Social Capital Challenges Amidst COVID-19

Allowing time for more social interactions in remote work

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the management of social capital within an organization has become an extremely important topic for decision makers. This is particularly true for organizations where a significant number of their workers have shifted from a shared office space to working remotely—and where new-hire employees are going through the onboarding process virtually.

Understanding Social Capital
According to Social Capital: What It Is & Why Your Employees Need It, social capital refers to the function of individuals and social groups through interpersonal relationships. These relationships are ultimately defined by a shared sense of identity, belonging, social participation, norms, values, trust, reciprocity, cooperation, diversity, and increased mutual understanding.

In a traditional workplace, social capital is successfully built through the development of these elements between diverse employees. Social interaction involves individuals and groups spending time together, learning together, and generally growing closer to one another through shared experience.

Robert Putnam, considered the father of social capital theory, notes that the “value of all ‘social networks’ and the inclinations that arise to do things” for one’s fellow employees defines the level of social capital an organization has. Improved social capital through more numerous and higher quality relationships among groups and individuals creates value through greater trust, reciprocity, and cooperation. 

In understanding social capital development, two aspects become the main focus—who you know (quantity) and how closely you know them (quality). Typically, measurements of quantity and quality—with the goal of more higher quality relationships—are a good way to judge an organization’s social capital. Organizations with many employees who feel close to a wide range of their fellow coworkers should feel good about their levels of social capital. Organizations where most employees feel isolated, with few close coworkers, should be concerned and take action to increase camaraderie and team cohesion.

The benefits to an organization from more positive social interactions and high levels of social capital are plentiful, and the evidence clearly suggests organizations should strongly consider the power of social capital within their decision making. Organizations that successfully build and sustain high levels of social capital are more likely to get employees aligned to their company culture, and more attuned to the goals of the broader organization.

For individuals, levels of social capital closely reflect one’s sense of purpose and belonging, as well as feelings of trust and safety in their workplace. Combined organizational and personal elements are likely to lead to improved performance outcomes, enhanced attraction and retention rates, and higher employee engagement. 

However, with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that many organizations and their individual employees may be facing a crisis if social capital is not managed properly. For many organizations, social capital has likely decreased because of the distance between coworkers. With few, limited, or even no opportunities to visit the office in-person, employees are more likely to struggle—both to maintain and deepen their existing relationships, and to develop new ones.

For new-hire employees—who perhaps were onboarded virtually and now work remotely—building relationships can be particularly challenging. The number and quality of relationships they build is limited by the interactions they have through virtual tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, and through email or other digital communication tools. Overall, employees restricted to working remotely—or with very limited access to the workplace—face barriers to building social capital effectively.

How Do We Rebuild Social Capital Virtually?
Decision makers—with input from various stakeholders at all levels of the organization—should take concrete action to build better relationships among employees. This is key to successfully rebuilding social capital within an organization during challenging times.

  • Organizing more frequent one-on-one conversations, perhaps without a specific agenda, between members of a team is a good way for employees to deepen their relationships. For new-hire employees, this time offers them a chance to meet the team and perhaps spark some crucial connections for rapport and trust.
  • Casual team happy hours at the end of day, even if for just 30 minutes, are a great way to celebrate a team achievement or close out the week together.
  • More frequent shared social recognition occasions celebrating team members from time to time allow an increase in employees’ time spent together while empowering and motivating them at the same time. Recognition and other expressions of social support also deepen coworkers’ appreciation, trust, and general emotional ties to one another—which contribute to positive social capital gains.

Enhancing social capital is about providing employees with time to spend with their coworkers through whatever resources they have available. Giving employees the freedom to socialize—and opportunities to learn more about each other—allow for deeper emotional connections during difficult times like the COVID-19 pandemic. Altogether, recognizing the importance of social capital—and successfully managing social capital challenges within an organization—is key during challenging times and can make all the difference in an organization’s success.

In the age of work-from-anywhere and virtual new-hire onboarding, starting a new job without meeting or training in-person comes with a number of challenges. In our research brief, The Virtual New-Hire Experience, results indicate that a well-run virtual new-hire or work-from-anywhere program acknowledges the importance of social capital and recognizes the full breadth of benefits and challenges remote workers face.

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