The value and challenges of encouraging sociability at work

 

Keeping social while remote working

The lockdown continues to ease, and some sense of normal life seems to be coming back into view.

Work remains the outlier for many, however. Some companies have already told employees that offices will be closed until September at the earliest, and others (like Jack Dorsey’s Twitter and Square) have made remote working a permanent fixture. WFH will continue to be the new normal in some cases.

Most companies appear to be maintaining productivity in these times. But one thing leaders may not have considered is our innate sociability, and how vital workplace friendships can be to employee engagement.

The value of workplace friendships

Research by Eko suggests that positive workplace relationships are ten times more likely to keep you in a role than a pay rise. Qualtrics has made similar findings in Singapore.

This might prompt three questions for companies continuing to work remotely:

  • Whose responsibility is it to cultivate and nurture these relationships?
  • What are the benefits (and pitfalls) of doing so?
  • How best to go about encouraging remote workplace sociability?

Here, we’ve looked at each of these questions. Hopefully, you’ll come away with a clearer idea of what your organisation can (and should) be doing to put the “social” into social distancing.

Engaging your people

The most important aspect to consider is employee engagement and productivity. Motivation can no doubt be a challenge, especially as employees are in many cases surrounded by spouses and children.

Consider this: employees enjoying workplace friendships have been proven to be between 2x and a massive 7x more engaged! So employers actively supporting sociability will be doing themselves a favour. This is especially so as organisations content with furloughs, client uncertainty and the bleak economic picture.

Additionally, consider looking beyond the present to your business’s future. Employees who feel unsupported by their employers now will surely be less inclined to stick around when some normality resumes. With many businesses needing a quick bounce-back from the current hardship, strengthening workplace relationships will help you minimise turnover and build a platform for future success.

Video: Keeping it visual

To access this particular benefit, consider the value of video. As social animals, we’re naturally predisposed to pick up on more than just spoken communication. Video chats through the likes of Zoom, Slack or Hangouts give you a clearer picture of how someone’s feeling, with non-verbal cues another key indicator of your colleagues’ moods. These are likely to be inaccessible in a call or instant message. Lastly, and perhaps most obviously, there are few better ways to raise your mood than seeing the face of a valued work pal!

The unique experience of women

Many women, it’s been found, are particularly driven by work’s “social aspect”. Consider this Gallup data:

  • Two thirds of US women say that the “social aspect” is a core reason for why they work.
  • Women who strongly agree they have a work best friend are twice as likely to be engaged in their jobs than those who disagree (63% vs. 29%).
  • Women with a work best friend are more likely to take risks leading to innovation, more likely to report negative experiences, and less likely to be actively seeking another job.

None of this is to say that men don’t have similar feelings or experiences. But, in a scenario of social isolation, it’s clear that women could be disproportionately impacted. This is especially so for working mothers.

Pre-pandemic, female employment reached a record high. This was buoyed by thousands of mothers capitalising on more flexible working arrangements. Work (and its social aspect) offered a release from childcare and vice versa. These worlds have now merged. Although some schools look set to open soon, there are mothers now playing the role of carer, worker and teacher simultaneously.

This blurring of the lines for working women has surely made finding social outlets more vital than ever – if only to talk about their experiences with others in a similar position. Without this, mothers run the risk of burnout. Creating spaces for social interaction could, therefore, improve female engagement especially, while maintaining productivity and helping ensure your workplace remains inclusive and attractive to future female talent.

The pitfalls

So far, encouraging close workplace sociability appears a no-brainer as physical distance persists. But there are pitfalls to consider, such as:

Conflict

Conflict amongst teams can lead to innovation and greater success. But, when conflict arises amongst teams of friends, it’s been proven to actually hamper performance. When stress levels are high (as they surely are now for many), your ability to manage and channel conflict in the right way will be crucial.

Fatigue & emotional cost

Maintaining relationships at work can be difficult when hierarchical structures are introduced to the equation. The stress-induced by the demands of a manager who’s also a friend can be difficult to manage.

Potential outcomes: A happy middle-ground

Ultimately, we think there are two aspects to work’s social aspect that all employers can nurture.

Cooperation: Entrepreneur and writer Margaret Heffernan talks of “social capital”: the idea that encouraging basic qualities like helpfulness and authenticity at work can actually have a bigger impact on productivity than higher collective intelligence, for example. This stems from increased willingness to collaborate and iterate together. Here’s a great article on ways to boost remote collaboration.

Stress reduction: Not everything we do at work needs to be about work. Your people need space to decompress, especially now that the lines between home and work are nearly non-existent. Creating such spaces – even if it’s just a Slack channel or weekly video call – can relieve stress and ultimately boost productivity.

We’re not encouraging friendships for friendships’ sake, here. Instead, it’s clear that both your people and your business can benefit from a sensible, sociable middle-ground. One that encourages collaboration, mitigates stress and helps stave off loneliness while working from home. Ultimately, just because we’re in isolation, it doesn’t mean your people should feel isolated.

Individual behaviour is central to good workplace culture. Learn all about how you can better assess a candidate’s natural behaviour by booking a demo here.

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