By Roderic Yapp, Leadership Consultant, and Tim McEwan, Managing Director, SH Leadership
As one HR Director said to me recently, going into lockdown was easier than coming back out is going to be. When the pandemic hit, businesses didn’t have a choice. We threw all our efforts into remote working. This was one reason why the transition happened so quickly. The goal was simple: sort out the technology and the employee support to enable working from home.
Coming back to the office is not so well defined. No one is telling businesses what to do. We’re being left to exercise our own judgement at a time when official plans for coming out of lockdown across the UK and the US are unclear and subject to change at short notice.
Looked at from one perspective, this is a nerve-wracking time. There are ways to mitigate this, however, including focusing on what we like to call the “social glue” of your organisation.
What is social glue and why is it important?
Social glue is a term to describe the intangible bonds that hold an organisation together beyond the org chart. It’s important because it builds strength and durability in a team. If the people in your organisation are like the bricks, the social glue is the mortar that holds them together.
You create social glue through shared common experiences beyond the purely functional. It exists in teams who have worked long hours together on intensive, demanding projects, for example. We’re talking about the sort of projects that involve subsisting on pizza and working till 3am.
Luckily, it’s not only punishingly long hours that create this bond. You also find it in teams that have invested a lot of time in getting to know each other beyond the workplace – a point we’ll return to shortly.
Social glue helps to promote mutual understanding, mutual respect, and greater inclusion – especially in more diverse teams.
Social glue goes hand in hand with mutual understanding – the idea that I know you and you know me and therefore we understand each other. This is about understanding everyone’s differences, strengths and weaknesses, and building respect for them.
As a result, it’s also a particularly good way to promote inclusion within more diverse teams – something else that some organisations may otherwise find challenging post-lockdown.
So, we now know why it’s important. But at a time when remote working and lack of physical interaction has loosened these bonds, how can we get them back again?
Invest time in your work relationships
When British military personnel return from a tour of duty, the number one priority is for them to enjoy themselves. Having worked exceptionally hard, officers have to create the space for their people to have a bit of fun and for those social bonds to become stronger by doing something social.
This kind of bonding downtime is essential for any military unit. When it comes down to it, in a fire fight that social glue is all you’ve got so you neglect it at your peril.
A lot of people talk about investing time in their marriage, and we need to invest time in our work relationships in the same way.
To put this in less dramatic terms, rebuilding that social glue simply means investing time in our working relationships. A lot of people talk about investing time in their marriage, or in other close relationships, and we need to invest time in our work relationships in the same way.
As we look to return to the office in the UK – or continue to return to the office in the US – it makes sense to look at how you can help your organisation work on those social bonds. To look at how you as an organisation might even look to have a bit of fun while doing it.
One idea is to organise a walk for your first full day back at the office. No work meetings or client calls. Instead, get everyone to meet at the same location – outside – and go for a walk.
You have great conversations when you’re out walking. The reason you have great conversations is that you’re not facing each other. You’re moving together in the same direction. Encourage people to bring along their dogs, since pets are so good for encouraging team bonding. You bring your dog and even the most standoffish personality warms up in their presence.
Having a social get together encourages people to talk about themselves in a relaxed setting, to rebuild those bonds with people they haven’t seen in over a year.
Getting everyone together in this way changes the context, which in turn changes the potential for the relationship. Try it yourself. Your people will build social bonds with those they want to talk to. Just make sure to set some kind of social bonding expectation such as asking everyone to have a conversation with someone in the team they haven’t met before – or haven’t spent hours on Teams calls with on a weekly basis during lockdown.
This way, you can encourage more interaction with the more introverted in your team. You can encourage people to talk about themselves in a relaxed setting, to share their experiences of lockdown and some of the ups and downs. You can work on promoting inclusion for those on the team who might feel less connected, and doing so in a way that doesn’t feel forced or pressured.
Perhaps this sounds like an indulgence, a waste of time. But we’re far from the only ones considering this. One of our clients is planning their first full day back with everyone out in the nearby park, complete with a free ice cream machine. They want everyone to come together and be at the office without actually going into the office. Instead, they want to use that first day as a big reconnection day.
So, as you wrestle with the multiple challenges of returning to the office – from logistics, to setting team goals, to reassuring the anxious, or making allowances for working parents who want to remain working from home – remember the importance of social bonding. Your people’s connections have loosened while working remotely. Spend a little time, a little effort, and a little imagination on those relationships, and you’ll soon reap the rewards.