Strengthening social support in a hybrid workplace

Organizations thrive when there is cohesion and strong social support for employees from their co-workers. The abrupt shift to remote work completely altered the way we communicate as entire workplaces went from relying on in-person conversations to connecting mostly via zoom meetings. Spontaneous organic interactions which were once the bedrock of informal communication drove relationships and built social support, were gone. The dramatic transition to communicating and collaborating using technological platforms has completely disrupted the way people interact and build relationships. And although employees now spend more time in meetings than ever before, they also report increased feelings of isolation and weakened professional relationships. Evidently, digital communication cannot replace organic touchpoints that fuel innovation, culture, and collaboration, unless organizations purposefully act. As organizations lay the framework for the future of hybrid work, it is imperative that leaders take action to strengthen social support, foster collaboration, and help build thriving organizations in the post-Covid era.

The significance of social support 

Social support is the assistance or comfort provided to an employee by their workplace community. The support provided by colleagues becomes increasingly significant when an employee is coping with biological, psychological, or social stressors. This community may consist of anyone with whom an employee has developed a deeply personal or strong work relationship. 

Typically, an employee can get social support from their – 

  • Direct manager or team leader
  • Relationships that form due to the organization’s work structure, meaning inner circles at work, such as people in their department or colleagues.
  • Connections that are derived from social interactions. For example, like-minded people or those from various communities in the organization to which they belong. An example of a community is a discussion group or a social group.

Social support and the ability to have strong personal relationships in the workplace are significant drivers of wellbeing, engagement, retention, and performance. Research demonstrates a connection between social support and health. It shows that “having friends protects people’s health as much as quitting smoking and a great deal more than exercising”. Social support and having close relationships with people that you can count on can have a direct effect on health and buffer the effects of various psychosocial stresses, including workplace stress. For instance, one review noted that “people who were less socially integrated” and “people with low levels of social support” had more health issues. Furthermore, a culture of social support also reinforces for employees that they are valued, and thus helps in a company’s efforts to attract and retain people.

Here are key guidelines to encourage employees to create strong workplace relationships:

  1. Demonstrate commitment to offering help – Research has found that companies with a business strategy premised on cultivating long-term relationships with their customers tend to encourage employees to support each other socially. When a company signals in various ways (both large and small) that it cares about wellbeing, this attitude and behavior trickles down to employees’ attitudes towards each other. Examples include setting up regular remote one-on-ones to check in both personally and professionally, promoting purposeful virtual interactions between colleagues, supporting flexible work schedules, ensuring medical care access assistance, and so on.
  2. Lead by example – There is new meaning and expectations for leadership in a post-pandemic world. Leading with empathy is positively related to job performance, and encouraging your people to care for one another is a great place to start. One way to do so is by creating corporate networks that give employees the opportunity to help each other during times of crisis, such as accidents, caregiver issues, illness, or other matters related to the pandemic. Organizations that provide matching funding provide significant motivation for employees to contribute.
  3. Support shared connections – While our digital touchpoints may have increased, so have feelings of loneliness. Create, encourage and support almost anything that brings people into contact in a pleasant and meaningful way, such as holidays or community service. Events that celebrate employee tenure or shared successes, such as product launches, help build a sense of common identity and strengthen social bonds. Some companies offer their employees volunteer opportunities to help local non-profits, while others invest in virtual events to commemorate milestones. Research shows a large majority of employees who volunteer through their workplace agree that volunteering together strengthens relationships among colleagues. 
  4. Ensure language is inclusive – Studies show that workplaces that cultivate a strong sense of belonging reap the benefits of reduced turnover risks, increased performance, and 75% fewer sick days. Team members are more likely to like and help colleagues with whom they feel similar and connected. An organization that uses language which emphasizes the separation between leadership and employees can further divide employees and corrode any sense of shared community or purpose. When addressing employees, ensure there is less distinction by title, and use language that is consistent with the idea of community. Some companies call themselves “a village”, or refer to the CEO as the “mayor”. Avoid using the term “workers,”  and call employees “teammates” instead. 
  5. Eliminate toxic culture – Remote work exacerbated many inequities in the workplace and studies show that toxic corporate culture is 10.4x more impactful than salary in predicting attrition. The leading drivers of toxic corporate culture are a failure to promote DEI, when employees feel disrespected, and any immoral behavior. Ensure that your workplace does away with any practices that may promote bias and undermine inclusion efforts. Watch out for procedures that encourage internal competition, such as forced curve ranking, which diminishes cooperation and teamwork. In fact, anything that pits team members against one another weakens social ties and reduces social support. Doing away with systems such as these is the best way to get started when striving to create a culture that fosters strong social support. 

Now more than ever, employees require a network that they can lean on and draw strength from when they need it. In times of uncertainty and beyond, creating a sense of belonging and strengthening emotional support is key when it comes to motivating and keeping talent. By being purposeful about deploying strategies to bolster connections, organizations are more likely to rebuild supportive ties among employees in the hybrid world of work.

Montara helps organizations understand key engagement, retention and leadership metrics that are key to supporting employees and building a strong, inclusive organization. Discover how to build an amazing organization with Montara today.