Google and Apple are wrong: Hybrid and remote work won’t keep employees from building ‘social capital’

April 19, 2022, 9:30 AM UTC
Businessman on video call from home office
Companies that adopt a hybrid-first model “will seize competitive advantage,” writes Gleb Tsipursky, “and old-school companies will be left in the dust in the war for talent.”
Courtesy of Getty Images

Google recently announced its new post-pandemic work policy, requiring employees work in the office for at least three days a week. That policy goes against the desires of many rank-and-file Google employees. A survey of over 1,000 Google employees showed that two-thirds feel unhappy about being forced to work in the office three days a week; in internal meetings and public letters, many have threatened to leave, and some are already quitting to go to other companies with more flexible options.

Yet Google’s leadership is defending its requirement of mostly in-office work for all staff as necessary to protect the company’s social capital, meaning people’s connections to and trust in one another. In fact, according to the former head of HR at Google, Laszlo Bock, three days a week is likely to be just a transition period. Google’s leadership intends to require full-time in-office work in the next couple of years. Ex–Google CEO Eric Schmidt supports this notion, saying, “I’m a traditionalist” and it’s “important that these people be at the office” to get the benefit of on-the-job training for junior team members.

Google’s position on returning to the office for the sake of protecting social capital echoes that of Apple, which is requiring a three-days-in-office workweek. That company is similarly meeting with employee discontent, with many intending to leave if forced to return.

By contrast, plenty of other 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 NationwideDeloitte, and Applied Materials. Are they giving up on social capital?

Not at all. What forward-looking companies are discovering is that hybrid and even fully remote work arrangements don’t automatically lead to losing social capital.

However, you do lose social capital if you try to shoehorn traditional, office-centric methods of collaboration into hybrid and remote work. That’s why research findings highlight how companies that transposed their existing pre-pandemic work arrangements onto remote work during lockdowns lost social capital. 

Yet studies show that by adopting best practices for hybrid and remote work, organizations can boost their social capital. Two examples of such practices are virtual coworking and virtual watercoolers. I developed these strategies based on extensive research on how people function best in a hybrid-first model. Having applied them in helping 18 organizations transition to a hybrid-first model, including several Fortune 500 companies, I am confident they are battle-tested. Here’s how they work:

Virtual coworking

Virtual coworking offers many of the social capital benefits of in-person coworking without the stress of the commute. The process 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. Occasionally, issues might come up that would benefit from a brief discussion and clarification. Often, team members save their more complex or confusing tasks to do during a coworking session, for just such assistance. 

Sometimes team members will just share about themselves and chat about how things are going in work and life. That’s another benefit of a shared cubicle space, and virtual coworking replicates that experience.

The virtual watercooler

Another excellent technique for a hybrid or fully remote format is the virtual watercooler, to replace the social capital built by team members chatting in the break room or around the watercooler. Each team establishes a channel in their collaboration software—such as Slack or Microsoft Teams—dedicated to personal, nonwork discussions among 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 encouraged to post photos or videos as part of their answers. They are also asked to respond to at least three other employees who made an update that day. Most of these questions are about life outside work, and they aim to help people get to know each other. They humanize team members, helping them get to know one another as human beings, while building up social capital.

There is also one work question (No. 3 on the list), focusing on helping team members learn what others are working on right now. That question helps them collaborate more effectively.

Then, during the day, team members use that same channel for personal sharing. Anyone who feels inspired can share about what’s going on in their life and respond to others who do so. The combination of mandated morning updates with the autonomy of personal sharing provides a good balance for building relationships and cultivating trust. It fits the different preferences and personalities of the company’s employees. 

* * *

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 when leaders who self-identify as “traditionalists” stick their heads in the sand and refuse to budge from their office-centric traditions.

Google, Apple, and similar traditionalist companies are refusing to adopt best practices for hybrid and remote work such as virtual coworking and virtual watercoolers, 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 to build social capital and recruit excellent staff. These companies are adopting a hybrid-first model, instead of trying to incrementally improve on the office-centric model. Such companies will seize competitive advantage, and old-school companies will be left in the dust in the war for talent.

Gleb Tsipursky is a behavioral scientist, CEO of future-proofing consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, and author of Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage.

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