The Power of ‘Weak Ties’– The Value of Social Connectivity in Work and Life

The value of social connectivity for our well-being  

On a typical day, we interact with a wide range of casual acquaintances and strangers (more than a dozen per day), such as neighbors, the barista we run into every morning, the mailman, the cashier at the grocery store, a fellow dog walker,…

Sociologists call these informal connections ‘weak ties’: people we don't know well, if at all, but who contribute greatly to our emotional well-being by making us feel more connected. These casual interactions are low-key, usually brief, and take up little time in our busy lives.

A growing body of research confirms the surprisingly powerful benefits of weak ties. Gillian Sandstrom, a professor of psychology at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom, began studying weak ties after realizing how good it felt to be greeted by a smiling waiter who remembered her routine. Her research indicates that on days when people engage in more authentic social interactions, they feel happier and experience a greater sense of community. In one of her studies, Sandstrom observed that participants who were asked to "personalize" a transaction at a coffee shop by smiling, making eye contact, and having a genuine social interaction with their server felt about 17% happier and more socially connected than those who were simply asked to interact in an "efficient" manner.

Social capital – the importance of social connectivity in the workplace  

Social capital is defined as the existence of networks, relationships, and connections at work, or more generally the culture of an organization.

Social capital is a nuanced concept. There are two different types of social capital within an organization: there are strong ties networks that arise from relationships formed by homogeneous bonds that unintentionally result in the creation of silos, or "cliques," and there are weak ties networks. To fully leverage the social capital of an organization, leaders should seek to develop more weak ties networks as a way of bridging different parts of the organization. This is because weak ties enable spontaneous collisions, where employees establish new contacts with colleagues from across the organization and, in many cases, generate new ideas.

The pandemic has taken its toll on social capital: employees feel less connected than before, and trust levels have steadily declined because people no longer hang out in the hallways before and after meetings.

A recent large-scale survey by McKinsey on the state of social capital in corporate America, found that many companies are falling short on social capital and social connections. The report shows that access to social capital has declined significantly. Just 15% of employees reported expanding their internal network. Likewise, only 20% of employees indicated growing their external network. The loss of connections affects women and frontline workers more than senior executives and men.

Workplace connectivity plays an important role in learning, work performance, innovation, and employee development within organizations. There is ample research to show that more connected employees are far more likely to be committed and remain in their jobs. Moreover, connectivity also supports greater career mobility.

Ways to rebuild social capital with a lens of inclusion

1.     Leveraging the full extent of social capital

First, there is a need to educate employees about the different types of social capital and the specific functions of the different ties that make up social capital – especially the benefits of investing in weak ties that can serve as bridges between different parts of the organization and open up new opportunities. Therefore, it is critical that junior employees perceive the benefits of investing in social interactions as being equally important to achieving their goals. Companies that formally integrate mentorship into their performance management system incentivize their employees to build stronger relationships.

Brooke Weddle, partner at McKinsey, advises companies to create an inventory of what social capital looks like in the organization. She suggests mapping out the internal social networks to identify "key influencers": those with influence that is independent of hierarchical position but is based on social capital and credibility with coworkers. Such influencers are like bridge builders – people who connect otherwise disconnected groups. In addition, she advises identifying "super connectors" – key influencers who are connected to other key influencers.

2.     Redesigning the office space to facilitate social interactions

The office layout which prevailed before the pandemic – “open space” – no longer serves its purpose today in a hybrid or Zoom work environment.

To strengthen social connections among employees, offices must be redesigned to include more enclosed spaces – more private meeting rooms, individual offices, and smaller conference rooms – while maintaining spacious open areas reserved for group lunches, coffee breaks and group discussions. Both are necessary. If we don't make the physical changes necessary to facilitate employees’ work, they won't want to come back to the office, and we'll lose the benefit of social ties.

Final thoughts

As we all know, social capital is fragile. If neglected, it is likely to atrophy very quickly. Social capital declined significantly during the pandemic, particularly among groups that started out disadvantaged, as indicated by the McKinsey survey. Some of the consequences of low social capital include: decreased trust among colleagues, reduced employee retention.

I tend to prefer to work in the office and be around people. I am an extrovert. However, the pandemic has taught me that social capital can be built virtually in multiple ways. It is time to draw lessons from our virtual experiences and rethink new and effective ways of functioning that are more diverse and open to different preferences.

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