Rebuilding social capital is the next great leadership imperative

March 16, 2022, 1:00 PM UTC
Social capital unlocks siloed knowledge in an organization and helps employees feel supported in their day-to-day work.
Gabrielle Lurie - The San Francisco Chronicle - Getty Images

Over the past two years, our relationships at work have been strained by the COVID-19 pandemic, stress, and isolation.

Amidst challenges such as supply chain delays and the Great Reshuffle, rebuilding employee networks may not seem like a business imperative at first glance. However, it has profound implications in areas such as innovation and employee attrition.

Microsoft’s latest Work Trend Index reveals that social capital is suffering, and while our close ties are surviving, our broader networks have gotten weaker.

Rebuilding employee networks is a top priority for me–and a crucial element for leaders as we learn how to make hybrid work work, especially since our research found that 43% of leaders cite relationship-building as the greatest challenge of hybrid or remote work.

Rebuilding these social connections and strengthening employee networks will require greater intentionality than ever–and it could be the difference between a thriving organization and a struggling one.

Social capital fuels your business

Social capital is the value you get from your networks–from knowing the right expert to ask for help to having mentors to turn to. This value isn’t only transactional. These relationships create a sense of community, and help employees feel supported in their day-to-day work.

Social capital helps break down knowledge silos, inspires new ideas, and contributes to employee retention and career growth.

However, our data shows that only 58% of hybrid workers say they have a thriving relationship with their direct team, and only 48% say they have thriving relationships outside of their team. They also report feeling less supported, with 55% saying they feel more alone or lonely since the shift to hybrid/remote work. Cultivating a culture of inclusion in hybrid is especially critical for social capital, as remote employees risk being left out of in-person conversations or camaraderie.

The shift to remote work has had unexpected benefits for many employees from underrepresented groups, such as being able to limit exposure to microaggressions. According to LinkedIn, women are more likely to apply for remote roles than men. Our 2021 Work Trend Index also found that Black and African American, Hispanic, and Latinx employees are more likely to prefer remote work compared to their white colleagues in the U.S.

Leaders need to think differently about reconnecting all employees, wherever they choose to work. This will be unique to each organization, but there are three key areas where leaders can make a difference:

Make building social capital your stated priority

The data shows that many leaders still overlook the importance of social capital. While 48% of employees say they want to spend more time networking instead of on things like replying to emails, just 30% of leaders feel that networking-related activities drive business impact.

Managers and leaders need to create clear priorities to help employees focus on what matters most, so they have the time and energy to connect with each other. This can show up in small ways, such as during meetings. If the agenda is scoped thoughtfully, it leaves space to check in on each other at the beginning or end of the call.

Create intentional opportunities for new connections

Intentionality will be critical for reconnecting with all employees, especially those “pandemic hires” who may have never met colleagues in person or even been to the office. A majority of leaders (62%) are concerned new employees aren’t getting the support they need since moving to hybrid or remote work–and for good reason. Employees hired during the pandemic are more likely to be at risk of attrition.

Chance encounters like breakroom run-ins can’t be taken for granted in a hybrid world and connection needs to be more proactive–through mentoring programs, career exploration events, or discussion groups.

For employees coming into the office, we’re reimagining community-focused spaces for in-person connection and updating our collaboration spaces like hybrid meeting rooms to better connect on-site and remote participants.

Make authentic connections part of your culture

Strong networks rely on the psychological safety of employees to be their full selves. In fact, our research found that beyond pay, the top factor employees say is “very important” when choosing an employer is a positive culture. Leaders can set the tone at the top, such as by sponsoring employee resource groups and providing platforms for employee stories.

One way I personally put this into practice is by hosting an internal “radio show”, where I sit down with different Microsoft employees. It’s an opportunity for me, and our employees tuning in, to learn and build empathy for perspectives we may know little about, such as experiencing life as a Black LGBTQIA+ woman, or living with physical disabilities, and more.

As we enter this hybrid era, building social capital must be an ongoing commitment, not a short-term initiative centered on the return to offices, since many employees won’t be returning to the office at all.

Turning a dispersed workforce across time zones into a well-connected network will require leaders to embrace a growth mindset and create intentional time and opportunities for rebuilding the social capital we lost over the past two years.

Chris Capossela is Microsoft’s Chief Marketing Officer.

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