Rebuilding social capital will be one of the biggest challenges

by Patrick Evans, Managing Director at Citigate Dewe Rogerson

The past year has seen a cultural revolution that is having a profound effect on the way we live, work and interact.  Thanks to Covid, one day we were working to the same routine we had become used to over the years, the next day we were working from home, alone.

In the first lockdown, there was a phase of euphoria about home working for those lucky enough to be able to do it. You were saving time on commuting and could plan your day to suit yourself.  As the months pass, it is becoming clear that meeting colleagues and clients is just as important to job satisfaction as having a little more spare time.

These personal relationships are an important part of the company’s social capital.  In the first few months of working from home we were not too concerned about the erosion of social capital because online communications allowed activity to be maintained, and in some cases improved by increased efficiencies and cost reductions.

We can see the tangible benefits of the restrictions in terms of savings in time and costs of commuting and international travel. Dependence on physical location is decreasing and where you live is not so important anymore.

Communication professionals are just as susceptible to the downside of this new way of working. For example, it’s more difficult to enjoy each other’s company and on a more serious level, monitor colleagues’ mental and physical health.  Stimulating innovation is tougher, as is absorbing new blood.

Chatting, laughing and debating with colleagues are the main ingredients in establishing and maintaining a company’s culture. You may learn more next to the coffee machine than alone at your desk.

How can you tell the state of mind of a friend or colleague online?  If a colleague is worried about something, they may mention it over a coffee but not want to discuss online.  Personal problems can only become evident when it is too late to address them. In the UK, almost two in three workers feel that their mental health has suffered in the pandemic.

Working from home stifles innovation as online communications can inhibit spontaneity.  As much as 90% of human communication is non-verbal and that is missed over a video or telephone call.  You might disagree with something being said in a virtual meeting but feel uncomfortable raising this in front of others.  It’s harder for colleagues to judge how well the message is being received in the absence of feedback from body language. 

Problems arise when new people are introduced into the business as they don’t have relationships and connections either with colleagues or suppliers and clients. Normally, new employees learn more from watching experienced people operate than they do from formal training. Also, the company is not benefitting from the new skills and ideas they are bringing to the business.

Equally important are external communications with clients and suppliers. To a large extent our business is dependent on personal relationships. Contracts can be clinched by Zoom or Teams but take longer and are more difficult without face-to-face meetings.

The effect of losing face-to-face meetings may not show up immediately because, initially, we can draw down on the social capital of pre-Covid relationships.

Regardless of how long it takes to overcome the pandemic, more business will be done online, and certain restrictions will become permanent.  We must learn how to rebuild social capital in this new environment.  Remote management will be a challenge and new types of leadership skills are needed.  

There is a balance to be struck between the cost benefits to an enterprise and the personal benefits of home-working and, on the other hand, the great loss of social capital and the consequent risks for long-term business sustainability and happiness at work.

There are still many areas in business that you can’t completely digitise so we must look forward to the time when we can invest in rebuilding or, more simply, meeting each other again and making new friends.  I think we can safely say that business will be more fun in future – but when that happens remains to be seen.

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