An organisation is like a tribe. Every member has his/her own role to play, and together, they all contribute to the wellbeing of one another. If forced to stay indoors, the tribe may find it harder to communicate and avenues for discussion may degrade over time. When new members join the tribe, it becomes imperative for them to build new relationships and social capital.
The problem is that, there are no watercooler chats anymore. We are not going to run into our colleague from the other department any time soon. Newcomers who are joining companies virtually and working from home, will find it tough to seek out friends and acquaintances at the new workplace.
“Creating social equity in a virtual platform, is not impossible but quite hard. Most of these things happen not by design, but naturally, by spending time with each other.”
Anil Jalali, HR specialist, says, “In the current context, we need to be able to make up for the absence of personal connection at the physical workplace through creative, virtual means.”
That is why, organisations need to help their employees build social capital, which comprises networks of people and information, which help them learn, grow and get their work done. It contributes to their sense of fulfilment within the organisation. If we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, social needs of intimate relationships and friendship come before a person can fulfil his or her creative needs.
Why is it necessary?
When social connections between team members, whether from the same department or different, are strong and many, there is more trust, a higher flow of information and a cohesiveness for collective action. New joinees may find it hard to build trust in an environment where discussions are backed by an agenda and most conversations are work related. It is trust, which enables employees to share their problems with one another, talk about their bosses and help each other achieve their goals at work. An important part of that trust is reciprocity. It assures individuals that any favour handed out to a colleague will be returned to them in their time of need. It allows interactions to happen without any formality which can slow down the process.
If we imagine a new employee being enabled to develop new relationships at work, virtually, we can understand the kind of benefits this will entail, both for the organisation and for the individual. For instance, e-joinees are much more likely to be stuck in multiple problems at work. If they manage to build trust and a good rapport with their colleagues, it will allow them to be honest and cut through formalities to get right to the point.
If the e-joiners can expect a helpful, problem-solving approach from their peers and seniors, they may be more willing to report any problem they face without worrying too much about it. They will be able to ask their senior colleagues without feeling embarrassed or being accused of incompetence.
Building social capital is a soft skill with a hard edge because there is a business case to doing it.
First, it helps retain new workers and is a means for their engagement within the company. Let’s face it, an isolated and unsatisfied worker will hardly be the best person to provide results. Nobody would like to lose good talent during this period.
We are living in a difficult era, when coordination and communication are of utmost importance. If there is a lack of effort from the organisation’s side to facilitate such relationships, driving the business forward will be a challenge.
Second, it promotes learning. Structured learning initiatives can rarely hope to be as successful or powerful as informal learning avenues. More than putting new joinees in a programme right away, helping them connect with other employees will prove far more fruitful.
Third, it will help build emotional support and a sense of belongingness for the newbies. Farther down the road, this will go a long way to facilitate innovation for the company, which is essential to thrive and survive in today’s world. If the goal is to create a culture where people feel comfortable taking risks and thinking outside the box, a level of trust and emotional safety is necessary. Without it, new joinees will struggle to connect, understand, innovate or grow inside the company.
“Senior leadership needs to make time to connect with employees. It may increase the pressure on them, but it is the need of the hour and will prove to be time well spent.”
How to do it?
Granted, helping create social capital is an intangible concept, however, it is an important one.
Naresh Kumar Puritipati, director-HR, Lactalis India, agrees that today’s way of working has made it tougher for organisations to facilitate working relationships for the newcomers. “Creating social equity in a virtual platform, is not impossible but quite hard. Most of these things happen not by design, but naturally, by spending time with each other,” he adds.
It is true that unless employees intentionally decide to build new relationships at work, such intentions are a difficult proposition for companies to implement, especially in the current context.
However, there can be three ways starting points for organisations to drive the agenda forward.
One, as it is in most cases, the message needs to come from the top. Leaders need to interact with the new joinees, or have a session with them, for maybe an hour every week. A message from the senior leadership helps to set the tone going forward.
“Senior leadership needs to make time to connect with employees. It may increase the pressure on them, but it is the need of the hour and will prove to be time well spent,” opines Jalali.
Two, existing programmes such as ‘mentor-mentee’ or ‘buddy programmes’ can be tweaked to work in the virtual office. Although these may be a single point of contact for the newcomers, they may prove to be a good starting point leading to other relationships.
Three, organisations can use other methods in their arsenal to help new employees build social capital. For instance, peer-to-peer or community-learning sessions are organised in many companies. These can give the e-joinees a platform to speak and express themselves immediately. The increased confidence from such sessions can spark conversations among co-workers, paving the way for new relationships to be forged.
Social capital is important to retain talented people in an organisation. When new people enter a company, they are initiated into the culture, and over time, start to recognise themselves as a part of the whole. The current crisis may have cut short our ability to build relationships as before, but it has not made it impossible in any way.