Rebuilding social capital as we return to the office

Updated: Nov 9

As we emerge from COVID lockdowns around the world, many of the companies I am involved in have been considering how to structure working arrangements for this return to the office.

The shift to working from home over the past year has shown that most people can remain highly productive. This is thanks to the relationships, systems and processes that have been nurtured over years of working together – whether in offices, on construction sites, or elsewhere.

Social capital underpins your company’s culture and is made up of shared values, interpersonal networks and the respect, goodwill and reciprocity that build over time between people. I believe that most high performing companies have strong cultures that have been built on social capital.

In the workplace, social capital operates like a bank account. When you develop relationships and invest in teamwork you build up social capital, putting deposits into your “relational bank account”. Positive interactions at work build our account balance – working together on a project, solving problems, engaging in meetings and sharing experiences, or simply spending time together socially over a beer, grabbing a coffee or chatting in the lift.

This relationship bank balance between individuals and teams builds up over many years. (Stephen Covey explores the concept of an emotional bank account in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”).

Working from home over the past year has been mostly successful because we were able to draw down from this relationship bank account. However, we can’t draw indefinitely on the balance. We need to put deposits back into the account and we can’t do this effectively at home alone, even with the best online meeting tools. It’s impossible to develop a shared company culture, ensure alignment and create a motivated team over video alone. This is why it’s essential for founders and CEOs to be purposeful now about bringing their teams back into the office.

For new – and particularly young – employees the workplace is the best place for learning and professional development. Being technology-based, the companies I am involved with have generally grown and been hiring over the past year, so I know that anyone who has started a new job has found it tougher than usual to learn the ropes and get to know their colleagues. For one thing, learning from your manager and others becomes much more difficult remotely. Small moments of mentorship that happen outside meetings, around a printer or in the lunchroom are lost. And, while social interaction with peers can be somewhat replicated with Friday Zoom drinks or online trivia, it is no substitute for human contact.

What does the workplace look like post COVID-19?

Of course, there are benefits of working from home and many aspects of that are here to stay. We will now have more flexibility around where we work than we did before. Video meetings will continue, we will commute less, and we will reduce interstate and overseas travel.

However, if we are to replenish the balance in our relationship bank, in-person time in the office, with clients and at conferences is critical. This is especially true for high growth, fast-moving start-ups that have less “old DNA” to fall back on.

At Aconex, although a pandemic was the farthest thing from our minds, we were purposeful about our culture and believed that it could only be embedded through face-to-face meetings.

Our sales and customer success teams were by nature geographically dispersed, so we scheduled regular regional and global conferences to bring people together. Our executive team was also dispersed, so we brought everyone together at three global executive offsites each year and I, like the rest of our leadership team, saw regular travel to other offices as a core part of my role. This was how we made deposits into our relational bank account.

My favourite company event was, without doubt, our annual global conference. I loved catching up with the team from all over the world – new hires, old hands, senior and junior, from all walks of life and most parts of the business. We shared our vision and strategy. We learned together and solved problems as a team. Most of all, we worked on our shared culture and had fun together. These conferences generated enormous energy and helped drive our growth.

They were an example of how face-to-face time:

  • Builds relationships within and across teams, professionally and socially. This was the reason we invested in social spaces and occasions at Aconex

  • Nurtures a strong, shared culture

  • Provides a better learning environment, particularly for new hires

  • Enables more creativity and cross-pollination of ideas between individuals and teams. Problems, opportunities and ideas can bump and collide to build better solutions

  • Provides time and space for problem solving. Brainstorming remotely on video is nowhere near as powerful. Solving complex problems needs the deep exploration that only comes from time together.

As we return to something approaching normal, leaders need to carefully design how their teams come back to the workplace. Clearly, the extremes of everyone working either in the office or remotely are unlikely to make sense and a blended model is where most companies will land. But it’s important not to end up with the worst of both worlds – being partly back in the office but with little connectivity. This can easily happen if co-located teams never overlap, or if days in the office become completely random. The best outcome will be for staff to have more flexibility, but not complete flexibility.

Key design considerations:

  • Structure teams around core working days. For example, two days at home and three days in the office. It might make sense for Sales and Marketing to overlap one day, Sales and Product another, and Product and Engineering, in turn.

  • Establish core working times when everyone in the same time zone is expected to be available for meetings – say between 9am and 3pm. The flip side is also setting non-work hours where people are not expected to be around – say after 6pm. It’s important for people to switch off, as one of the downsides of working from home is that work never stops, especially when a company operates globally as many successful Aussie tech firms do.

  • When setting up a meeting as in-person or by video, consider its purpose and which format will work best.

  • The past year has shown that shorter or operational meetings can be effectively handled online. One of the companies I have invested in, VendorPanel, has decided that if most people in such a meeting are at the office and a few are at home, everybody joins individually from their desk so that all get to participate equally.

  • On the other hand, critical meetings involving strategy, planning or brainstorming are most effective when participants can collaborate face-to-face. Complex discussions benefit from the more natural group dynamic that this provides. Remote attendees can dial in, but everyone needs to adapt their behaviour so that they do not become invisible listeners while the real discussion happens around the table.

  • When COVID restrictions allow, have companywide core office days – e.g. everyone is expected to be in on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, or on the first Friday of the month.

  • Invest extra effort to keep social events happening. For example, move Friday night drinks to Thursday if that is when most people are around.

For international companies, once travel opens up, bring your global teams together at conferences. This can probably happen less frequently than pre-COVID but I think it is important to invest in global, cross-company relationships again.

We all need to get back to the workplace and meet with colleagues so that we can start to rebuild the balance in our relational bank accounts. Strong company cultures are built on shared, face-to-face experiences and most people are keen to return to work for at least some days each week. Working remotely is here to stay. So purposeful design of working structures will ensure your company benefits from the new hybrid approach – the flexibility to work from home, coupled with the high impact that we see when teams work together in person.