbers of spokes. In computer science, this underpins search engine technology. In Google search a first-page search result indicates a hub site, asGoogle traditionally ranks these more highly than sites with fewer connections.
In organizational life, vast amounts of information and knowledge flow through the most socially connected people.
Maclom Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, calls them connectors – “a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack [… for] making friends and acquaintances […who…] link us up with the world”.
Adam Grant, a professor of organisational psychology at Wharton and author of Give and Take, calls them givers – people “looking to help others by making an introduction, giving advice, providing mentoring or sharing knowledge, without any strings attached”.
In academic terms, the activities of such character types are clustered under the concept of Prosocial Organizational Behaviours, of which Organizational Citizenship Behaviour is the most well-known.
The problem is that while they add huge value to organizational performance, these people are so rarely appreciated that many of them remain beneath the organizational radar. For example, Dr Hilary Armstrong’s social networking analytical work illustrates that in most organisations 75% of the most socially connected employees do not appear on formal organisation charts. This means that three-quarters of the most vital knowledge and information sharing organizational communication occurs in informal or liminal settings, either face-to-face at water coolers and during coffee breaks, or via a range of freely available digital apps.
Not only do these socially connected employees act as vital conduits for information flow, they connect people who can help each other. They know who knows what as well as what people need, and speed up organisational activities by helping them find one another.
As this type of social connection and its value is rarely, if ever, captured, or measured accurately in conventional organizational systems, connectors and givers are routinely undervalued. As Adam Grant points out, many spend so much time helping others, they end up failing to meet their own KPIs, and are often the first to be let go during downsizing.
Rob Cross, the Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College and coauthor of The Hidden Power of Social Networks, argues that social connectors also risk burning out or breaking down, such is the collaborative pressure they experience. Paradoxically, this results in the highest value-adding employees in an organization becoming the most disengaged as they strive to manage the overwhelm.
These social connectors are also the glue in project teams. Capable of managing the complexity of interactions between disparate players in cross-functional teams and maintaining civil connections between them, they are, perhaps, the key ingredient of project success. However, because their devotion to social connection consumes their time, this affects the quality of their measurables such as coding or QA, something else that can make them first to go in a downturn.
Imagine all the People
As we move past the initial stage of WFH, organizations will begin to realise that information and knowledge flow is starting to dry up. Formal channels will not do the full job. Without comprehensive planning for and experience of wide scale remote working, maintaining a high-quality communication flow will become a serious problem. Productivity will begin to fall. Problem-solving will become more difficult. Innovation will dry up.
Furthermore, as people become stir crazy, psychological distress will become more and more commonplace. Whether they are worried about performance or employees, this is something all organisations must take seriously. Those that are shown to be caring and supportive will emerge with heightened reputations. Those that do not will struggle to attract talent as the economy rebounds. The knock-on could be enormous.
Every organization has employees who will soon desperately need some social connection. They have a role to play in facilitating this.
There are a number of tools and technologies that can help. In the spirit of collaborative connection, rather than tell you what they are, I will direct you to Joshua Davies’ essay on collaboration and connection tools.
Radically Remote Part 1: A Field Guide
It, and the follow up articles, provide the most thorough analysis of collaborative and connecting technologies I have seen.
I will, however, give some advice on how to use them.
Firstly, if you have video, activate it. I recently gave a Zoom webinar to 50+ people, all of whom had their webcams turned off. It was one of the most disconcerting experiences of my life as I had no way of evaluating how my talk was being received.
Part of being social requires seeing each other. So be seen.
Secondly, allow time for social connections. Check up on each other in order to alleviate tensions. Either build social time into a business conversation or set up calls specifically for that purpose. While the outcome is not measurably obvious, it is going to help employees and organizations in ways that are not immediately apparent.
Part of being social requires caring about each other. So care.
Thirdly, take steps to increase psychological safety. With informal and liminal communication reduced dramatically, vital information and knowledge flows will be negatively impacted. The only chance to hear them will be during video calls. If people are afraid to speak up, which is increasingly likely in such a heightened emotional environment, things that need to be heard might remain forever unsaid. In a chaotic situation such as this, that is an existential risk.
Part of being social is feeling safe to express yourself. So make things safe.
Finally, there is a real opportunity for some learning. As everybody is working remotely, organisations and managers will have an opportunity to take a very different perspective as they examine where value lies. The 75% of people flying below the radar will become increasingly visible as the organization struggles to cope without their connective activities. You’ll see the source of the strength of social bonds. You’ll find out who the information hubs are, and who glues teams together.
So be prepared to think and act differently.
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