In a post-COVID world, “business as usual” is anything but. With 72% of people preferring hybrid workplace models, we are entering a “new world of work” that mixes in-person and remote time. People now enjoy reduced commutes and more time with family, but they’re also missing out on the human connection we took for granted when we were in the office full time.
A staggering 40% of U.S. adults have reported mental health issues (including anxiety and depression) through the pandemic, which is three to four times more than in 2019. The lack of in-person connection compounds these problems. For leaders who are often overwhelmed and exhausted, the challenge is to build and maintain interpersonal connections with and among colleagues in this new normal.
A company’s social capital, which is the networks of relationships that allow an organization to function, is its glue. Under normal circumstances, an organization’s essential social connections form organically when employees work in shared spaces and swap stories, chat about how business is going, or even complain about the culture. These informal conversations don’t just serve social purposes; they also help the organization by allowing workers to share ideas, devise solutions, and squash silos. Creativity, progress, and innovation all stem from these unstructured interactions.
For leaders, then, this new world of work poses an entirely new challenge: the need to intentionally cultivate connection and social capital across specific team members, functions, employees, leaders, and the wider organization. In a world of back-to-back videoconferences, leaders need to continue to find new ways to create connection in order to encourage engagement, effectiveness, and personal well-being—even though nearly 60% of leaders are feeling spent each day.
To build social capital in a hybrid world, leaders can work with their teams to implement these three habits:
Initiate one unexpected act a day
This is about the power of unexpected thoughtfulness. When we do nice things for others — such as supplying cake on a colleague’s birthday, providing a team lunch to mark an achievement, or making an introduction to help someone progress—it shows that we value and appreciate them. The combination of the demonstrated empathy and the surprise element helps to create a bond and trust among one another. Demonstrations of empathy and trust release oxytocin in our brains, prompting a cyclical reaction of behavior that begets more empathy and trust. The result is a more emotionally connected and invested workforce.
When planning to execute meaningful surprises in a hybrid landscape, creativity is essential. Did your 100% remote team just hit a sales mark? Send them all congratulatory gift cards to their favorite local coffee shops. Is it someone’s birthday? Schedule a quick Zoom party so those in the office can convene with everyone at home. Small, unexpected acts show team members how much you value them and will encourage everyone to do the same, building ever-deeper social capital in turn.
Create space for anything
Pointless space, or unstructured time, can be an antidote to the task-oriented feeling of remote work. It’s about setting aside time just for connection, innovation, and creativity. Pointless space is, of course, not pointless. In a face-to-face environment, those moments between formal meetings can result in the best ideas and meaningful conversations. Reserving a break room, setting a no-agenda time block on the calendar, or taking a few moments at the start of meetings to connect personally allows your team to depart from a task-heavy focus and demonstrates that connection and creativity are at least as important as checking off to-do’s.
Pointless space is also a great way to start refilling your company’s reserve of social capital that has likely depleted over the past couple of years. Midday breaks reactivate our brains, so schedule a midday group break in which everyone, no matter their location, takes a 10-minute walk. Afterward, hop on a call together or meet in the breakroom to share fresh thoughts and ideas. Holding this type of space shows your commitment to everyone’s health—including yours as a leader.
Take the initiative to build connection
In the past, leaders have shied away from discussing personal or sensitive topics (especially if they believe they can’t offer a solution), but research has shown employees need transparency, authenticity, and familiarity. Thankfully, the past year allowed for very real and genuine connections. In Zoom meetings, we peered into one everyone’s home lives and therefore saw each other as we all are: imperfectly perfect humans. That has opened the door for increased team intimacy.
Leaders who actively engage with their teams emotionally can combat social isolation and build more intimate social connections. With middle managers being 91% more likely to report trouble working remotely, burnout prevention is crucial, and that requires social connection. Leaders can share personal and anecdotal stories from their own lives, ask questions, and show curiosity about employees. This demonstrates empathy and active listening and creates safe spaces for everyone. Our workspaces might look different, but the vulnerability and support we offer to those around us can continue to grow.
Creativity and innovation stem from interactions with colleagues — not just formal meetings. By picking up these three habits, leaders can rebuild social capital within their organizations without overburdening themselves. With a little creativity, leaders can establish stronger social connections and help replenish their workforces’ social capital banks, not to mention their people’s spirits.
Jerry Connor is the head of the leadership practice at BTS, a global consulting business headquartered in Stockholm that’s dedicated to “making strategy personal.” Jerry is also the founder of Coach in a Box and is the author of “The Four Greatest Coaching Conversations.”
Laura Hughes is an executive coach and leadership development practitioner at BTS, a global consulting business. Laura works at BTS’s San Francisco office and has held strategic and operational leadership roles at startups and Fortune 500 companies alike.