What is social capital, and how can we maintain it if we are working from home? Geoff Trickey explains
During the pandemic, we learned what it is like to see our domestic and work routines transformed. The interlocking timetables of family life. The unexpected consequences of a remote lateral flow test on the friend of a relative who is a breakfast club helper, and the family of a breakfast club child whose mother must then manage the front office of the company she works for remotely, transferring calls between other company workers who are also juggling with the newfound complexity of their virtual and actual working lives. The amazing thing is that we have discovered how possible it all is! Virtual teams and offices had been waiting in the wings until they became essential for survival.
Many were exhilarated about the logistical aspect of this rollercoaster of change, throwing themselves into it with almost patriotic fervour. For others, there was apprehension about working in their flat with the dog, the budgerigar and the accumulating washing up, or in the family context of living room clutter and children’s toys, spending the working day dancing around their partner or other family members.
What is social capital?
Initially, when we saw the loss of personal workplace relationships as temporary, it may have seemed an acceptable sacrifice. However, according to a Gallup study, colleague relationships contribute to self-esteem and the feeling that you’re achieving your full potential. One in 10 couples meets at work, and employee satisfaction increases nearly 50% when you develop close work relationships. Such relationships may be established through casual conversations, long acquaintance, shared objectives and teamwork, moments of humour, contention, reciprocity and celebrations of shared success. These informal interactions are central to ‘social capital’, described in a recent Harvard Business Review article as “the benefits people can get because of who they know”.
Defined specifically to address networks and the nature of relationships within them (‘bonding’ social capital) and between them (‘bridging’ social capital), social capital theory highlights relationships that give impetus to the development and accumulation of group resourcefulness. From an evolutionary perspective, it is defined in terms of social relationships and the realisation of reproductive benefits. A stable family or kinship environment, for example, fosters the accumulation and transmission of skills, knowledge and traditions. At a personal level, we each play some part in the fruitfulness or fertility of the working environment. We are both contributors and beneficiaries. We each offer something at this level to the flow, momentum, progress and fulfilment of work objectives, whether this is voluntary, deliberate, or even conscious.
Seemingly insignificant interactions at work – daily salutations, comments on the weather, the cost and inconvenience of public transport, the day’s headline news – are cast in a new light. Even a muttered or monosyllabic utterance, an exchange of grunts, will contribute something in terms of recognition of acquaintance.
Traditionally, both public and private sector organisations have invested heavily in formal initiatives for increasing staff involvement, trust and commitment. These can include surveys that evaluate ‘levers of engagement’ such as affiliation, respect, communications culture and leadership; programmes facilitating anonymous feedback to managers and senior staff from peers and direct reports. Personal coaching, initially focused at the executive level but now pervasive, demonstrates wider recognition of the importance of interpersonal chemistry, as well as the belief that personal change is achievable.
Improving your social capital
Top-down initiatives of this kind are generally driven by management. Social capital covers similar territory, but with the emphasis on casual, informal, unscheduled interactions among staff. It is more organic, spontaneous and intuitive. How we get along with each other is a process of continual learning and development – and it’s personal. Social capital puts the emphasis on the individual, on self-awareness and personal responsibility. Everyone can improve their social performance in some way, and the onus is on them to do so. Here are four personal development strategies that can be useful – food for thought for anyone seeking to improve their social capital:
Neglected strengths: We tend to take for granted the things that come naturally to us. It might be that we are unusually imaginative, inventive, focused, intelligent, organised, empathic, logical, perfectionistic or sociable – or even just that we can sing in tune. We can easily discount, and neglect, any exceptionality simply because it has always been there. Step one is to identify your own version of this. The second step is to work out how it could contribute to social capital, and then how we can raise our game.
Incremental improvement: There will be many aspects of learned social or task-related behaviour where incremental improvement is easily attained. For example, those who are not naturally sociable can nevertheless become socially skilled. Most people need to make some effort to maintain social capital or contribute more to it. If you’re serious about it, deliberate, prioritise, set specific goals and review progress. Even small changes will, over the course of a year, aggregate to make useful differences in social capital. Remember, reading 20 pages per day adds up to 30 books a year.
Rein in excesses: In personality terms, whatever the trait, you can have ‘too much of a good thing’. That’s when confidence morphs into arrogance, attention to every detail morphs into indiscriminate and unwarranted perfectionism, an appealing sociability morphs into overbearing intrusions on personal space. Even agreeability, conscientiousness and imagination have their ‘dark sides’. Changes of this kind are accelerated by pressure, anxiety or simply failing to manage your social impression. Pay attention to the way others respond to you. Check you are not eroding their trust and commitment.
Deal with hopelessness: Let’s face it, in the world of personality there are trade-offs. No one can be everything! There are things you are never going to succeed at. The priority is to minimise collateral damage. How can you compensate for, or work around, your limitations? Step one: recognise the reality and face up to it. Step two: utilise all available supports, whether they’re in the form of people or technology. Step three: ringfence the site and mark it with warning signs and emergency tape. Step four: minimise your need for that aspect by delegating or renegotiating roles or responsibilities.
Social capital is distinctive in that it is fundamentally personal; it is about individual contributions, what we can offer and what we can gain from each other. It depends on natural differences in viewpoints, values and temperaments, and the tensions, conflicts and dynamic interactions between them. These are essentially informal and spontaneous. In the past, social capital has thrived in the corridors, by the coffee machines, in the lifts, in the canteen queues and on commuter platforms. Attempts to choreograph this complex chemistry may seem like an impossible challenge. We may have to rely on individuals to take responsibility, not only for their personal contribution, but for finding the spaces where social capital can gain a foothold, find expression and flourish.
Geoff Trickey is founder and CEO of Psychological Consultancy Limited