Re-Designing Organisational Working Arrangements: Pay Attention to the Impact on Social Networks!
Organisations are currently working to identify what the ‘new normal’ in terms of working arrangements should be both with respect to the impact on individual employees and on organisational key performance metrics. Questions abound around whether there should be a complete return to co-located working, some hybrid approach or whether to continue remote working arrangements. Additional questions include which cohorts of employees, teams, functions, operations these considerations apply. Organisations ask what is the magic combination of working arrangements that will be effective for all concerned- 2 days remote, 3 days co-located? whom decides which days?, which functions need to be co-located or remote in tandem? etc. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced organisations to re-design working arrangements and presented many unknowns which beg the question; what is the evidence for what will work best?
Evidence on consequences of remote working, hybrid and various combinations of such is minimal. We are in new territory. What is clear is that there is no one-size-fits all approach. Fundamental to all these questions should be consideration of how altered working arrangements and technology-mediated communication impact individual, team and organisational social relationships. There is significant evidence, in traditional working arrangements, identifying how work really gets done- through social networks. Social relationships are also central to knowledge sharing, learning, innovation and creativity. Relationships are vital for employee well-being, avoiding isolation, trust building and commitment to an organisation. Informal ‘water-cooler’ chats, pre/post meeting conversations, coffee catch-up’s, quick office drop-in’s and chance encounters are the informal wheels in organisations which achieve these outcomes.
Virtual technology-mediated communication is not a perfect substitute for face-to-face interaction and relationship building and research evidence shows this. It is more deliberate and planned. It is not as information rich as face-to-face communication. Some of the best available evidence on developing valuable social relationships identifies that we need close ties to build trust and cohesiveness such as those with close work colleagues and friends. This enables performative work- get the job done! As humans we tend to associate with people whom we perceive as like us. However, it is less likely that such relationships generate any new information or insights. Such close connections probably have similar backgrounds, knowledge and experience and therefore ideas that are similar. The evidence identifies that we need weaker diverse ties. We need to connect to otherwise unconnected others- reaching out into new groups or communities. Such relationships facilitate generative work like innovation, creativity and accessing novel knowledge. Additionally, we know that virtual project teams tend to perform better when there are early opportunities in a project to get to know each other face-to-face and build trust.
Here are some suggestions based on available evidence from which we can conduct the new working arrangements re-design process in a more informed way:
Building connections in these new working arrangements will require out-of-the-box thinking. But mostly it will require more deliberateness in terms of analysing what works and does not work. It will require deliberately organising work and people to facilitate social connections where new work arrangements are less effective or novel. It will require regular re-evaluation.
Do your Own Organisational Social Network Analysis Project
Do your own social network analysis projects investigating pilot combinations.
- Identify what is the objective, problem of outcome or concern
- e.g inter-team collaboration on x project, within-function knowledge sharing on x issue, individual employees well-being, employee performance, team innovation, individual isolation?
- Identify the social network that is currently facilitating this objective
- Engage with as many people involved/not involved to ascertain whom are the people actually enabling this objective. Generate a list of names- this is effectively the social network.
- Ideally get a sense of what the social network for this objective was before changes to working arrangements.
- Track and evaluate key metrics on the objective and compare with metrics before the new working arrangements were introduced
- e.g Is individual well-being decreasing or increasing? What about organisational commitment? Is within team collaboration or knowledge sharing altered since the introduction of new working arrangements? Is it being driven by fewer individuals or different individuals? Are there individuals whom are excluded? Has innovation changed in terms of quantity or quality since the new working arrangements were put in place?
- Don’t forget to check not just the quantity of interactions but the quality- are the interactions meaningful?, transferring something of value or importance?
- Identify if the changes in the social networks have a positive/negative/no effect on the objective.
- Finally, keep asking questions, keep re-evaluating the revised working arrangements, their impact on organisational social networks, the consequences and adapt.
Teams that worked together successfully pre-COVID-19 but are now continuing under new working arrangements should have a re-launch. Discuss and agree on key design criteria such as frequency of face-to-face interactions, preferred media for different tasks (e.g. email for documents, video-calls for discussions), and any changes to roles, responsibilities and how the team should behave. Review what worked best pre and during COVID-19 and use this as an opportunity to improve on the way teams continue to work.
Start with Trust Building
Virtual working arrangements should start with some face-to-face interactions to build relationships and trust. Those involved should also ideally re-convene face-to-face at other occasions throughout the project/duration of work to further enhance trust and maintain relationships.
Think beyond just getting work done
Informal water-cooler chats, coffee meet-up’s, random conversations in the corridors or office drop-in’s are critical for social connections, friendships and support networks. So give some consideration as to how to maintain this informal social side in the new working arrangements. The consequences of depleted social and support networks include reduced employee well-being, increased social isolation and reduced organisational commitment. At the most basic, communications need to be more deliberately regular and deliberately inclusive.
Authors: Professor Claire Gubbins is Professor of Organisational Behaviour and HRM with the Work, Psychology and Strategy Group at DCU Business School. See profile here: https://www.dcu.ie/researchsupport/research-profile?person_id=14084#tab-biography
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