Weak Ties and the Next Generation of Work

Article

I walk my 11 year old daughter to school just about every day.  

It’s about a 13 minute walk, and this is when I hear the good stuff; which teachers are kind, what’s bugging her, which of her friends matter the most to her, and how annoying the boys are (they sure are!).  We bring the dog.  We wave at the people we see everyday.  On the way back, I drop into a bodega and grab a coffee.  The routine repeats at 330 in the afternoon.  This new commute is usually the best part of my day, and the rest of my days are pretty good.

This was rarely possible before March, 2020.  When I wasn’t traveling, mornings were a mad dash.  Now, I just block the calendar, and make sure my Zooms land before and after school drop-off (I usually take my first call at 630AM, and I average about 5.5 hours a day of live meetings per day according to Google).  The whole thing is working for me and my family, and my days are unrecognizable from what they were pre-pandemic.  From a work perspective, I don’t think I’ve ever been more productive.  The hours are still long and I work every day, but I mostly choose when those hours happen.

My story is likely not that unique.  It would appear that remote and hybrid work is here to stay.  A Gallup study of US employees working remotely during the pandemic suggests that 91% of those would like to continue working remotely.  Other experts are suggesting that companies that force employees back to the office could lose access to 70% of the talent pool.

There are immense benefits to the new reality.  For employees, eliminating the commute time is an instant time refund that can go into family, health, or even more hours at work to try and advance your career.  Digital nomadism is a thing; there is something inspiring about waking up in a new place, powering through the work day, and then being free to explore during your evenings and weekends.

For employers, there is also a lot to like; reduced real estate and onsite operations costs, reduced business travel, and the big one, access to talent.  It is nothing short of game changing for an employer to be able to tap into the best talent, anywhere, as opposed to the best talent within 40 miles of the office.  More than any other factor, this dynamic is why I believe remote work is here to stay.

But what about the costs?  

So far, it’s a lot harder to quantify.  I spoke recently with an exec at a fast growing technology company who lamented that 25% of their giant company had never met a coworker, and whether company culture even means anything at this point.  In my conversations with customers and prospects, I also hear a lot of words like “employee engagement” and “context” and “culture and camaraderie.”  

Perhaps the larger question is how much employee connectivity and camaraderie even matter for the bottom line anyway?

Well, some hard data is starting to emerge.

In this seminal study from Microsoft and Cal Berkeley, Microsoft and Cal researchers studied anonymized work data from 60K employees (Teams, Outlook, etc.) to researchers for the 6 months beginning in February, 2020.  

The findings were striking:

  • People were working MORE in a remote work environment
  • Asynchronous communications (email, IM) were up, and synchronous communications were down (while Zoom fatigue may be real, the reality is that we were generally doing more synchronous meetings pre-Covid)
  • Cross team networks within Microsoft were ossifying and withering; people just weren’t interacting with folks outside of their core teams as much

It was this last point that triggered alarm bells for the researchers.  The concept of “weak ties” within a business environment has been around for a long time, and has been linked with things like pace of knowledge transfer and even the pace of innovation, particularly within fast moving industries.

In layman’s terms, the more you know about the context of your work (how it fits into what other teams are working on and the larger company), the better your work product becomes.  If you no longer interact with folks outside of your team, this context is lost.

In an office environment, weak ties happen organically in the lunch room, at the happy hours, and around the proverbial watercooler (and also inorganically via company events.)

But a remote work environment vastly decreases these opportunities for organic, serendipitous connection; so the gap needs to be bridged with intentional, online gatherings.  If you are a people manager, an internal events professional, or a culture leader at your company, your work is needed more than ever to help bring people together online.  This absence of opportunities to connect is a CEO level problem.

In fact, here’s what Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has to say about the importance of weak ties:

“We’re doing everything we can to help employees feel that connection to the company's mission and their co-workers and co-workers both in terms of strong ties and weak ties, unfortunately in this pandemic what we noticed is two data points which is strong ties have actually gotten stronger the weak ties have gotten weaker but our job through a variety of software tools is to make those weak ties even stronger because ultimately it's those human connections that get people to stay in a place - without that, it’s not going to work.”

So as an executive, as an HR team member, as a culture builder, it means you have to put in even more work to make sure that the connective tissue that holds your team together remains vibrant and strong.

The Problem of Weak Ties and What Can Be Done?

As the founder of a remote company, I think about this problem all the time.

The very short answer about what leaders and HR execs can do about the problem of weak ties is this; in the absence of organic opportunities to build employee connectivity, you have to work harder to ensure these ties are forming.

For my company twine, there is no single silver bullet.  Here are a few of the components:

  • Internal company events: Internal events have historically been a second class citizen to sales and marketing owned events; “here’s $50, you can take your team to the park. For an hour.”   But this needs to change, now.  Internal events have never been more mission critical now, ignore them at your peril.  At twine, we do mandatory quarterly in person, high production value events, and lots of smaller events online.  I don’t know how I would run the business without them.
  • Mandatory one on ones:  There is huge value in your team understanding how their role fits into the larger picture.  While all hands and strategy meetings can help, one on ones are a low lift way to make sure that knowledge is transferring within your organization.
  • Weekly hang out time: Connections and bonds can be formed by doing things other than work.  We dedicate an hour a week to something that we call the “twineverse.”  The only rule for twineverse is no work talk.  We play games.  We share funny videos.  We hang out.  These are optional, but most of us choose not to miss these.
  • We twine:  As a company that is actively building product to address some of the connectivity challenges of remote work, we are fortunate - we get to drink our own champagne here.  Every Wednesday, we host internal twines organized by a team member.  It’s a chance to talk about our favorite books, our go to meals, the music that changed our lives, etc.  It’s also a chance to get to know each other better.
  • Dedicated resourcing:  We have also assigned two of our team members to be the Directors of Remote; responsible for listening to remote work related issues from the team, and recommending solutions. They’re also exploring new ways to bring the team together to strengthen those weak ties.

Beyond the mechanics of weak ties and their importance for knowledge transfer and innovation, my career has led me to believe that companies where the employees care about each other perform better than companies where they don’t.  When your team knows each other personally, they are more likely to care about each other’s success, to take that after hours work call, and to help support each other during the rough patches.

These dynamics are doable remote first, but you have to put in the work.

What best practices are you seeing for improving connection and camaraderie in this age of remote work?

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Lawrence Coburn is the CEO & Co-Founder at twine.

To learn more about twine or how it can help you strengthen the weak ties in your organization, set up your own space for free here or schedule a time to chat with our team here.

Written by
Lawrence Coburn

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