The Google Myth of Loss of Social Capital in Hybrid Working

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Google recently announced its new post-pandemic hybrid work policy, requiring employees to work in the office at least three days a week. This policy goes against the wishes of many rank-and-file Google employees. A survey of more than 1,000 Google employees showed that two-thirds feel unhappy about having to be in the office three days a week, with many threatening to leave in internal meetings and public letters, and some have already resigned to go to other companies with more flexible options.

Yet Google’s management defends its requirement of primarily office work as necessary to protect the company’s social capital, that is, people’s connections and trust in each other. In fact, according to former Google human resources manager Laszlo Brock, three days a week is just a transition period. Google management intends to impose full-time work in the office within the next two years. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt supports the idea, saying it’s “important to have these people in the office” to benefit from the on-the-job training of junior team members.

Related: Why Proximity Bias Is Keeping Leaders From Excelling in the Age of Hybrid and Remote Working

Google’s position on returning to the office for the sake of protecting social capital echoes that of Apple, which imposes a three-day work week. Likewise, he also faces dissatisfaction from the employees, many of whom intend to leave if forced to return.

In contrast, many big tech companies, such as Amazon and Twitter, are giving employees a lot more flexibility with plenty of remote work options. The same is true for many non-tech companies, such as Nationwide, Deloitte, 3M and Applied Materials. Are they giving up social capital?

Not at all. What forward-thinking companies have found is that hybrid and even fully remote working arrangements don’t automatically lead to a loss of social capital.

However, you lose social capital if you try to integrate traditional desktop-centric collaboration methods into hybrid and remote working. That’s why the research findings highlight how companies that transposed their existing pre-pandemic work regime to remote work during lockdowns lost social capital. Yet studies show that by adopting best practices for hybrid and remote working, organizations can build their social capital.

Why Organizations Didn’t Appreciate Hybrid Working

Leaders often fail to adopt best practices due to dangerous errors in judgment called cognitive biases. These mental blind spots impact decision-making in all areas of life, including business relationships. Fortunately, recent research has shown effective strategies to overcome these dangerous misjudgments, such as narrowing our choices by focusing on the best options available, such as using this comparison website.

One of these biases is called functional fixity. When we have some perception of appropriate practices, we tend to ignore other more appropriate alternatives.

Trying to transpose the existing modes of collaboration in the “office culture” to hybrid and remote working is a prime example of functional fixity. That’s why leaders failed to strategically address the issues posed by the abrupt shift to remote working in March 2020.

Another cognitive bias, related to functional fixity, is called the not-invented-here syndrome. It’s a leader’s antipathy to adopting uninvented practices within their organization, no matter how useful, such as external best practices on hybrid and remote working.

Overcoming these cognitive biases requires the use of research-based best practices. This means adopting a hybrid model first, with most coming into the office at least once a week and a minority entirely remotely. Achieving this requires creating a new work culture well suited to the hybrid and distant future of work.

Related: Why are so many leaders botching the return to office?

Virtual coworking for hybrid business collaboration

A critically important best practice is virtual coworking, which offers much of the social capital benefits of in-person coworking without the stress of commuting. Virtual coworking involves members of small teams working on their own individual tasks during a video conference.

This experience replicates the benefits of a shared cabin space, where you work alongside your team members, but on your own task. When team members have questions, they can ask them and get a quick answer.

This technique offers a wonderful opportunity for on-the-job training: the essence of such training comes from colleagues answering questions and showing junior staff what to do. But it also benefits more experienced team members who might need an answer to a question in another team member’s area of ​​expertise.

Occasionally, issues may arise that merit brief discussion and clarification. Often, team members save their most complex or confusing tasks to complete during a coworking session for such assistance.

Sometimes team members just talk about themselves and discuss how things are going at work and in life. That’s the benefit of a shared cubicle space, and virtual coworking replicates that experience.

Related: Burnout and Zoom Fatigue: Way More Complicated Than They Seem

The virtual water fountain for social cohesion hybrid work

Another great technique for a hybrid or fully remote format is the virtual water cooler. It aims to replace the social capital built by team members chatting in the break room or around the water cooler.

Each team has created a channel in their collaboration software, such as Slack or Microsoft Teams, dedicated to team members’ personal, non-work discussions. Every morning, whether they come into the office or work from home, everyone on the team sends a message answering the following questions:

  1. How are you overall?
  2. What has been interesting in your life recently outside of work?
  3. What’s going on in your job: what’s going well and what are the challenges?
  4. What’s one thing about you or the world that most other team members don’t know?

Employees are encouraged to post photos or videos as part of their responses. They are also asked to respond to at least three other employees who updated that day.

Related: Hybrid work will continue to exist indefinitely

Most of these questions are about life outside of work and are meant to help people get to know each other. They humanize team members to each other, help them know themselves as human beings and build social capital.

There’s also a work question, aimed at helping team members learn what others are working on at the moment. This question helps them collaborate more effectively.

Then, during the day, team members use that same channel for personal sharing. Anyone who feels inspired can share what is happening in their life and respond to others who do.

The combination of mandatory morning updates combined with the autonomy of personal sharing offers a good balance for building relationships and cultivating trust. It adapts to the different preferences and personalities of the employees of the company.

Hybrid and even entirely remote work does not necessarily mean the loss of social capital. These working arrangements only lead to weakened bonds if stubborn, traditional-style leaders try to impose old-fashioned, office-centric methods of collaboration in the new world of hybrid and remote working. No wonder Eric Schmidt says “I’m a traditionalist” when he argues for office work.

Conclusion

Google, Apple and similar traditionalist companies refuse to adopt best practices for hybrid and remote working such as virtual coworking and virtual water coolers, then blame hybrid and remote working agreements for the loss of capital social. People leaving Google and Apple because of their rigid working conditions are turning to more forward-thinking and progressive companies that are using best practices for hybrid and remote working to build social capital and hire great staff. Such companies will seize a competitive advantage and old-school companies will be left behind in the war for talent.

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