More than a year into the Covid-19 pandemic and WFH, new research from Microsoft shows that employees and teams are becoming much more siloed. In particular, connections with people outside our immediate teams has shrunk dramatically, leading to fewer places to connect around innovative ideas and fewer opportunities to build social capital.
We know it’s been a while, but do you remember bumping into colleagues in the office hallway, chatting about weekend plans or a big project you’re working on? Do you recall finding yourself in the right place at the right time, giving someone a missing piece of information or introducing a colleague to someone new? If you’re like many people, you may not have realized how much these conversations mattered until you found yourself working from home.
These informal interactions are key to what’s known as social capital — benefits people can get because of who they know. You rely on your social capital every time you’ve hit a dead end and someone pitched in to help you, even though they didn’t have to. It shows up when you need expertise and someone you’d only met once was able to offer it. You also help others build their social capital when you go above and beyond to support them with knowledge, mentoring, or kindness. And the reason you can turn to someone else and offer extra help is that you’ve built a base of familiarity and goodwill through these unplanned interactions that once filled our workdays.
Social capital is also critical to a thriving workplace more broadly, for both employees and organizations. It helps knowledge and information flow. It spurs new ideas and energizes our thinking. And it contributes to lower absenteeism, lower turnover, and better organizational performance.
The shift to remote work, however, has changed the nature of social capital in organizations — and not necessarily for the better. While employees report more meetings than ever, they also report more isolation and less connection.
This year, teams across Microsoft (including ours) have conducted over 50 studies to understand how the nature of work itself has changed since early 2020. Microsoft’s annual Work Trend Index is part of this initiative and includes an analysis of trillions of productivity signals — think emails, meetings, chats, and posts — across Microsoft and LinkedIn’s user base. It also includes a survey of more than 30,000 people in 31 countries around the world.
One of the biggest and most worrisome changes we saw across these studies was the significant impact that a year of full-time remote work had on organizational connections — the fundamental basis of social capital. People consistently report feeling disconnected, and in studying anonymized collaboration trends between billions of Outlook emails and Microsoft Teams meetings, we saw a clear trend: the shift to remote work shrunk people’s networks.
Specifically, at the onset of the pandemic, we saw that interactions within close networks increased, while interactions with distant networks diminished. As people shifted into lockdown, they focused on connecting with the people they were used to seeing regularly, letting weaker relationships fall to the wayside. Simply put, companies became more siloed than they were pre-pandemic. And while interactions with close networks are still frequent, we’re seeing that now — one year in — even these close team interactions have started to diminish.
Microsoft Teams chats reveal a similar trend. Between April 2020 and February 2021, the number of people posting chats in a Teams channel — designed to include the whole team — have decreased by five percent. In contrast, the number of people posting small group or one-on-one chats has increased by 87%.
Strong workplace relationships matter for many reasons, and the Work Trend Index identifies several of them. The survey shows that strong workplace networks impact two things critical to the bottom line: productivity and innovation. On productivity, people who said they feel more productive also reported stronger workplace relationships than those who don’t. They also feel included on a typical workday. On the contrary, those who said their interactions with colleagues have decreased this year were less likely to be thriving at things that lead to innovation, like thinking strategically, collaborating or brainstorming with others, and proposing innovative ideas.
The study also found that younger workers and those new to a company may be experiencing the pain of social isolation more. The past year has made it harder for new employees to find their footing since they’re not experiencing the onboarding, networking, and training that they might have expected in a normal year. These employees say their relationships with their direct teams and access to leadership are worse than those who have been with the company longer. Workers age 18 to 25 also reported more difficulties feeling engaged or excited about work, getting a word in during meetings, and bringing new ideas to the table than older generations.
Read the full article here.