Hybrid working may change our workplace social networks. What does it mean for inclusion?

The workplace is changing rapidly, and hybrid work, split between home and office, is likely to be the future. These changes affect the internal social networks of organizations. Chances of informal communication are reduced, Zoom stress begins, and communication can become more difficult. Paris Well It looks at what social network analysis reveals about the potential for these changes to affect integration in the workplace, and finds that there may be positive effects, such as stronger bonds and greater participation in workplace operations, Besides the risks of reducing social information sharing.


With employees around the world shifting to remote work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the future of the workplace looks very different. Rather than returning to the pre-pandemic business norm of mostly office work, a recent survey indicates that organizations expect 40% of employees to continue working remotely long into the future (BCG, 2020). A new work landscape is being defined, and it appears that a mixed business model, where work is divided remotely and in the office, is likely to be the future.

Benefits and risks of hybrid work

One advantage of this hybrid model is that it is likely to give workers more flexibility in when and where they work. An increase in flexible working can provide benefits such as increased job satisfaction (McNall, Masuda & Nicklin, 2009) and reduced work-related stress (Hayman, 2010). In contrast, flexible working can provide advantages to the organization by decreasing the intent of employee turnover (McNall, Masuda & Nicklin, 2009) and improving the quality of work (Kauffeld, Jonas, Frey, 2004). In this way, it looks like a win-win situation for both employees and organizations as a whole.

On the other hand, with such a disruptive change in the workplace, there are potential risks to consider which may occur in hybrid work. For those who work remotely, the lack of opportunities for informal communication can make communication more difficult (Kiesler and Cummings 2002). Instead of meeting co-workers in the office, communication should be planned and thoughtful. Furthermore, it can be difficult to develop in-person relationships online because “zombie fatigue” (Nadler, 2020) has been a recent phenomenon, which states that people become more fatigued from online communication, which means we may not have the same ability to pay attention To interact with people online as much as we do in person. What these examples have in common is that they are derived from the changing social landscape in the workplace. The way we communicate and socialize with co-workers has changed dramatically in the past year due to both physical separation and the new way of communicating online.

Social network analysis and workplace integration

Social communication in the workplace can be measured through social network analysis (SNA), which looks at the structure of a social group and tells us how closely each person relates to others in the network, and what the network is like as a whole (Scott, 1988). This method is generally studied by asking employees with whom they interact on a daily basis, going for advice, or otherwise communicating with them (Treglown & Furnham, 2020). From this, the network which shows the employees as different nodes and the different social connections between them is calculated.

This form of analysis can be used to shed light on levels of inclusion in the workplace. Inclusion is the extent to which diverse members of an organization participate in different processes in the workplace (Roberson, 2006). Previously, the System of National Accounts (SNA) has been used to measure individuals’ participation in a process (Ingold, 2014) or the diversity of social ties one has (Shi et al., 2011). This indicates that implication through SNA can be studied at the macro-organizational level or at the micro-individual level. At the organizational level, network connectivity can be assessed to see how many people are involved in different workplace processes, and at the individual level it can show how one is included by the amount of social connections they have.

Social network structure in hybrid work

As social connectivity has changed with telecommuting, it is worth exploring the effects it will have on the organization. Will this change in social communication change the organization’s social network structure and levels of inclusion?

Social networks, which are usually thought of as stable structures once formed, have been shown to be able to change as a result of the addition of new online communication platforms (Wu, 2012). Thus, it is possible that the rise of Zoom and other online platforms, which have been in use since the start of working from home, could bring about similar changes. Research related to social networking in online versus in-person communication platforms can draw attention to some potential outcomes.

One of the concerns of switching to remote work is that it will be difficult to maintain and form social relationships. However, research actually shows that it is possible to strengthen existing relationships in the workplace through communication via online platforms (Huang & Liu, 2017; Wu, 2012; Kavanaugh, 1999), and that this increase in social capital can lead to Additional positive outcomes in the workplace including job performance and job satisfaction (Huang & Liu, 2017). Furthermore, moving a personal group to an online platform can change an individual’s position within the network. Specifically, individuals who previously held marginal or external positions in a network were more likely to occupy a more central position in the online group (Cho et al., 2007). These findings suggest that remote work can be positive for organizational consolidation, by strengthening connections and the extent of participation in workplace operations.

In addition, communication via an online social platform has been shown to increase information diversity (Wu, 2012) and information exchange (Kavanaugh, 1999). While in theory this should also serve to strengthen social bonds, it is important to distinguish the source of this information. In an experiment that evaluated how people seek information in online social networks, it was found that people are less likely to request information from other people and instead obtain information through non-human sources of information (Brown, Broderick & Lee, 2007), such as the Google browser . This may describe a social network in which individuals are closely related to an external source, but not to each other. Although there are cognitive benefits to increased information flow, the benefits of social inclusion will not.

It is also important to note that the structure of a social network will vary widely across organizations. While in-person or online context will influence this, there are many types of social structures that can form into online groups (Goggins, 2009), and much of this will be subject to organizational culture, management practices, and individual differences in employees.

Conclusions

In short, the evidence suggests that some aspects of remote work can improve inclusion in the workplace, and others may prevent it. The current reviewed research looks at online and in-person networks separately, and these mixed effects are likely to differ when studying hybrid work. The future of hybrid work is likely to have a complex and dynamic interaction of online and in-person social networks, therefore, future literature must assess how these dual modes of communication interact and influence inclusion.

Change is inevitable with a drastic change in the work landscape. In particular, workplace social networks will be subject to change as hybrid work increases, and this can affect inclusion in different ways. Now is a good opportunity for organizations to monitor and evaluate the structural social components underlying inclusion in their workplace, as this can be a first step in building more inclusive workplaces.

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Notes:

  • The publication gives the opinions of its authors, not the position of the LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
  • Featured image by Geralt, under the Pixabay license
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