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With all the freedoms that come with remote work, there are also restrictions — things from the office that aren’t as easily replicated — that have a potential negative impact on our ability to work if we aren’t able to recreate them in the virtual world. One of the most notable restrictions is social interaction. When we work remotely, we miss the watercooler chats, hallway testings, quick coffee syncs and spontaneous meetups.
For some, losing this social aspect can actually help separate work from home. It encourages them to find friends outside of the workplace and avoid tying their identity to their work life. This can help better create work-life boundaries and management strategies for dealing with the stress of work. Limiting social interactions can even help with productivity and independent work.
Yet when you’re on a team, working within a company, your full-time job doesn't solely consist of independent work. You rely on your team to work together to reach goals, finish projects and even strategize for the future. When we work remotely, we may work away from other people, but that doesn’t mean our work is separate and doesn’t affect theirs.
Research from Microsoft, performed after a year of work from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, found that work from home silos us, particularly from interactions with those outside of our internal team. They found that people’s networks grew smaller while working from home, and team communication, even virtually, decreased.
Connecting with other people from other teams isn’t just practically important for company progress. Experts Nancy Baym, Jonathan Larson and Ronnie Martin from Harvard Business Review argue that these connections define social capital. In turn, social capital is crucial for succeeding at work.
Social capital is defined as the benefits we get from being social. In our daily lives, it’s when we are able to borrow a cup of sugar from our neighbor; our relationship with our neighbor allows us to save time and money because we’re friendly enough with them to call when we need help. At work, it’s being able to ask someone on a team for help or for a brainstorm; to use their expertise to help you achieve something at work, or offering yours to help them complete a project. Intra-organizational social capital can even motivate an employee to succeed and stay at a company over time.
Yes, social capital can mean making friends, but it’s not necessarily about finding your work wife, husband, partner or bestie. It’s about forming friendly relationships and well-meaning friendships, that in time can lead to working relationships that lead to career success for both parties.
Working remotely makes social capital rarer and harder to manufacture. But gaining social capital is crucial for elevating ourselves to the next level in our role and in our careers. The answer isn’t meeting up in person — of course, it can be, but there are ways at both an individual and company level to foster these relationships, and help build social capital in the long run, while working remotely.
Even if you’ve been working at a small company for years, you may not know everyone there, especially new hires. Start simple with short introductions. The best way to do this is to find time on that person’s calendar and schedule in a session. This will minimize the back and forth and ensure you actually get some time to meet them.
While introductions are a great way to get some background on someone you’re working with, they can often be awkward — especially over Zoom! The best way to build social capital at your company is to be specific with these introductions. Prepare questions you’d like to ask them about their role and work, and take notes. This will keep the conversation flowing and give you valuable information about what role they play in the company, and how it relates to yours.
Introductions are a great way to get started, but often they lead to dead ends. You don’t need to be regimented with your follow-ups, or even keep scheduling Zoom meetings to see this person again. Instead, follow up in small ways — asking questions based on something you discussed or sending something that reminded you of what they said (work-related or not!). Just like networking externally, networking internally requires action on your end to keep the relationship going.
When setting goals for the future, talk to your boss and team about infusing collaborative elements into your projects. Setting specific targets, whether that’s brainstorming with another team or having them work with you to get a project across the finish line, can help make collaboration a requirement at work, not something that only certain teams are privileged to do.
You don’t need to be jumping into every team activity at work, but showing up to virtual events, sharing funny videos in Slack or just emailing your team a relevant article are easy, low-pressure ways to get involved socially at work. Small interactions can build up over time, and make it easier to reach out to the coworker you’ve discussed Succession with when you want to ask a question about their team’s work.
Building social capital at work is more important than we think; it’s crucial not only to your success at work, but also the larger team and company’s longevity. Working remotely makes it harder to make friends and build that social capital, but all's not lost just because we want to continue working from home. Instead, being proactive and diligent about building that capital — and making it a core part of our work routine — can help us grow our networks, and grow our careers, too.
This article reflects the views of the author and not those of Fairygodboss.
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