WFH – The Loss of Social Capital in Organizations

It’s time that organizations paid attention to the increasing loss of “Social Capital”.

In the last 6 months of my consulting work with organizations, the most commonly stated frustration of the senior leadership is ‘attrition’ and the challenges of ‘retention’ post Covid-19 and close to 2 years of WFH.

The problem is accentuated as organizations mull over the possibility of getting back their workforce to the office.  While some have mandated at least 2 days of work per week in the office, most are still tentative about the possible fallout.

As much as organizations were caught unawares dealing with the pandemic, most leaders are seen to be tentative in their approach towards getting work back to pre-covid times.  There is an increased level of social anxiety as a consequence of long periods of social isolation.

Organizations I presume were not prepared for the loss of social capital, which seems to have got systematically eroded due to WFH and the increasing use of technology-based interactions.

The biggest challenge is to rebuild the ‘Trust” in the workforce that seems to be currently unavailable due to the complete lack of informal social exchanges that was available pre-covid times.

Interactions that used to be face-to-face and based on long-established personal relationships are now being carried out over distance by automated systems, a process called dis-embedding. From this point of view, conducting more interactions using new technology rather than face-to-face can deprive leaders of opportunities to build trust.

To evaluate the potential of new technologies for enabling new forms of interaction without considering these undesirable consequences, trust and the conditions that influence it, can undermine the opportunities for development.

Inner conflict Anxiety, communication gaps, isolation, guilt, negative spillover between family life and work, and reduced productivity are some of the feelings employees are experiencing.  This is after the initial euphoria of increased productivity and flexibility that wfh seemed to provide.

Working from home does not facilitate the social and professional interaction of the employee, killing his/her most human quality. At-home workers can feel left out of interactions from office rumors to changes in company procedures, activities, or policies.

In a survey, it was reported that over 60 percent of respondents felt isolation was the major disadvantage of working at home. This physical separation reduces not only the amount of feedback that employees receive from clients, supervisors, or coworkers but also reduces its quality because non-visual communication reduces the nonverbal cues.  It has resulted in work from home employees missing the motivation of exchanging experiences and ideas with their colleagues.

The negative influence that work-from-home had on peer interaction and communication with managers and coworkers contrasts with the view of organizations as social systems whose basic structure is made of relationships among individuals. 

Employees sharing the same physical location develop alliances, learn through communication, and foster creativity through communication with coworkers through casual encounters around the coffee machine and elsewhere.  That is sorely being missed. 

Studies show that using e-mail and other electronic means to socialize was positively related to social isolation, depression, and loneliness, indicating that e-mail is not as good a communication channel as it is face-to-face. 

Face-to-face or organic systems involve more managerial information, two-way communication, and advice rather than instructions, decisions, and orders that electronic media ends up with. 

The fact is that organizational leaders were not prepared for the problems arising out of increasing levels of interactions through the electronic medium.  Their communication styles via email or other online mediums did not account for the ‘lack of’ personal face-to-face interactions and the benefits that used to come with it.  In a substantial portion of the communication, the personal touch went missing – eroding ‘trust’.  Employees started to receive more instructions and one-way communication and were subjected to increased levels of monitoring by managers which led to social distancing.  The result – is a more emotionally drained employee leading to erosion of the social capital in organizations.

Organizational leaders need to take a long hard look at their work culture.  It is a key component of why people stay at workplaces and the social capital gained from formal and informal gatherings is priceless.

It’s time that organizational leaders paid attention to the extent of their social capital.  You don’t want to be caught unawares!
Do you want to assess your ‘Social Capital’? 👇🏽

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