Looking at weak ties
Today's collaboration tools certainly go some way toward maintaining people's ability to work. But there's a subtler human consideration at play – a factor that may be easy to miss – that has a bearing on company culture, engagement, and innovation. For one thing, newly onboarded employees aren't benefiting from rapport and connection-building, energizing experiences, such as getting together with co-workers for casual Friday functions.
For another, people shelter in familiar territory by nature, even when that territory is virtual. Working remotely, they tend to fortify their existing ties to co-workers who play an important role in their day-to-day jobs. True, they're more open to exploring relationships with new, often physically distant colleagues who can help them in their daily functions, too. However, these connections are still among the branches of a person's existing, siloed network. Working from home doesn't fulfill those vital casual encounters that used to take place around coffee machines or in hallways between co-workers who don't normally interact.
That's a real loss. New ideas, innovations, and solutions emerge when people bring different perspectives to the table. Just as cross-pollination benefits plants by introducing new genes into their lineage, this helps businesses too. In fact, research suggests that informal relationships like these – what one sociologist defined as weak ties – keep all the synapses of an organization firing.1
Strong ties are the ties we form with people in like-minded communities or similar work environments. By contrast, we maintain weak ties with acquaintances or rarely seen colleagues who haven't necessarily had experiences that are similar to ours.
These secondary links may seem frail, but research has shown that they break our defenses to help expose us to concepts, risks, and opportunities we might otherwise never come across. And because such encounters are a way for people to exchange intelligence from unique vantage points, these meetings foster trust, reciprocity, and ultimately, cooperation inside an organization. They build morale, increase productivity, and encourage transparency. In fact, weak ties inspire the kind of engagement that fundamentally defines a company's culture by shaping and connecting the system as a whole.