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10 ways to improve social capital in remote teams

Many people report feeling isolated and disconnected from what is happening in the organisation when they are remote workers. They are no longer immersed in the social environment of the workplace, they don’t get to experience and observe the regular office interactions, and the mechanisms that would normally shape and reshape social capital are missing or different. It is not that social interaction does not occur; it just happens differently. This creates challenges for a range of factors related to social capital, including sense of belonging and identity, solidarity, trust and norm development.

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted traditional patterns of interaction within organisations with important consequences for social capital. The way people interact in an organisation influences the organisation’s social capital, and this has important implications for a range of factors such as motivation, productivity, efficiency, effectiveness, innovation, creativity, and problem-solving.

Below are some ideas for how to improve social capital in remote working teams.

1. Regular connection

Deliberately touch base with your network on a regular basis. The frequency of contact with each person can vary depending on the nature of the relationship and the roles, personalities, etc. involved. Connection should ideally be natural and spontaneous, but we don’t always remember or think to contact people, so you can use lists or schedules until patterns are established. Don’t wait to contact someone until you want something from them. Taking the time to reach out and nurture the relationship is an important investment in social capital.

2. Virtual open door

There are many ways you can make yourself more approachable so that other people can interact with you. In many organisations, people assume everyone is too busy to be social and that being social will just be another meeting in an already full schedule. You could try having blocks of time when you make it known to your network will be on a Zoom or Teams session and that people know they can connect ad hoc, without an appointment. When no one is connected, you can continue working in the background.

3. Replicate social events

It is common for remote teams to get too task-focused, and they often miss out on the more informal social interactions that are commonplace when working in person. Remote workers often miss out on the informal lunch outings, socialising in the tearoom, and casual drinks after work. One way to overcome this is to make some interactions purely social by making them about non-work-related topics or events. You could ban any talk about work, or this may not be necessary. The key is for the focus to be explicitly something other than work. These types of interactions happen naturally in the office but can be overlooked in remote working. Some people find it difficult to justify non-work social activities, and if they are not fun and engaging, they can feel like ‘just another work meeting’. You could focus the interaction on an interest or topic, or you could play games, such as trivia games.

Social capital in remote teams

4. Rapid connection and disconnection

Many remote working environments use traditional meeting schedules with large blocks of time (often 30 or 60 minutes). In some situations, it is useful to change the norm to allow for rapid and frequent connections by video, phone, or instant message. This may require establishing clear guidelines or norms for when and how this can or should happen, so important work is not constantly being interrupted. With some effort, appropriate and effective norms can be established. I have heard of some teams dispensing with formalities and limiting the start of conversations to “hi”, and the end to “bye” rather than the longer conventions of asking “how are you” and making small talk.

5. Briefing and debriefing “meetings”

For many remote workers, meetings can feel like isolated events without context or reflection. In-person meetings are normally accompanied by informal interactions before the meeting, as people walk in and wait for it to start, and after the meeting, as you pack up and leave the room. In-person, even during the meeting, there is typically non-verbal communication. For example, someone may shoot a glace at someone across the table or smile discretely in response to something. Most of this communication is missing in remote meetings. But it is possible to somewhat replicate some of the before and after meetings interactions by having short video, phone, or instant message interactions before and or after larger group meetings with people who are part of your inner circle. This helps to feel more connected to what is happening in the organisation and provides an opportunity for reflection and sensemaking between colleagues.

6. Break the meeting block

Don’t stay connected just because the meeting was 1-hour block. Stop the meeting when its goals are achieved (including social goals). Stay focused and productive, including productive social interactions. Many people, even in remote working teams, tend to just stay connected for the whole meeting and find other things to discuss. If you can change this norm, you’ll have more time to connect with other people in other ways and get more work done in less time.

7. Parallel work

Try connecting with co-workers on Zoom or Teams without an agenda, where everyone involved simply continues working and shares thoughts and ideas as relevant to do so. This can take time to get used to, but some people find this very valuable. You may need to discuss some guidelines because some people can be too chatty for some people’s preferences. This may not suit everyone, and you need to be sensitive to people’s personalities.

Generally, it is good to try to establish similar patterns of interaction as you would in an open-plan office environment. If your team hasn’t done this before, there are probably no social norms to determine what people should do. You may need to discuss the expectations and establish some ground rules or guidelines to help make it effective. Thinking of how this kind of thing would work in person can be helpful in designing a remote version that helps people feel connected, develops sense of belonging, and helps with information flows and a variety of other social capital outcomes.

8. Push up the social presence scale

In general, communication is more effective the more social presence is involved. Where possible and appropriate, consider a phone call instead of an email or a video call instead of a phone call. This improves the quality of communication and allows for improved social capital development. Social Presence theory argues that media differ in the ability to convey the “sense of being with another” due to the different abilities of media to transmit visual and verbal cues. Text-based media are towards the low social presence end of the spectrum.

Social presence scale

9. Reshape social sanctions for remote working

Social norms help to govern what is appropriate and desirable behaviour in an organisation, but norms develop differently in remote teams. The main reason is that the mechanisms that create and recreate norms, called social sanctions, are different in virtual interactions. Social sanctions are simply reactions of approval or disapproval in response to someone’s actions. Social sanctions enforce standards of behaviour that are essential for social cohesion and cooperation.

Sanctions in remote working environments are different because they tend to lack intimacy, connection, and the potential for physical intervention (including positive support and negative conflict). For example, it is possible to disconnect from Zoom to avoid shame or ridicule and other passive forms of social sanctions. Similarly, on Zoom, it is impossible to put your hand on someone’s shoulder as a gesture of support and solidarity. And on the negative side, it is not possible to physically confront someone over insulting behaviour – not that I condone violence, but the fact that everyone understands physical confrontation is not possible changes the dynamic of the interaction and the mechanisms of sanctions and, therefore, social norm development.

Social sanctions are important, but there are other signals of what is normatively appropriate behaviour. For example, having a clear organisational or team mission can create important behavioural expectations (as long as people buy-in to that mission). Consider the social sanctioning mechanisms that are important in your team and how you may be able to construct alternative methods by being more deliberate about the behavioural expectations you want to create.

Communicate differently in remote teams

10. Change the way you communicate

Where remote technologies reduce the opportunity for social presence, we can compensate by improving our ability to express our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. This may require changing the norms related to communicating intimacy. Improving empathy and emotional intelligence can help to overcome the lack of social presence. Where it is not possible to provide physical signals of support, like a hand on a shoulder, it is necessary to use words to communicate the same sentiment. However, in many modern cultures, people often lack the emotional intelligence or vocabulary to communicate these messages verbally, which would often be normatively inappropriate. This is because, normatively, many people would feel uncomfortable saying the things that a hand on a shoulder represents in terms of emotional and psychological support. The use of emojis, gifs, and memes may partially overcome these limitations. And fortunately, research suggests that both empathy and emotional intelligence can be improved with training, and it is always possible to improve vocabulary and the norms of how language is used.

Bonus idea: Can an understanding of social spaces help?

The term ‘social space’ was coined by Émile Durkheim and emphasised the idea that in human society, all space is social and that different spaces span the divide between “public” and “private” space.

An office environment has a variety of different social spaces, from private and semi-private spaces to semi-public and public spaces. This variety of different social spaces creates opportunities for different types of social interactions.

Privacy of office social spaces

However, the typical use of remote working technologies such as Zoom or Teams tends to create only public and private social spaces, with nothing in between. This is because most communications technologies are “single-channel”, which means it is either on or off, connected or disconnected, in-focus for all attendees or out of focus.

Privacy of virtual social spaces

What I mean by “single-channel” is that there is limited opportunity for multiple conversations or non-verbal forms of communication at the same time. During an in-person meeting, people may say something quietly to the person next to them. They may catch someone’s eye across the room and smile or nod or roll their eyes. These are semi-private interactions because others may overhear or observe the interaction. There is potential for many types and “channels” of communication to occur simultaneously in person.

Consider the types of interactions that typically occur before and after in-person meetings. Everyone tends to talk with each other as they enter, sit, and wait for the meeting to start, and the same after the meeting. These conversations are important semi-private interactions; they are often somewhat private, but they know others may overhear. Overhearing these semi-private conversations is important because it gives people background understanding of things happening within the organisation, even if they are not directly involved. It helps to shape their understanding of the social environment and, therefore, the organisation’s culture.

But these semi-private conversations are almost completely absent with the typical use of Zoom or Teams. It is impossible on Zoom to make eye contact with someone, even if people are using video because it is impossible to know who is looking at whom. It is possible to have private text-based conversations using private chat, but text-based communication has a very low social presence and is therefore not a very effective communication method.

The significant differences between the social spaces of remote working and office working environments create starkly different patterns of interaction. Most interactions in an office environment are somewhere between semi-private and semi-public, with relatively few being completely private or completely public. But the typical use of remote working technologies creates almost exclusively public or private interactions.

What does social space mean for social capital?

As discussed above, the lack of semi-public and semi-private social space reduces the amount of observation of the social environment. The consequence is often that people feel disconnected and isolated. They may have a reduced sense of identity and belonging and may be more uncertain about trustworthiness and what behaviours are normatively appropriate. But these are not the only problems; the ways social norms are created and maintained tend to be quite different to in-person office environments.

The above are simple ideas. You know your team and your requirements and can likely develop strategies that work best for your context. Get creative, change norms, and embrace new technologies that may help create different social spaces and bridge the frequently present divide in remote working.

In future, many of the challenges of remote working may be fully or partially resolved by new technological developments. We may be able to improve the social presence of communication technologies beyond even what is possible with video conferencing. There are exciting possibilities in virtual reality, augmented reality, and hologram technologies. It may be possible to have remote multi-channel communication similar to in-person interactions. But for now, we need to find ways to use the technologies we have available to us to improve our organisational culture.

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