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The value of remote sociability, in times of social distance


Author: Arctic Shores

Why do your people stay in their jobs?

Is it the salary? Perks? Your culture?

All absolutely valid points. However, as we adjust to yet another week of “social distancing”, it’s worth considering a fourth contributor. That is, workplace friendships. The daily joy of interacting with close colleagues.

This may be more powerful than you’d think. 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.

For employers like yourselves, this creates a conundrum. Now we’re in lockdown, to what extent is it your responsibility to remotely support and cultivate these relationships? What are the benefits (and pitfalls) of doing so? And, crucially, how best to go about it?

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. As your people navigate remote working – in many cases alongside their spouses and kids – their ongoing motivation is of course paramount to your organisation.

Consider this: employees enjoying workplace friendships have been proven to be between 2x and a massive 7x more engaged! So, while you could argue that they ought to manage their relationships in their own time, employers lending a helping hand will be doing themselves a favour. This is especially so as organisations battle to maintain levels of delivery, despite the widespread furloughs, increasingly rattled clients and a bleak economic picture.

You can guess the alternative here. A lack of employer support can lead to feelings of employee isolation, which will surely hamper their productivity and engagement.

Finally on this point, it’s worth 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 instead be a valuable way to keep turnover low and help you build a platform for future success. At a time of confusion and loss, this can be a win-win.

The unique experience of women

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

  • 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) provided a release from childcare, and vice versa. Now, these worlds have merged, while many mothers have also taken on the role of teacher too as schools and nurseries close nationwide.

This blurring of roles 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 such outlets, mothers run the risk of burnout. Creating spaces for social interaction will 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 try to implement.

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, ultimately, helps stave off loneliness in these times of distance. Ultimately, just because we’re all in isolation, it doesn’t mean your people should feel isolated.

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