Remote work and the collapse of the social network (no, not that one)

There’s a missing link in today’s workplace that’s harming productivity and undermining loyalty to employers: the social connections we used to make in the office.

happy workers group men women thumbs-up

We’ve been practically living (and working) on video for the past 20 months or so, and I’ve written about some of the problems that have cropped up involving employee engagement, management, and the need for side conversation tools. When thinking about the “Great Resignation” and the massive number of employees looking to leave their companies, I see another issue emerging. 

People are not developing relationships at work and, as a result, they are less loyal to their employer. It’s an issue built on top of other concerns such as effective mentoring and a near complete collapse of internship programs. 

Let’s explore this problem, which is likely to be particularly pronounced during the holidays. 

The lack of a social network

There are a variety of secondary benefits to working in an office that we often take for granted. These include the creation of mentors, developing new friendships, being made aware of unpublished opportunities, internship opportunities, and even being part of the internal rumor mill (so you know what’s going on behind the scenes). 

Many people have been able to maintain relationships while working remotely. But relationships that were often defined by lunch-time get-togethers or break-room chats are becoming infrequent, if they happen at all. For instance, the practice of going to co-workers’ homes for dinner has all but evaporated. In addition, it’s usually a few key people in the office who actively put together birthday celebrations, organize group events, and generally build the camaraderie critical to a healthy functioning company. 

With these mini-events no longer happening, organizers feel ineffective and dissatisfied, and companies can lose the human glue that keeps teams together. It’s an ugly dilemma; we know some people are leaving when asked to return to the office, while others may be leaving because they aren’t in the office and no longer have the deep ties that bind them to the company. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t get people back in the office. It’s a challenging problem to fix. 

Social media or MMORGs to the rescue?

It would be nice if social media, which initially seemed to be designed to deal with these kinds of issues, might be an answer. But operations like Facebook have become cesspools of divisiveness and political rants. That evolution has appeared to drive people apart, making social networks (with LinkedIn a possible exception) more of a problem than a benefit. 

Video gaming, notably massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), has become one way of keeping some team members engaged. However, that engagement likely favors those who were already gaming (and men in particular), while leaving others on the sidelines; that, in turn, can lead to problems with professional advancement and mentoring. 

There is a class of games called Party Games. The Jackbox Party Pack is one example that could be used for small team building, but it hasn’t been presented in that light and doesn’t seem to be in wide use. These games are inclusive and fun, so they may need to be revisited as employees become less and less tied to their current employment.

As companies ramp up employee acquisition efforts to deal with what appears to be a chronic worker  shortage, finding a way to reengage socially and safely with remote employees to retain them becomes critical. Employees with friends at work are reticent to lose those friends. Many employees who don’t develop these friendships are more likely to leave — or be passed over and unhappy in their employment. That can lead to chronic underperformance.

Remote relationships?

As we advance through this new normal, where remote work is more norm than exception, we must find ways to create relationships with our co-workers. These networks are critical to employee contentment, loyalty, advancement, mentoring, interning, and they are one of the most effective defenses against the Great Resignation. These connections tended to happen organically in the past, and, sadly, we took them for granted. 

Now they happen rarely, leaving employees less tightly tied to their companies, teams, and managers than they once were. If we don’t prioritize fixing this, the Great Resignation will be more significant and longer-lasting than it should be, and we’ll undoubtedly see an increased long-term drag on productivity related to collaboration. People who don’t know each other well don’t tend to work together well, and we need that collaboration to be productive and successful. 

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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